Another Liberal provincial government lost an election this week, bringing to five the number of Grit premiers who have gone down to defeat since Justin Trudeau came to power. In every case but one, the Liberal premier who lost was replaced by a rival on the right. Once surrounded by allies in the provincial capitals, Mr. Trudeau now faces mostly adversaries.
Is it reading too much into the most recent votes in Prince Edward Island and Alberta to predict that Canada is on the cusp of a blue wave? Perhaps voters are not so much embracing conservatism as rejecting centre-left governments that have overstayed their welcome.
That seems to have been the case in PEI, where Premier Wade MacLauchlan suffered a humbling rebuke. Despite having served only a single term as Premier himself, he carried the baggage of the Liberals’ 12 years in power. A plurality of voters – 37 per cent – opted instead for the relatively known quantity of the Progressive Conservatives under Dennis King, defying polls pointing to the election of the first Green Party government in Canada.
PEI poll averages had underestimated Tory support, confirming a pattern witnessed in other recent provincial votes. The PCs outperformed the average by six percentage points.
In Alberta, the coalescing of the right under Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives merely restored the province’s natural governing formation to its traditional perch atop the political food chain. But whereas most late campaign polls showed a tightening of the race, with one poll putting Premier Rachel Notley’s New Democrats at within only seven percentage points of the UCP, Mr. Kenney’s party ended up beating the NDP by more than 22 whopping points.
Mr. King and Mr. Kenney may both call themselves conservatives, but they represent different shades of blue. The PEI PC Leader did call Ottawa’s new carbon levy “a punitive tax for Islanders,” most of whom are rural folk who depend on their cars. But he has no intention of joining other conservative premiers in their constitutional challenge of the tax.
Yet, if there was a common theme on the campaign trails in PEI and Alberta, it was the palpable voter disaffection toward Mr. Trudeau and his government. That’s no surprise in Alberta, where the Liberals are seen as having done too little to get an oil pipeline built, and where Ottawa’s proposed reform of the environmental assessment process (as outlined in Bill C-69) is seen as making it even harder for the province to develop and export its resources.
More telling, perhaps, is that Mr. Trudeau was persona non grata in PEI, where provincial Liberals were emphatic in their desire not to see him. The federal Liberals won every seat in Atlantic Canada in 2015. On PEI, the Liberal popular vote surpassed 58 per cent. And now, Island Liberals are asking Mr. Trudeau to stay away? What’s up with that?
The SNC-Lavalin affair, which has exposed the underbelly of Mr. Trudeau’s government, has definitively transformed the Prime Minister’s image. He can no longer claim the moral high ground without looking hypocritical.
More generally, across Atlantic Canada, there is a sense that Mr. Trudeau has not given their region much thought. TransCanada’s cancellation of the proposed Energy East pipeline sticks in the craw of voters, even many in PEI, who believed the project would have provided a major boost to the entire region’s economy. Despite the surge in Green support – the party won about 31 per cent of the popular vote in Tuesday’s election – Energy East was popular on PEI.
None of this means Mr. Trudeau is doomed in October. Facing a wall of conservative first ministers could work to his advantage, especially if Mr. Kenney overplays his hand. The Alberta premier-designate has come out swinging at the federal Liberals with such vehemence, and with such an utter lack of circumspection, that it almost makes you feel sorry for Mr. Trudeau. Reconciling Canada’s obligation to fight climate change and uphold its duties to consult its Indigenous peoples with the economic imperative of developing its resources is a tough job. In case Mr. Kenney hasn’t noticed, it also got the better of his former boss, Stephen Harper.
Still, it’s hard not to sense that a certain Trudeau fatigue is overtaking the country. After a single term in power, the federal Liberals look tired and directionless. The motivational tweets aren’t fooling anyone any more. The tough decisions keep getting postponed. Inertia has set in.
The polls showing a tight race in October may not reflect what’s really happening on the ground.