Canada’s election has weakened all its party leaders

The new parliament looks strikingly like the last, but the election had the curious effect of weakening every Canadian party leader not just Justin Trudeau.

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Justin Trudeau gambled on an early election call hoping to benefit from the public support for his government’s management of the pandemic, but exhausted voters seemed annoyed at the sudden intrusion of electoral politics into already complicated lives.

Although the prime minister averted a looming disaster in the middle of the campaign when the opposition Conservative Party overtook his Liberal Party in the polls, he emerges from the election a victorious yet diminished figure. His party will continue to stand by him – he won, after all – but questions about his future electoral prospects are likely to return.

His main rival – Conservative leader Erin O’Toole – faces more immediate problems within his own party following his failed electoral strategy to win more Conservative seats by moderating his party’s positions on issues such as climate change and gun ownership, which had alienated centrist urban and suburban voters in previous elections.

Planning and delivering a clear electoral result during a pandemic is certainly a success, but it changes little except for the standing of Canada’s political leaders

Some in his party – the more conservative elements – will argue he made a strategic blunder, potentially putting his leadership at risk. And O’Toole’s predecessor was dismissed after winning roughly the same number of seats in the 2019 election as he just did.

Problems for all parties

But leaders of the smaller parties all suffered setbacks too. Jagmeet Singh’s left-wing New Democratic Party failed to translate his personal popularity into more seats for his party despite budgeting more than twice as much money for this campaign as it spent in 2019.

The leader of the populist-right People’s Party, former Conservative cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, failed even to win his own seat, as did Annamie Paul of the Green Party. The leader of the regional Bloc Québécois, Yves-François Blanchet, may win 32-34 of Quebec’s 78 seats in the House of Commons once postal ballots are all counted – a strong showing but still far short of his stated goal of 40.

Trudeau now returns to the work of managing the pandemic and implementing campaign promises such as a subsidized, national day-care system and stronger climate change policies. On these issues he can count on support from Singh and Blanchet, so his minority government can be expected to be stable.

Meanwhile Canada’s foreign policies are unlikely to change. Managing relations with a friendly – yet unpredictable – Biden administration in the US remains the top priority, and Trudeau has also pledged to make democracy and human rights a ‘core strategic priority’ although what this means in practice is unclear.

He has also promised a ‘comprehensive Asia-Pacific strategy to deepen diplomatic, economic, and defence partnerships in the region’ which is both necessary and long overdue as Canada’s last comprehensive, international strategy was devised 16 years ago.

Planning and delivering a clear electoral result during a pandemic is certainly a success, but it changes little except for the standing of Canada’s political leaders – all of whom hoped for a better result.