For the coming federal election there’s a lot of foregone-conclusion talk. To hear the pollsters and pundits, Justin Trudeau is headed for an easy win, his third in a row.
If the forecasts are correct, he will ditto his dad, repeating Pierre Trudeau’s three-peat feat in much the same way. His father won a majority in 1968, was reduced to a minority four years later and got his majority back two years after that.
The widespread presumption of a cakewalk for his son this time might be overlooking a few things. One is that most every federal election campaign produces the unexpected. Surprises happen. Who’s to say there won’t be distressing news on the pandemic or the economy around the corner? Who’s to say the polling, an increasingly hazardous enterprise, is accurate or won’t change after the writ is dropped?
The public doesn’t really focus on politics until the campaign begins. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is not well known. He’ll get an opportunity to define himself in the campaign and could well exceed low expectations. There’s the possibility also that the NDP could make a big jump, divvying up the vote on the left to the Liberals’ detriment.
But not to be overlooked is one very big constant in Canadian political history that plays strongly to the Liberal advantage. They have been and they still are the natural governing party. Other things being relatively equal, they win.
In their political orientation, Canadians are predominantly progressive. It is evident in almost every election, wherein the combined vote of centre-left parties easily surmounts that of the conservative vote.
The Liberals have been in power 71 of the last 100 years, 31 of the last 50.
They have emerged victorious in 25 elections, the Conservatives 18.
Their potency is such that a three-peat by Justin Trudeau is no big deal. The party won four in a row under Wilfrid Laurier, five back-to-back under Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, five in a row also under Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, and four again with Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. The Conservatives won four in a row once, a century and a half ago under John A. Macdonald.
Many on the right gripe that the media are biased toward the Liberals. They might consider that their real problem is that the Canadian people are biased.
They don’t normally align with conservative values. That could well be case today because owing to the pandemic and the climate crisis, big government is more in demand than usual. So is, given Canada’s increasingly diverse make-up, the party that embraces multiculturalism.
Today’s Conservatives tilt against the zeitgeist. Since the demise of the old Progressive Conservatives, they are a party anchored further on the right, entrenched on the Prairies but nowhere else. They’ve become a lost cause in Quebec, where voters are more inclined to social-democratic formations. Brian Mulroney’s old Tories won two straight majorities primarily on account of Quebec.
When Conservatives win it is usually attributable to fatigue with Liberal hegemony. John Diefenbaker’s messianic triumphs in 1957 and 1958 followed 22 consecutive years of Liberal rule. Mr. Mulroney’s huge win in 1984 followed a two-decade Liberal incumbency save for Joe Clark’s brief appearance. Stephen Harper’s win in 2006 came after 13 years of Liberals at the helm.
Strokes of good fortune are also key, such as Lester Pearson’s disastrous decision to force an election in 1958 or John Turner’s brutally incompetent campaign in 1984.
Likewise, Stephen Harper’s coming to power benefited from a run of lucky breaks – Paul Martin not calling an election right away when he had an enormous lead upon succeeding Mr. Chrétien; the sponsorship scandal and the Liberals’ boneheaded decision to call an inquiry into it. The RCMP’s ham-fisted, momentum-shifting decision during the 2006 campaign to announce a criminal probe into alleged Liberal insider trading. Once in power, the Conservatives then had the fortune of facing weakling Liberal leaders in Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Mr. Harper was battered by Mr. Trudeau in 2015. A recent poll in Maclean’s showed that if Mr. Harper were running this time, he would be battered by Mr. Trudeau again.
Modern history shows parties governing in roughly 10-year stretches. The Trudeau Liberals have been in power for six, suggesting the fatigue factor likely won’t do it for the Conservatives this time. To stop the Liberals they’ll need a series of fortuitous campaign surprises. Otherwise the beat goes on. Otherwise, the natural governing party wins again.
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