BY CANADIAN STANDARDS the election campaign was the ugliest in many years. Protests dogged the candidates of the main parties. Loutishness went “beyond the typical uptick” for federal elections, said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It came especially from anti-vaccine activists. This month someone threw gravel at Justin Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister, who says that vaccinations should be mandatory for federal employees and on aeroplanes and trains.
Yet the melodrama changed almost nothing. The early results of the vote held on September 20th suggest that Mr Trudeau, who had called a snap election in hopes of gaining a majority in the House of Commons, will instead continue to lead a minority government. The arithmetic in the 338-seat Parliament is expected to change little . Mr Trudeau will continue to depend on smaller parties, especially the left-leaning New Democrats (NDP), to enact his programme. The opposition Conservatives, which had 121 seats in the outgoing Parliament, are thought to have won roughly the same number in the incoming one.
None of Canada’s main political leaders will come out of the election with his standing much enhanced. Mr Trudeau, who strikes some voters as too privileged and excessively woke, has no good answer to the question of why it was necessary to hold an election during a fourth wave of the pandemic. The Liberals’ lacklustre performance may prompt speculation that this week’s election will be the prime minister’s last. The NDP’s leader, Jagmeet Singh, failed to establish his party as the rising challenger to the Liberals for the votes of left-leaning Canadians. He will try to nudge Mr Trudeau’s government to the left, but may find himself supporting much of what the prime minister proposes.
Erin O’Toole, the Conservatives’ leader since August 2020, may face the most painful questions. He campaigned as a reassuring centrist, offering voters a down-to-earth leadership style while proposing policies on child care, “reconciliation” with indigenous people and climate change that, at first glance at least, did not seem vastly different from the Liberals’. Yet Mr O’Toole could not ignore his party’s obstreperous right wing. He flip-flopped on gun control, which hurt his credibility. Mr Trudeau tormented him throughout the campaign by asking why he had not insisted that all Conservative candidates be vaccinated.
Many Canadians who pugnaciously oppose what they see as Mr Trudeau’s smug progressivism opted for the populist People’s Party. It tripled its share of the vote, to 5%, though it failed to win any seats. Mr O’Toole insists he will stay on as the Conservatives’ leader. He will now have to figure out how to win back voters who hate vaccines and political correctness, without alienating centrists.
Mr Trudeau reads the result as encouragement to carry on a fight against the pandemic that, despite the fourth wave, has been relatively successful, and to “move Canada forward”, as the Liberals’ campaign slogan has it. Canada has had 49 excess deaths per 100,000 people, compared with America’s 241, according to calculations by The Economist. In his victory speech Mr Trudeau claimed “a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic and to the brighter days ahead”. At first that will mean implementing the federal vaccine mandate and nudging provincial governments and businesses to adopt their own.
Canada’s economy, the world’s ninth-largest, remains fragile. It shrank unexpectedly in the second quarter of this year, largely because of the pandemic’s third wave and global shortages of computer chips. The Bank of Canada expects growth to resume in the second half of 2021, but says the recovery is “choppy”. Mr Trudeau’s re-elected government will continue some pandemic-related measures to shore up businesses and incomes; the Canada recovery hiring programme, a wage subsidy, is to be extended to next March 31st.
He will press on with the government activism that characterised his first six years in office. The government will continue with plans to make child care available to families for C$10 ($8) a day within five years and to reduce Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2030 by 40-45% from levels in 2005. The Conservatives would have scaled back the government’s ambitions in both areas.
In making the case for re-election Mr Trudeau promised extra spending over five years of C$78bn, roughly 3.5% of this year’s GDP. It includes C$6bn in this fiscal year to eliminate backlogs of medical procedures, plus around C$15bn over five years to help Canadians cope with high housing costs, in part by building 1.4m houses.
Although fiscal hawks worry about Mr Trudeau’s spending plans, he is not throwing caution to the wind. The Liberals will impose higher taxes, including a surtax on large banks and insurers, and promise to reduce as a share of GDP both federal debt and deficits. The Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, a think-tank, says the pledge is credible.
But economists will continue to grumble that the Liberals show little interest in correcting some of the problems that hold back growth and productivity. Business investment per worker has fallen since 2014, points out a recent paper by the C.D. Howe institute, a think-tank in Toronto. The Liberals’ manifesto offers some productivity-boosting ideas, like establishing a research agency modelled on America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). But it says nothing about lowering barriers to trade among provinces or boosting competition in such industries as telecoms and aviation.
Ordinary Canadians, though, have given Mr Trudeau a grudging endorsement. “There’s a lot I don’t like, but now is not the time to experiment with new policies and new things,” says Kathy Ustel, a resident of Richmond Hill, a town in the electoral battleground of greater Toronto. The constituency’s Liberal MP easily won re-election. The Liberal prime minister will now have four years to convince Canadians that his old policies really can move the country forward.