Trudeau should now work with NDP and Greens on a progressive agenda

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Image: Justin Trudeau/Facebook

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's plea for progressives to vote strategically -- echoed by many voices on social media -- appeared to work on election day. 

Trudeau will remain prime minister, with a strong minority of seats in the House -- 157, thirteen short of a majority -- even though his party dropped by six points, to second place in the popular vote. 

The Liberals lost seats in almost every part of the country, with the significant exception of Ontario. The unpopular Doug Ford Conservative government in Ontario helped win the election for Trudeau's federal Liberals.

Andrew Scheer's Conservatives picked up more than 20 seats, mostly in the West, where they swept Saskatchewan and won every seat in Alberta, save one for the NDP in Edmonton Strathcona. 

Nationwide, the Conservatives got a bit more than a third of the popular vote, about a quarter million votes more than the Liberals. Based on the popular vote, Scheer is claiming some sort of moral victory. That and 25 cents won't get you a cup of coffee at Tim Hortons. 

More important, this result does not have Conservatives calling for electoral reform. They know our first-past-the-post electoral system gives them their best shot at ever winning a majority of seats. Few voters for the other parties -- the Greens, the New Democrats and the Bloc -- would choose the current hard-right, anti-environmental incarnation of Canadian conservatism as a second, or even third or fourth choice.

Andrew Scheer tried to encourage his supporters by saying this election reminds him of the 2004 vote, in which Liberal Paul Martin was reduced to a minority, after more than a decade of Liberal rule. Two years after that, enough Canadians rejected a tired and scandal-plagued Liberal party to give Stephen Harper a minority win, the first of the Conservative's three electoral victories. 

Justin Trudeau seems to believe he is one election away from another majority

From the tone of his speech, it was clear Justin Trudeau was thinking not of 2004, but of his father's bare minority win in 1972. That year, Pierre Trudeau's Liberals lost seats everywhere except Quebec and ended up only two seats ahead of the Progressive Conservatives. 

The Pierre Trudeau Liberals went on to govern as a minority. Prodded by the NDP, which held the balance of power, they enacted such progressive measures as the creation of a government-owned oil company, Petro-Canada (which has since been privatised). In the subsequent election, two years later, the Liberals roared back to a renewed majority, while the NDP lost half its seats.

Justin Trudeau hopes history will repeat itself for him. 

Indeed, in his victory speech the younger Trudeau sounded as though he thinks that is a foregone conclusion. Even Liberal supporters were taken aback by the current prime minister's lack of humility.

While Trudeau was speaking, one long time Liberal backroom operator took to Facebook to say: 

"I'm sorry, but I'm listening to my leader, whom I support, saying we have a strong mandate. We don't. I want us to acknowledge that, and do stuff the 'centre' may not want, but people do. We're lucky Canada. We dodged a bullet tonight. But folks want us to step up to the plate. They want us to really speak for them."

When his own supporters fear that he is tone deaf and arrogant on election night, a party leader should take note. 

Yet another skewed result

First-past-the-post did its usual work in this election. 

It gave the Bloc, whose vote was 7.7 per cent, more seats than the NDP, which had about twice the Bloc's votes. 

The Greens were about a point behind the Bloc at 6.5 per cent, but won only three seats to the Bloc's 32. It was a disappointing result for Elizabeth May's party, but they can take consolation in having won a seat in New Brunswick, added to their two on Vancouver Island. 

Green Leader May is philosophical. She notes how hard it is for a party that seeks support based on policy ideas, rather than narrow regional appeal, to break through under the current electoral system.

The result, on the face of it, is also a disappointment for the NDP, which lost all save one of its seats in Quebec, lost all of its seats in Saskatchewan and was reduced to six seats in Ontario. 

The New Democrats had hoped to win back some of the Toronto seats they lost in 2015, but that did not happen. Voters in those downtown ridings, which have swung back and forth between New Democrats and Liberals in recent times, told this writer that they chose to hold their noses and vote for Trudeau's party, despite their disillusionment with the Liberal record. This was not because they feared Conservative wins in their areas, but because they wanted to avoid the uncertainty of the Conservatives winning more seats overall than the Liberals.

Late campaign opinion polls had raised expectations for at least a mini-Orange wave for the NDP. Instead, for Jagmeet Singh's party it was more of a save-the-furniture election.

Still, despite losing 20 seats compared to its 2015 result, the NDP might be in a stronger position now than it has been for a long time. 

New Democrats were real winners; the Bloc, losers

Montreal political philosopher Daniel Weinstock, a professor at McGill, took to Facebook after the vote to argue that the NDP were actually the big winners on the election.

"The point of an election, "Weinstock wrote, "is to find yourself in a position where, when the dust settles, you can exercise some influence over the process of policy-making."

In that light, the political philosopher concluded, the New Democrats "are the natural dance partner for the Liberals, which will heighten their visibility and influence over the next Parliament. As long as they don't succumb to the temptation of a formal coalition, they can retain their identity, push the Liberals in the direction of good policies like pharmacare, and then be able to claim credit for having made minority government work in the next election."

As for the Bloc Québécois, the McGill professor believes they were, in reality, the big losers. 

"They didn't win enough seats to make themselves indispensable," Weinstock wrote. "They are caught on the horns of a very unattractive dilemma. They can either play obstructionist, without the power to actually obstruct, and achieve exactly zilch for Quebec. Or they can play ball, and do exactly what Blanchet said they wouldn't do, which is to show everyone that federalism works."

In his election night speech, Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet pretty much dropped his environment-and-social-justice-advocate mask. His only (indirect) reference to climate change was to say he opposes any pipelines crossing Quebec.  

Instead of the climate and the fate of the planet, Blanchet -- a former Quebec environment minister -- talked at length about what in Quebec they call les enjeux identitaires, identity issues. He placed his greatest emphasis on his party's support for Quebec's Law 21. That measure denies basic rights to citizens on the basis of the way they dress. 

Justin Trudeau set a dubious record in this election. He won a notional victory with the lowest proportion of the popular vote of any winning party in Canadian history. 

On election night, Trudeau seemed to recognize this difficult fact when he alluded to a "victory for progressives," which would include the NDP and Green vote, as well as his party's. Together the three so-called progressive parties won about 55 per cent of the popular vote.

Can Trudeau send Butts packing and govern collaboratively?

To give his weakened party a greater measure of legitimacy, Trudeau might want to govern in such a way that takes into account all progressive voters, not just those who voted Liberal. 

To impress the more than a fifth of the voters who chose New Democrats or Greens, and the many who voted Liberal more out of fear than enthusiasm, Trudeau will want to look at measures that address income and wealth inequality, that enhance the social safety net, and that push Canada more quickly toward a zero carbon future.

That will take a transparent approach to policy-making, a willingness to listen to experts, and a readiness to collaborate with other parties. 

Trudeau might also consider reviving the electoral reform agenda, an article of faith for both New Democrats and Greens. 

Adopting some form of electoral reform, even Trudeau's own option for a preferential ballot, would mitigate against any party seeking a narrow majority victor, with only 38 or 39 per cent of the vote.

The smart-set talking heads on mainstream media say electoral reform is dead on arrival. On election night they said even the Greens and New Democrats have other priorities now. But Trudeau might want to show some visionary leadership and prove them wrong.

To succeed in his new role as head of a minority government, Trudeau will have to abandon the tight Prime Minister's Office's control he exercised after the last election. 

Jody Wilson-Raybould will be sitting in the next Parliament as the sole independent MP. Her presence should remind Trudeau, daily, how operating his government like a backroom cabal -- after promising the exact opposite -- caused him so much grief.

In this new Parliament, Trudeau will have a chance to foster open, transparent and candid discussion of legislative proposals to deal with the huge challenges Canada faces, in the House and, even more important, in parliamentary committees. Will he take that opportunity, which might only come once?

For starters, Justin Trudeau might find it useful to lose Gerald Butts' phone number. 

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Justin Trudeau/Facebook

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