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The campaign should make us ask whether it’s time for a rethink of our parliamentary democracy – and remind us that Canada is not immune to populist politics

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kisses his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, at the Liberal election night party in Montreal on Sept. 21.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Nik Nanos is the chief data scientist at Nanos Research, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and the official pollster for The Globe and Mail and CTV News.

Two things are for certain: on election night, most Canadians were yelling at their TVs; and Canada learned it was not immune to populist-style politics.

Canada’s parliamentary democracy has a geographic vulnerability to be gamed by political parties. In the past, winning was about building coalitions of voters in various parts of the country. Historically, the Liberals built coalitions around the Atlantic, and in cities in Quebec and Ontario; the Conservatives built coalitions in the West and rural areas.

Today, winning is about the efficient distribution of support across the country, rather than coalition-building. In the last two elections, the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, lost the popular vote but won the greatest number of seats. (In 2021, the Liberals only received 33 per cent of the popular vote yet won 47 per cent of seats.) It should be sobering to any prime minister to know that his opponents garnered more support.

Ridings won vs. seats needed for majority

LIBERALS

Seats won

159

Seats to majority

11

(14,605 votes)

CONSERVATIVES

Seats won

119

Seats to majority

51

(133,190 votes)

Percentage of popular vote won

50%

32.6

33.7

Ridings won vs. seats needed for majority

LIBERALS

Seats won

159

Seats to majority

11

(14,605 votes)

CONSERVATIVES

Seats won

119

Seats to majority

51

(133,190 votes)

Percentage of popular vote won

50%

32.6

33.7

Ridings won vs. seats needed for majority

LIBERALS

CONSERVATIVES

Seats won

159

Seats to majority

11

(14,605 votes)

Seats won

119

Seats to majority

51

(133,190 votes)

Percentage of popular vote won

50%

32.6

33.7

Is it time for a rethink on our parliamentary democracy?

The challenge is that opposition parties clamour for democratic renewal until they win an election. Once victorious, they are hesitant to remake the system that put them in power.

The good news is that minority governments are probably the best environment for opposition parties to force a dialogue on democratic reform. Canada could look to other democracies, or chart its own course to building governments that are more representative of a greater number of Canadians. However, it is unclear which model is succeeding in this increasingly polarized, digitally influenced environment.

Ironically, back in 2015, with the election of Mr. Trudeau and his “sunny ways,” observers outside of Canada wondered whether we were immune to some of the more disruptive politics taking place in other major democracies. On the surface, it seemed plausible. The reality is that Mr. Trudeau had taken populist-style politics and adapted them to progressive issues, framing himself as an outsider, wanting the wealthy 1 per cent to pay their fair share of taxes to help the other 99 per cent – a classic populist strategy.

What Canada got was a very progressive government focused on virtue-signalling on a wide variety of issues and tilting to an even more progressive left to take the wind out of the New Democratic sails. The Liberal pitch was: Why waste a vote on the NDP when you can have an NDP-like government led by the Liberals? The message: Better the progressive devil you know, than the Conservatives.

More importantly, the People’s Party of Canada – a non-factor in 2019 – became a noticeable and important force in the recent election. Led by former Conservative leadership contender Maxime Bernier, it effectively morphed into a protest party galvanizing a diversity of views – ranging from those that were upset with the major parties, resistance to big government, and those unhappy with what they viewed as a heavy-handed vaccination policy advanced by the Liberals.

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier attends a Sept. 18 rally in Calgary.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

In my 2018 book, The Age of Voter Rage, I pointed out that Canada was not immune to populist-style politics, and also noted that small swings in voters could have a disproportionate impact on the nature of political discourse and on electoral outcomes. These were both evident in 2021.

The PPC punched above its political weight and was a key disruptor in the election. Even though Mr. Bernier was not in any of the leaders’ debates, the PPC managed to win more than 5-per-cent support – more than the Green Party of Canada. Protests also knocked the Liberal campaign off message. As Mr. Trudeau responded to the protestors, the other major party leaders were also forced to respond. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole had to balance the realities of broadening voter appeal while responding to a protest movement led by a former Conservative caucus colleague and leadership aspirant. In that sense, the election was a win for the PPC because they disrupted the election and helped shape the focus of all the party leaders.

In the world of fantasy politics, Conservative strategists likely had blue-sky visions of adding PPC support to the Conservative tally and propelling Mr. O’Toole to government. One must remember that it took Stephen Harper more than one election to rebuild the Conservative movement into a winning coalition. Mr. O’Toole needs to find a path forward that reconciles the legacies of the two most successful Conservative leaders of this generation: Mr. Harper and Brian Mulroney. Mr. O’Toole has to tread a fine line to build his own winning coalition – one that keeps his party united and that is appealing to enough Canadians to win a governing majority.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole take part in the Sept. 9 English-language election debate in Gatineau, Que.Adrian Wyld/Pool via REUTERS

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had a solid performance in the campaign and is well liked by Canadians. However, the New Democrats face an existential threat from a very progressive Liberal Party that undermines the relevance of the NDP. Little has changed since 2015. The NDP are politically mired after the more hopeful prospects under leaders Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair.

For Mr. Trudeau, another minority government outcome is not a green light for a business-as-usual agenda. It is a message from Canadians that if the Liberals want to form a majority government, they need to moderate their approach. The fact that more than two in three Canadians voted against the government should give the Liberals pause.

The 2021 election should be a big wake-up call for politicians. The question now is: Will they get the message – or keep sleepwalking until the next election?


Nanos on the election: More from The Globe and Mail

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