Hung Jury: Justin Trudeau’s $600 Million Election Gamble Results in Status Quo

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a Canadian national election that few people beside Trudeau really wanted, and when votes were counted Monday night, no party in the Great White North got what it wanted.

The Liberal Party under Trudeau was returned to power but failed to capture a majority in the 338-member House of Commons — which was the PM’s reason for calling an election during a pandemic two years before his term was up. The party had 155 MPs in Ottawa when the election was called: As of midday Tuesday, it had won or was leading for 158 seats.

The opposition Conservative Party began the campaign with 121 MPs, surged into a brief lead, but ended the election with 119 seats.  Piling up huge majorities in rural ridings (districts) of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Tories appeared to outpoll the Liberals in the national popular vote.  But they failed to break into the Liberals’ fortress of Greater Toronto.

The left-wing New Democratic Party usually takes between 25 and 37 seats: With 25 seats, the NDP will end up in its usual role propping up the Liberals, who steal its most popular programs such as Medicare and subsidized daycare.

Elections involving a Trudeau – Justin or his father, longtime PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau – are never boring.  The Trudeaus, pere et fils, have won seven of eight national elections they have contested dating back to 1968 (three years before Justin was born).  They have shown a ferocity whenever their hold on power was threatened.

The Liberals under Justin Trudeau launched the five-week campaign with a substantial lead.  Opposition leader Erin O’Toole steered Conservatives toward the center, enabling them to take the lead.  Pollsters figured that Liberal support was dropping at a rate of two Commons seats a day.

Trudeau struck back with issues the liberal/left has never really capitalized on in American politics. He pilloried O’Toole over a Conservative platform plank calling for repeal of a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles.  He tied the Tories to vaccine skepticism. Raucous protests by anti-vaxxers helped, including one where a demonstrator threw pebbles at Trudeau. He championed a promise of $10-a-day daycare.

In British Columbia’s lower mainland late in the campaign, Trudeau came out with a strong climate program, never mind his favoring of tripling of the TransMountain Pipeline that will carry Alberta oil to an export terminal in Burnaby just east of Vancouver.  The Liberals took suburban Vancouver seats from the Conservatives.

“Action on climate change won, and the gun lobby lost: That’s a positive result for Canada,” Gerald Butts, long a top Trudeau adviser, Tweeted late in the evening.

Ex-U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed Trudeau during the campaign. Obama and Trudeau became quick buddies after Trudeau took power in 2015.  The PM tried to finesse Donald Trump but felt his wrath.  After a G-7 summit, Trudeau said Canada “would not be pushed around” after Trump hiked tariffs on aluminum and steel. Trump responded by calling the PM “dishonest and weak” and “mild and meek.” Trump hit the roof again when Western leaders appeared to be mocking him at a summit in Europe.  He accused Trudeau of being “two faced.”

The two countries share a 4,500-mile border.  At present, Canada has opened that border to non-essential travel by vaccinated Americans, while the 49th Parallel remains off-limits to Canadians crossing to America, at least until October 21.

Cross-border relations have often rested on the personality of leaders. President Kennedy reportedly called Prime Minister John Diefenbaker an “S.O.B.” when Dief the Chief refused to let the U.S. position Bomarc anti-aircraft missiles on Canadian soil.  During a speech at Temple University, PM Lester Pearson mildly suggested U.S. negotiations with North Vietnam, only to have an infuriated Lyndon Johnson bellow at him: “Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug.”

A tree planted by Richard Nixon on Parliament Hill in Ottawa grew up crooked.  Nixon hated the elder Trudeau, and was heard on tape calling the PM “an asshole.” To which Pierre Trudeau replied: “I’ve been called worse things by better men.”

An invite to President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch was withdrawn when Canada’s PM Jean Chretien refused to join the U.S. “coalition” set to invade Iraq.  By contrast, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sang praises of Ronald Reagan, and the two joined in singing “When Irish eyes are smiling.”

Curiously, U.S.-Canada relations came up hardly at all during the just-concluded 36-day campaign.  Noting that the U.S. President has not taken a customary trip to Ottawa, Trudeau was asked during a French-language debate: “Did Mr. Biden forget about you?” Au contraire, replied the younger Trudeau, “We spent a whole day in discussions as soon as he arrived.” He was referring to a call, not an in-person meeting.

Trudeau and Biden have pledged to make common cause on climate change. The Liberals’ agenda for climate, touted by Trudeau last week, pledges an end to fossil fuel subsidies by 2023.  Biden and Trudeau will meet next month at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow. Both Canada and the U.S. have a collective interest in shipping routes opening up due to the melting and retreat of the Arctic ice sheet.

With such little change in the makeup of parliament, quipsters are calling Canada’s election “a $600 million cabinet shuffle.”  Trudeau lost two ministers on Monday. The Liberals managed to take one and possibly two seats in the Conservative bastion of Alberta.  Both those new MPs are likely Cabinet bound.

Pierre Trudeau managed to win four elections before taking a “walk in the snow” and retiring in 1984.  Justin Trudeau has now pulled a hat trick.  Will he try to make it four?

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

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