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[Analysis] The Trudeau era continues — for now

If voters had a message to send, it was this: Get back to work

Trudeau giving speech on stage, wife and children standing next to him.

Justin Trudeau delivers his victory speech in Montreal on Sept. 21, 2021, after Liberals win a minority government. He's at the podium with wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, left, and their children, Ella-Grace and Xavier.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Ivanoh Demers

RCI

It's not a majority. It might not even be a stronger minority.

It could, in fact, end up being an election that produces a House of Commons nearly identical to the one that was dissolved five weeks ago.

But it's a win for Justin Trudeau — which, for him, at least beats the alternative.

You are sending us back to work, Trudeau said in the early hours of Tuesday morning, with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic and to the brighter days ahead.

A small crowd at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in downtown Montreal, thinned out by pandemic restrictions, applauded. And while the voters watching on television at home may have been less enthusiastic, get back to work may be the ultimate message of this election.

If there is a historical precedent for 2021, it might be former Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson's failure to gain a majority after calling a snap election in 1965. In that case, the result was almost identical to the previous election in 1963.

For Liberals, it might have been much worse

That was a political disappointment. It was also Pearson's last election as Liberal leader. But Pearson was still able to use his second term to advance national medicare with the Medical Care Act.

Trudeau's decision to call this election will always be debated. It may even live on as a cautionary tale. It's not obvious, however, that there would have been a better time for the Liberals between now and October 2023.

But even if there wasn't going to be a more opportune moment — even if you accept the Liberals' claim that they needed a renewed mandate to do the things they wanted to do — it wasn't necessarily fate that the Liberals would end up with basically the same House that was elected in 2019.

Justin Trudeau waves at crowd from the door of Liberal shuttlebus.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign stop in the town of Maple in Vaughan, Ont., on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Sean Kilpatrick

The election call happened to coincide with the sudden fall of Afghanistan, which put the government on the defensive and consumed the early days of the Liberal campaign. After the prime minister cast the election as an important moment for making crucial decisions about the future, the Liberal campaign was slow at first to explain what those decisions were and where the Liberals actually wanted to go.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives came out fast with their platform and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole managed to exceed low expectations. And the result in Quebec may have turned on the phrasing of a question asked by a moderator during the English-language debate (new window).

Self-inflicted wounds

Calling an election early is always a gamble. This election served to show why it's risky.

At various points over the past six years, Trudeau has displayed an ability to make things harder for himself. But the potential end of one's political career can focus the mind: the Liberals were stronger in the second half of this campaign.

With O'Toole tripping over gun control, vaccination and his previous praise for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's response to the pandemic, that strong finish was enough to keep the Liberals in power.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, wearing a mask, leaves the stage.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole addresses supporters at an election night event at the Tribute Communities Centre, in Oshawa, Ont., in the early hours of Sept. 21, 2021.

Photo: (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

If a prime minister only gets so many elections — voters tend to eventually tire of their leaders — then Trudeau has used up one of his precious opportunities on a race that failed to secure his grip on Parliament. He's still likely to be prime minister for a while longer. Surely no opposition party, having just decried this election as unnecessary, is going to be in a position to demand another one.

He has come up short but he hasn't lost power. There will be lingering grief in Liberal circles over the election call and the failure to win more seats — but this is not the end of Trudeau's time in office.

WATCH: Justin Trudeau speaks after winning another minority government

Quietly, in the midst of this odd and perhaps underwhelming campaign, Trudeau surpassed John Diefenbaker and became the tenth-longest serving prime minister in Canadian history. He now joins a list of just eight leaders who have led their party to three or more election victories, alongside John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper.

Unlike the two prime ministers who dominated the 20 years before he came to office — Chretien and Harper — Trudeau did not appear to succeed in politics despite his limitations. And if it seemed like Trudeau might be able to govern for a decade with relative ease after his victory in 2015, the Liberal results of 2019 and 2021 might seem underwhelming.

Also unlike Chretien and Harper, Trudeau was not an incrementalist. Trudeau made big promises and set ambitious goals — he talked about ideals and values. So he spent a lot of time fighting against the idea that he was not as good as his word. In some cases (electoral reform, for instance), he wasn't.

Six eventful years

Such things — along with his natural flashiness and very public presence over these last six years — may be conspiring to gradually erode the public's patience. But this campaign still ended with a plurality of Canadians telling pollsters that he was their preferred prime minister.

Whether you take a positive or negative view of the last six years, they have not been inconsequential: the Canada Child Benefit, the resettlement of 44,000 Syrian refugees, a national price on carbon, the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, the legalization of marijuana, Senate reform, the renegotiation on NAFTA with Donald Trump, a sea change in federal fiscal policy and the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic crisis.

Interspersed with such things were the spectacles and unnecessary failures: the Aga Khan's island, an ill-fated trip to India, the SNC-Lavalin affair, the blackface photos, the WE affair, Julie Payette's appointment as governor general.

WATCH | Canadian federal election night in under 7 minutes:

But if Harper's aim was to take the centre pole of Canadian politics and move it a couple steps to the right, it can be argued that Trudeau has picked it up and moved it two or three steps back to the left. And he did so with an agenda that may define progressive politics for some time to come, one focused on inequality, climate change, reconciliation and diversity.

On Tuesday morning, Trudeau said that millions of Canadians have chosen a progressive plan. That agenda, he said, includes ending the pandemic, taking real climate action, implementing child care and pursuing reconciliation.

If nothing else, Trudeau can now go to the premiers of Ontario and Alberta and make a renewed push for child care agreements on the basis that he's going to be prime minister for at least a little while longer. The Liberal climate agenda will become more entrenched with every day that passes between now and the next election.

But five weeks ago, Trudeau framed this election in historic terms. There was none of that in his acceptance speech on Tuesday morning — an implicit nod to the humbling nature of this result.

For Liberals, this was less a moment of victory than of relief. And having tried and failed to improve his party's standing, Trudeau may come out of this with a weaker hand.

But more time in office is not the worst consolation prize.

Aaron Wherry (new window) · CBC News

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry (new window) · Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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