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In the elections no one wanted, Canada is tilting towards the status quo

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

On 20 September, Canada’s general election will end. Throughout the campaign, the governing Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, and the opposition Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole, have been neck and neck, trading the lead within the margin of error. The next closest party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), trails 10 points behind. A close seat count and a handful of tight races could mean days before the final results are known.

From the first day of the campaign, the country faced an important yet unnecessary election: important because the issues at stake are monumental – climate policy, pandemic management and recovery, childcare, healthcare, housing, the overdose crisis, Indigenous reconciliation, and much more; unnecessary because the government could have kept governing. But the Liberals had a minority government and they wanted a majority. Trudeau claimed parliament was toxic. It wasn’t. And if the governing side had trouble passing legislation, it was due more to their poor management of the House of Commons than opposition intransigence, even given a handful of holdups. So off to the races the country went.

At times, the contest seemed like a low-stakes affair. But while the campaigns were often superficial, uninspired beyond culture war sabre-rattling and America-lite attack ads, and particularly irritating during a pandemic in which the country would be better off with the government governing, there was still plenty of substance – if you looked hard enough.

The parties had duelling climate change plans. The NDP’s was cast as ambitious but implausible with emissions to be cut to 50% below 2005 levels in the next nine years; the Liberals’ inadequate but incrementally better than before, and eminently doable at a 40-45% reduction; and the Conservatives’s unclear and gimmicky, including a personal low-carbon savings account that would operate like a loyalty-card programme consumers pay into when purchasing hydrocarbon-based fuels, and from which they can draw to pay for more environmentally friendly purchases.

On housing, no party stood out as the one to solve soaring prices, which have driven up rents and put ownership out of reach for millions. But the issue cuts across municipal, provincial and federal jurisdiction, and the national government can only do so much. It’s an absolute dumpster fire. Each party talked about building new homes while the NDP offered a rental subsidy for those who spend more than 30% of their income on rent; the Conservatives promised to tie municipal transit funding to cities building more dense housing along transit routes; and the Liberals promised billions into an accelerator fund – an application-based fund for cities to rapidly build more housing – alongside their own gimmicky tax-free home-buying account and rent-to-own scheme.

Canada faces a healthcare crisis driven by underfunding and limits to what is covered by provincial public insurance programmes, through which dental, mental health, vision and prescription drugs are typically not covered. The Liberals promised $6bn CAD in funding for backlogs and money for online medical appointments and other virtual health initiatives, along with the early outline of a federally funded drug care insurance plan they’ve been promising for decades. The Conservatives promised stable funding, $60bn CAD more over the next decade and a boost to 6% for the fixed-rate transfer of health funds from the federal government to the provinces each year. The NDP promised a drug care plan for everyone by 2022 and dental care for uninsured folks making less than $90,000 CAD a year.

The platforms were packed, if firmly within the liberal, free-market order. No one wanted to upend the economy. No one wanted to transfer real power to workers. No one talked about participatory democracy.

But who will win? Pundits are routinely asked this question and none should answer before noting that, in a close race within a fickle, first-past-the-post system where the winner takes all even with less than half of the votes and in which small percentage swings have big impacts on outcomes, election predictions are more astrology than astronomy.

But as an Aquarius, I don’t mind offering a guess: the Liberals. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s poll tracker put the probability of a Liberal minority at 59% as of 16 September. Add to that a 12% chance of a majority for the party and you get a 71% chance of the Liberals maintaining government. Compare those numbers to a 27% chance for a Conservative minority and a mere 1% chance for a majority and you see why the Liberals are the odds-on favourites. The country is tilting towards default: centrism and a grudging acceptance of the status-quo.

If the numbers don’t convince you, consider that in recent days Alberta, which is run by former Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney, has finally admitted to botching its fourth wave Covid efforts as the province faces a collapsing healthcare system and lockdowns. O’Toole will wear this. The Liberals will make sure of it. They’ve already started.

Related: Canada is facing extreme weather. And Trudeau’s love of fossil fuel will only make it worse | Tzeporah Berman

Of course, things could change. Even the poll aggregator could be off. As the election of Donald Trump reminded us, even a low-probability event can happen. A lot depends on late-campaign movements and get-out-the-vote efforts. But if you’re betting – and I’m not saying you should – the safest money is on red.

Whatever happens, Canadians will welcome the end of the election no one wanted. Over the past few weeks, everyone has become a bit more cynical, tired and frustrated. Perhaps hopeless. Expect low turnout and another election within 18 months as the voting will continue until morale improves.

  • David Moscrop is a columnist, political commentator and author of Too Dumb for Democracy: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones

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