Daily Visual 19.10.15: Liberals Surge to Victory in Canada

Credit: Patrick Doyle/Reuters

The 2015 Canadian federal election (Canada’s 42nd General Election) took place on Monday, to elect members to the House of Commons of the 42nd Canadian Parliament. Emerging from the election with 184 seats, the Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau proved victorious. They will form a majority government, with Trudeau set to serve as Canada’s new Prime Minister. This marks the end of almost ten years of Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper had been campaigning for a fourth term in power.

After the federal electoral redistribution of 2012, the number of seats in Canada’s House of Commons increased from 308 to 338. Thus to form a majority government, parties needed to claim 170 seats. The Liberal Party is the oldest federal political party in Canada, and its nadir came in 2011, when it won just 34 seats, behind the Conservatives and the New Democratic Party. While it managed to gain two seats in the interim at by-elections, the addition on Monday of 148 seats marks the largest ever increase by a party in a Canadian election.

By contrast, the Conservative Party won 99 seats, a loss of 60 seats on 2011, but still enough to make them the official party of opposition. The New Democratic Party, led by Tom Mulcair, won 44 seats, a loss of 51. The Bloc Quebecois, led by Gilles Duceppe, won 10 seats, an increase of 8. And the Green Party, with Elizabeth May at the helm, won 1 seat, a loss of 1.

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On 23 January 2006, Canada’s 39th General Election saw Stephen Harper become Prime Minister. His Conservative Party formed a minority government, ousting the Liberals under Paul Martin, who had been beset by a corruption scandal centred around spending in the province of Quebec. Later that year, the Parliament of Canada began the process of amending the Canada Elections Act, introducing Bill C-16 which stated that federal elections should take place every four years on the third Monday in October. The bill was passed in 2007, with the next federal election scheduled for October 2009.

The introduction of fixed federal election dates did not however affect the ability of the Prime Minister to call for the dissolution of Parliament. So on 14 October 2008 – more than a year ahead of schedule – Canada’s 40th General Election took place, with Parliament dissolved early at the request of Stephen Harper, whose minority government had reached an impasse with the opposition, while also facing the charge of improper election spending in 2006. The Conservative Party increased their number of seats, but continued to rule as a minority government.

Less than three years later, on 2 May 2011, Canada witnessed its 41st General Election after the House of Commons – Canada’s lower house – passed a motion of no-confidence against the Harper government. This came amid continuing allegations of improper election spending in 2006 and 2008, and as the Bloc Quebecois led discontent over the government’s proposed budget. Yet the Conservatives again increased their seat count, this time forming a majority government. Meanwhile the Liberals won the fewest seats in their history, and were relegated to Canada’s third party, behind the New Democratic Party, who achieved their best-ever election result.

Therefore the 41st parliament was the first to run its full course under the revised Elections Act. With the coming federal election fixed for 19 October, at the beginning of August Stephen Harper requested writs of election, effectively dissolving parliament early: the ensuing election campaign lasted 78 days, the longest in modern Canadian history.

The length of the campaign meant increased spending limits. Parties were entitled to spend $54,475,840 over the course of the campaign, up from $21,025,793 in 2011. Party candidates were allocated a portion of a total limit of $73,611,590, up from $28,244,499 in 2011 – which meant in practise limits for each candidate of between $170,000 and $280,000, depending on the size of their electoral district.

Back in August, many analysts presumed that the lengthy election campaign would play into the hands of Harper’s Conservatives, typically the biggest spenders. But it was the Liberals under Justin Trudeau who enjoyed an unprecedented surge of support. At the beginning of the campaign, they had placed a clear third in the opinion polls, polling in the range of 25%-29%. The New Democratic Party at that stage held a polling lead, with their advantage over the Conservatives frequently extending to several percentage points.

By September, the three parties had converged in the polls, and from the end of the month until election day, the Liberals moved away from their competitors as support for the New Democratic Party withered. Ultimately, the Liberals took 6,930,136 votes, for 39.47% of the popular vote; the Conservatives 5,600,496 votes, 31.89%; and the New Democratic Party 3,461,262 votes, 19.71%.

Justin Trudeau is the eldest son of Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada between 1968 and 1979 and 1980 and 1984. While Pierre’s legacy remains subject to the fierce criticism of his opponents, he is often called the ‘father of modern Canada’ owing to the extent of his political reforms, and for establishing a sense of Canadian identity in the face of Quebec nationalism and old ties to the British Commonwealth. At just 43 years old, and elected as Liberal leader only in April 2013, Justin was repeatedly characterised by the Conservatives during the election campaign as ‘Just not ready’.

With the Canadian economy stagnating, partly as a result of the falling price for oil, Harper’s Conservatives and Mulcair’s New Democrats both campaigned on a pledge of fiscal responsibility, promising balanced budgets. Traditionally the Liberals have been the party of the political centre, with the New Democrats to the centre-left; but Trudeau campaigned to the economic left of his opponents, proposing budget deficits and stimulus spending, and increased taxes on the wealthiest members of society.

Harper and the Conservatives continued to face condemnation for their environmental policies, roundly perceived as exploitative and beholden to big oil; for the controversial ‘Anti-terrorism Act’, Bill C-51, viewed as excessive, too broad, and a threat to privacy; and for a divisive rhetoric which has centred on their support for a ban on the niqab when taking the Canadian oath of citizenship. Attention also turned to the Harper government’s slow rate of response in processing refugees. And the start of the election campaign was marked by a scandal over Conservative senators’ expenses. Elsewhere, the New Democrats led opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Five leaders’ debates were held between 6 August and 2 October, in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal, featuring different formations of the Liberals, the Conservatives, the New Democrats, the Bloc Quebecois, and the Greens. One debate was bilingual, with two in English and two in French. Despite the Liberals taking a lead in the opinion polls, before Monday’s election, it remained unclear whether any party would be able to form a majority government.

Voting hours on Monday were staggered across the country, opening in Newfoundland at 08:30 and closing in the west at 19:00. As the results came in, the Liberals first swept Atlantic Canada, taking all 32 seats. They devastated the New Democratic Party’s dominance in Quebec, and did the same to the Conseratives in Ontario – particularly in the districts of greater Toronto – while also making significant gains in British Columbia on their way to a decisive success. Turnout for the federal election was 68.5%. Harper will stand down as Conservative leader. Trudeau in victory said:

‘Canadians from all across this great country sent a clear message tonight. It’s time for a change in this country, my friends, a real change.

“You want a government with a vision and an agenda for this country that is positive and ambitious and hopeful. Well my friends, I promise you tonight that I will lead that government.’