Stewart Prest: Are minority governments the new normal?

Division and uncertainty mean fewer Canadians can decide on a majority option.

By: Stewart Prest

On the surface at least, Canada appears to be almost exactly where it began: with a Liberal minority government presiding over a deeply divided country. It was an election marked by significant issues, from COVID to climate change, but in the end very little was definitively decided.

Somehow, just about every party failed to achieve its aims. The Liberals fell short of a coveted majority, and must resign themselves to co-operating with an opposition party in order to pass budgets and legislation. Given that the party began the election positioned to win a majority government, the result must be a disappointment to them. That said, it’s also a relief to the Liberals that the party avoided a loss to the Conservatives, an outcome that appeared possible earlier in the campaign.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) picked up more seats than in 2019, but failed to break through in much of the country. With less than 20 per cent of the popular vote, the party remains mired in third place, unable to make significant inroads into core Liberal support.

It seems likely that leader Jagmeet Singh will remain secure in his role.

And those were the winners on election night. It was all downhill from there.

In terms of share of the vote, the Conservatives beat the Liberals for the second consecutive election, once again running up impressive victories in Conservative strongholds like Alberta and Saskatchewan. Once again, however, the party was virtually shut out of Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

The result suggests that Erin O’Toole’s attempts recast the Conservatives as a moderate alternative to the Liberals have yet to sway enough voters in the coveted urban regions of the country. Does he try to continue to nudge the party toward the more moderate side — something his election night comments on inclusivity seemed to imply — or does he change tack and shift back to the right in an attempt to salvage his own leadership? Is he given the chance to stick around long enough to attempt either?

Even as some in the party may think the party needs more time to win over urban moderates tired of Trudeau, others will likely conclude the attempt to moderate was itself the problem, and the solution must be to recommit to Conservative principles — even if it means replacing O’Toole as leader.

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The People’s Party of Canada (PPC) didn’t win a seat, but did manage to pick up about five per cent of the national vote. It may have played the spoiler in a handful of ridings.

Tough questions likely await the Greens’ leader, Annamie Paul, as well. The party finished with its smallest share of the popular vote in decades, in an election in which the party failed to run candidates in more than 80 ridings. Paul finished a distant fourth in her own riding of Toronto Centre, despite focusing almost exclusively on that riding during the campaign. Certainly much of the responsibility for that lies with the party executive, who seemingly opposed Paul at every turn. Nonetheless, it will be difficult to remain at the head of a party that seems so unwilling to be led by her.

Finally, the Bloc managed to hold on to its share of the vote, positioning itself once more as a voice in Parliament less for Quebec separatism than for Quebec interests within Canada.

In the end, the country remains divided by region and demography, with more rural and resource dependent parts of the country voting for right-of-centre options, while the rest of the country looks to more progressive parties articulating stronger positions on issues like climate change, child care and housing affordability. The Liberals did well enough in urban areas like the GTA, Montreal and Vancouver to hold on to power, but little more. Despite those shifts under the surface, the result nonetheless is a stalemate for now: the Conservatives can’t break through among progressives in Canada, NDP voters are not going to trust the Trudeau Liberals, and though the Liberals seem secure on both flanks, they can’t make any progress left or right, either. Meanwhile, the Bloc is there to make sure the math for a majority is just about impossible.

Given that five of the last seven federal elections have produced minority governments, it might be time to admit that they are the norm in Canada at the moment, and majorities the exception. If so, Canadians ought to ask the country’s leaders to govern themselves, and the country, accordingly.


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