Andrew Cohen is a journalist and professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism whose books include Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
On the morning of Oct. 31, 1972, Canadians awoke to a Halloween surprise: After an achingly close national election, they did not know who would form the next government. The election returns the night before suggested that Robert Stanfield’s Conservatives would win one more seat than Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberals.
Eventually, due in part to a recount in a riding near Toronto, the Liberals would emerge with a plurality of two seats. As Wellington said of Waterloo, “It was a close-run thing.” That it was, and the election could well have been Mr. Trudeau’s undoing. Instead, it was his remaking.
Mr. Trudeau collaborated with the New Democratic Party, which had 31 of the 264 seats in the House of Commons. He tacked left, talked tough and took advice as he had not before. Between Jan. 4, 1973, and May 9, 1974, he assembled a floating bridge – at once flimsy, sturdy and temporary – and traversed it gingerly, from the safety of his last majority government to his next one.
Canada’s 29th Parliament turned out to be effective, productive and, for Mr. Trudeau, personally instructive. Instead of his Waterloo, he made minority government his Austerlitz, he said, learning from Napoleon how to win when outnumbered.
Justin Trudeau’s margin of victory on Oct. 21 – three days after the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father – was 36 seats. The Liberals won 157 of 338 seats in Parliament. The Conservatives, their closest rivals, won 121 seats. There might seem few parallels between the situations of father and son a generation apart. Yet there are – and some lessons, too.
Like his father, the Prime Minister lacks a majority, and faces eerily similar problems now as then: nationalism in Quebec, alienation in the West and a President of the United States under threat of impeachment. Pierre was 24 seats short; Justin is 13 seats short. But a minority is a minority.
Like his father, Justin will need help to govern, which will come largely from the New Democrats, with their 24 seats.
Pierre had few allies (the conservative Créditistes from Quebec had 15 seats) for a progressive agenda. His son, on the other hand, can appeal to the Bloc Québécois (32 seats) and, on some issues, the Conservatives.
Mathematically, the three Greens and the lone Independent are irrelevant; Jody Wilson-Raybould will be so inconsequential in this Parliament that she will envy her defeated soulmate, Jane Philpott, who is now free to return to medicine.
Mr. Trudeau has vowed he will not form a coalition (as the NDP and the Greens have in British Columbia) or make a deal with the New Democrats (as David Peterson’s Liberals did with Bob Rae’s New Democrats in Ontario between 1985 and 1987). That may be unnecessary. Mr. Trudeau has the advantage of leading a broadly progressive Parliament, reflecting almost two-thirds of the population: The Liberals (33.1 per cent), the NDP (15.9 per cent), the Greens (6.5 per cent) and the BQ (7.7 per cent).
Yes, they disagree on issues such as middle-class tax cuts and more powers for Quebec over taxation and immigration. But there is a monumental – and understated – lesson in Monday’s results. The Liberals were re-elected in a country that has unseated seven provincial governments since 2015. To the dismay of the Conservatives, the centre-left vote did not divide cleanly between the Liberals and New Democrats this time, as progressives feared it would in 2015 before the Liberals surged to a majority (184 seats) late in that long campaign.
Here’s the thing: Whether it was through guile or luck, voting strategically or voting not at all, progressives found a way to keep the Liberals in, the New Democrats down and the Conservatives out. The election of the Greens, New Democrats and Bloquistes implicitly gives the Liberals licence to take risks. Long known as “Canada’s Natural Governing Party,” the Liberals were famously said to campaign from the left and govern from the right. Now, they can govern from the left.
This is particularly true on climate change, which Mr. Trudeau says no government can ignore. Catherine McKenna, the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, who won sweet re-election amid a cloud of calumny and threats so great that she needed a security detail, says she hears critics to her left who want to do more.
For the Liberals, that suggests addressing climate change even beyond their platform commitments of establishing net-zero emissions by 2050, banning harmful single-use plastics by 2021 and conserving 30 per cent of the country’s lands and oceans by 2030. In this, presumably, the Liberals will find allies. For their part, the New Democrats will relish their new influence. A party with little money and 15 fewer seats will be reluctant to force an early election.
But the Liberals have other partners, too. If the Trans Mountain pipeline comes to a vote in Parliament, the Liberals would probably lose the New Democrats and the Greens on the left but gain the Conservatives on the right. Such are the shifting loyalties and faithless alliances of a hung Parliament.
From his father, Justin Trudeau could learn much about tactics and strategy. Pierre’s most important appointee was Allan MacEachen as House leader. MacEachen was elected first in 1953 and knew parliamentary rules intimately. A brilliant, wily son of Cape Breton Island, he would negotiate each piece of legislation with the New Democrats. This included the establishment of Petro-Canada, the creation of the Foreign Investment Review Agency and an Office of Native Claims, as well as more money to fight unemployment.
Years later, as prime minister, Stephen Harper said “all [Trudeau’s] government then did was spend money,” fuelling inflation and piling up debt. He rode the threat of another Liberal minority to a majority in 2011.
Pierre Trudeau did something else in 1972. Having ignored party insiders in 1968, he now turned to senator Keith Davey. Mr. Davey was shrewd, charming and proudly progressive, the dapper éminence grise of his generation. As he said in his memoir, The Rainmaker: “I learned that it is when the Liberal Party shifts to the right that we lose elections. The Liberal Party wins when it is most liberal. Whenever the Tories outflank us on our left, we inevitably lose.”
When Mr. Trudeau met Parliament, he faced Mr. Stanfield, the former premier of Nova Scotia, who was genteel, intelligent and dull. He also faced David Lewis, leader of the NDP, who was fiery, witty and erudite. Both respected each other, and convention, too.
Today, Justin Trudeau faces Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer. Both are shallow careerists, emblems of the political class. After their election disappointments, both worry about keeping their jobs, particularly Mr. Scheer, who disdains Mr. Trudeau as a masked phony. On election night, all flaunted protocol. Mr. Singh talked too long and too late in Vancouver; as he spoke, Mr. Scheer went on stage in Regina and interrupted him; then Mr. Trudeau, no doubt annoyed with Mr. Scheer’s deeply personal attacks, began speaking in Montreal, pre-empting Mr. Scheer on television. It was a dismal spectacle, and a harbinger of bitterness to come.
Given the demands of contemporary politics, it is easy to see relations deteriorate, but tone in this Parliament will matter less than substance. Mr. Trudeau will deal with Mr. Singh more than Mr. Scheer, who, if Conservatives revert to type, will face dissent in his caucus. Pierre Trudeau dealt successfully with Mr. Lewis, who had denounced “corporate welfare bums” in the campaign. In the spring of 1974, high in the polls and encouraged by Mr. Davey, Mr. Trudeau engineered his own government’s defeat on a motion of no-confidence. In July, after a pitch-perfect campaign, largely against wage and price controls, he won a second majority government. The next year, the Liberals introduced wage and price controls.
Minority government – which accounted for fewer than two of his nearly 16 years in office – was Mr. Trudeau’s crucible. It was there that the philosopher king became the lone warrior, understanding what was needed to govern amid a demanding Alberta (Peter Lougheed) and a difficult United States (Richard Nixon). All the while, the prime minister kept his eye on the prize – keeping Quebec in Canada, and, later, bringing home the British North America Act from Britain and entrenching a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the single greatest act of nation-building in the history of Canada.
Only Pierre Trudeau, against the opposition, the provinces and the chattering class, could have done it. Had he lost in 1972, or mishandled the minority government that followed, none of it would have happened.
Can Justin Trudeau use minority government to remake himself, as his father did? After a series of personal missteps that cost him his majority, can he recover? Can he find the right advisers, win back public opinion and act boldly on the environment, income inequity, Indigenous reconciliation and pharmacare? If he is like his father, he will listen to old hands, issue fewer apologies and honour more promises.
Ultimately, he will have to do these things to find his way out of purgatory. Why? Because his name is Trudeau. And because it’s 1972.