Writing in The Star, columnist Chantal Hébert has suggested that Canadians deserve a federal election this fall, not October 2019. Susan Delacourt agrees, saying “conditions are perfect for a snap election.” But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau threw cold water on the idea Thursday, saying “There will be no federal election this fall.”
I think a snap election would be a great idea, whatever the legalities of it, because it would force our political parties to confront their current contradictions and vulnerabilities. And that, of course, is precisely why Trudeau doesn’t want an election now.
The Liberals under Trudeau launched an era of good feeling in 2015, which now seems very long ago. Trudeau then lost interest in proportional representation, and not only endorsed the Kinder Morgan expanded pipeline but bought the damn thing under terrible terms. That made him best friends forever with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who is doomed in the province’s 2019 election despite her support for the pipeline.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has changed the world political landscape beyond recognition. Trudeau is uncomfortable in that landscape: his India visit was a debacle, NAFTA negotiations have been inconclusive, and now Saudi Arabia has picked a fight with Canada.
The Conservatives, after lying low for a couple of years, are facing even worse problems. Not only have we seen an array of Tories coming to the aid of the House of Saud, but MP Maxime Bernier — who came a close second in the 2017 leadership race — is saying we’ve become quite multicultural enough, thank you, and more diversity “will divide us into little tribes.” This is clearly a shot at party leader Andrew Scheer, and reflects a split in the Conservatives that could be wide enough to threaten Scheer’s Harper Lite command of the party.
Meanwhile, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has lent a new meaning to the term “empty suit.” He may have been interesting a year ago when he won the leadership, but he’s said and done nothing since to move his party out of the basement. By comparison, look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dramatic rise in two months to political stardom on what amounts to an American version of the NDP’s 1972 platform.
Singh’s run in Burnaby South looks desperate; his year of meeting and greeting the party rank and file doesn’t seem to have built the political capital that Trudeau did before 2015.
And the Greens? Elizabeth May was a real gadfly for the Harper Conservatives, but she seems to have faded into the background under Trudeau — respected but ignored even as environmental issues grow more serious.
Forget Sunny Ways 2.0
When the Liberals hold their Nanaimo cabinet retreat, perhaps they could twist Trudeau’s arm until he changes his mind. This would be the ideal time for the Liberals to beat a strategic retreat from some of their mistakes and move left, back toward their 2015 platform.
A fall election call could give the Liberals a chance to cut their losses and grab for gains at the New Democrats’ expense by renewing the promise of proportional representation, ditching the pipeline expansion, getting serious about renewable energy and offering new support to both Indigenous peoples and immigrants.
He wouldn’t just offer a referendum on proportional representation; he’d promise a new bill in the next Parliament establishing PR with a proviso to drop or revise it after two elections.
He’d also spin off the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline to a Crown corporation and kill the expansion. That would save a lot of Lower Mainland Liberal seats. Too bad for Rachel Notley, but she won’t beat United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney, and Alberta won’t vote Liberal again. If the new Premier Kenney is unhappy with the death of the pipeline expansion, also too bad. Alberta will grow up eventually.
Meanwhile, Trudeau could commit to big investments in wind, solar and geothermal energy projects in ridings all over the country, plus more support for urban transit. Clean water on reserves would be implemented on a firm timetable, with deadlines. Immigrants — irregular or not — would be moved quickly into jobs and schools in communities across the country.
Pushing the NDP further left
Faced with this kind of challenge, the New Democrats would have to move still further left or become irrelevant. Now that “socialism” is a thinkable concept again, the NDP could go back to its 1930s working-class roots.
And the Conservatives would have to decide what they stand for: Harper with dimples, or Bernier’s xenophobia? Should they move left to occupy the Liberals’ old right, which went to Harper in 2011 out of fear of Jack Layton? Or should they move still further right, attracting Canadian Trumpists?
The outcome of a fall 2018 election would likely knock out at least one leader, if not two. Singh would need to win his own seat and hold on to a reasonably large caucus, or quit. His best hope would be a minority Liberal government that needs a coalition partner. If Singh fails, the New Democrats could pick an interim leader and spend some time redefining their whole purpose in life.
Splintering the Conservative Party
Scheer might win, but only by suppressing the Bernier faction to appear more centrist than he is, while still holding on to Bernier’s xenophobic followers. More likely, the party would crack yet again, with some kind of Red Tory party forming to the left of a re-formed Reform — and a Bernierist splinter still further right.
Having effectively moved his party to the new centre in 2015, Trudeau shifted pointlessly right and hurt himself more than the Tories or NDP ever could. He would take a lot of flak for returning to his 2015 promises, but the prospect of a Conservative return to power would induce voter forgiveness.
Another year of drift, though, and the Liberals might end up out of power, or clinging to it only by pleasing the NDP. Next year Trudeau could be looking like a lame duck, while our politics polarizes like the Americans’.
We’ve been in a bad stretch of whitewater politics since November 2016, and the end is nowhere in sight. In whitewater, “staying the course” is by definition a prescription for disaster. All our parties need to think fast and paddle for their lives, and the time to start is now.