Trudeau's election bet fails, but Tory rival might lose job
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for a photo as he greets commuters at a Montreal Metro station on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. Trudeau’s Liberal Party has secured victory in parliamentary elections but failed to get the majority he wanted in a vote that focused on the coronavirus pandemic but that many Canadians saw as unnecessary. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)
By ROB GILLIES
TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau secured victory in parliamentary elections but failed to get the majority he wanted, an outcome that threatened his Conservative rival with loss of his job after moving his party to the center and alienating its base.
Trudeau bet Canadians didn’t want a Conservative government during a pandemic and voiced the concerns of Canadians who are increasingly upset with those who refuse to get vaccinated.
That argument helped propel Trudeau to victory in the election Monday, and while the gamble to win a majority of seats in Parliament didn't pay off, Trudeau leads a strong minority government that won't be toppled by the opposition anytime soon.
The results nearly mirrored those of two years ago. The Liberal Party secured or was leading in158 seats — one more than it won in 2019, and 12 short of the 170 needed for a majority in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives were leading or elected in 119 seats, two less than in 2019. The leftist New Democrats were leading or elected in 25, while the Bloc Québécois were poised to win 34 and the Greens were down to two.
Hours after the results came in, Trudeau greeted commuters and posed for photos Tuesday morning at a subway stop in his district in Montreal — a post-election tradition for the prime minister.
“I hear you when you say you just want to get back to the things you love and not worry about this pandemic or an election," Trudeau said in his post-victory speech hours earlier.
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole was scheduled to give a news conference later Tuesday, where he was expected to face questions about whether he will be able to keep his job.
“The results are disappointing for the Conservatives and O’Toole’s move towards the center is a source of contention within the party,” said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal.
Conservative campaign co-chair Walied Soliman said before the votes were counted Monday that holding Trudeau to a minority government would be a win. But Jenni Byrne, campaign manager and deputy chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told The Associated Press she was “stunned” by Soliman’s comments and later said O'Toole gave a tone-deaf concession speech in which he acted as if he'd won.
O’Toole said he was more determined than ever to continue, but his party might dump him as it did his predecessor who failed to beat Trudeau in 2019. Whether he remains Conservative leader has big implications for the conservative movement in Canada. If he's removed the party could swing back right.
A politician who narrowly lost the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2017 and who now leads a far-right party that opposes vaccines and lockdowns bled support from O’Toole’s Conservatives and helped the Liberals retain power. Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada didn't win any seats in Parliament but support for his party led to some Conservative party losses.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the far-right People’s Party of Canada cost the Conservative Party about 10 seats in the election.
O’Toole advertised himself a year ago as a “true-blue Conservative.” He became Conservative Party leader with a pledge to “take back Canada,” but immediately started working to push the party toward the political center.
O’Toole’s strategy, which included disavowing positions held dear by his party’s base on issues such as climate change, guns and balanced budgets, was designed to appeal to a broader cross section of voters in a country that tends to be far more liberal than its southern neighbor.
Whether moderate Canadians believed O’Toole is the progressive conservative he claims to be and whether he alienated traditional Conservatives became central questions of the campaign.
O'Toole failed to win more seats in and around vote-rich liberal Toronto, Canada's largest city.
Trudeau argued that the Conservatives’ approach on the pandemic, which has been more skeptical of lockdowns and vaccine mandates, would be dangerous. And he played up his own party's successes. Canada has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and Trudeau’s government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up the economy amid lockdowns.
Trudeau supports making vaccines mandatory for Canadians to travel by air or rail, something the Conservatives oppose.
And Trudeau pointed out that Alberta, run by a Conservative provincial government, is in crisis. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the province might run out of beds and staff for intensive care units within days. Kenney apologized for the dire situation and is now reluctantly introducing a vaccine passport and imposing a mandatory work-from-home order two months after lifting nearly all restrictions.
O’Toole, meanwhile, didn’t require his party’s candidates to be vaccinated and would not say how many were not. O’Toole described vaccination as a personal health decision.
“The debate on vaccination and Trudeau taking on the anti-vaccination crowd helped the Liberals to salvage a campaign that didn’t start well for the party,” Béland said.
Wiseman said the Conservatives were hurt by the situation in Alberta.
“The explosion of the pandemic in Alberta in the past 10 days undermined O’Toole’s compliments of the Alberta Conservatives on how they had handled the pandemic and reinforced Trudeau’s argument for mandatory vaccinations,” he said.
The 49-year-old Trudeau channeled the star power of his father, the Liberal icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he first won election in 2015 and has led his party to the top finish in two elections since.
Still, failing to win a majority again may well spell his demise in the future, analysts said.
"This may have been Trudeau’s last election. No one but he and his family knows. He may love politics and want to stay in as long as he can. Or, he may decide that the next election will be even more difficult to win and he does not want to go out as a loser,” Wiseman said.
“The reality is that elections, like the one we just had, are usually referendums on the government and its leader. If Trudeau is still the Liberal leader in the next election, whoever leads the Conservative will likely prevail.”
Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, said O’Toole might retain his leadership of the Conservative Party if he argues they’ll never win if they don’t move to the center.
“Trudeau's prospects are better than O'Toole's," Bothwell said. “O’Toole may well be in trouble."