Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will try to retain his leadership in this year’s election (Image source: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
By Josh Brine
While most interest and media coverage about North American politics has focused on impeachment inquiries and presidential nominations for the 2020 election, Canada has been preparing for its own election.
Although the politics of the ‘Great White North’ is often overlooked internationally—especially when compared to their noisy southern neighbours—this year’s election, to be held on October 21, has managed to capture a few headlines at the expense of the current prime minister.
Most international audiences received their first exposure to this Canadian election cycle in September, when various photographs and videos from the 1990s and early 2000s emerged showing current Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau dressed in blackface.
Despite this significant scandal, Mr Trudeau’s centre-left Liberal Party has managed to remain essentially tied with the centre-right Conservative Party in aggregate polls released by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and Politico.
While relying on opinion polls has proved a risky business in both the most recent Australian and American elections, it does appear that Canada is headed for a tight election, and potentially even a hung parliament.
But how does federal Canadian politics work and how different is it to Australia’s democratic parliamentary system?
And why should we care about what happens in an election half a world away?
The real contenders: The major parties and their leaders
First, we should start by discussing the major players in the election.
Politics in Canada is dominated by two parties: the centre-left Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Trudeau (the equivalent of the Australian Labor Party), and the centre-right Conservative Party, led by Andrew Scherr (the equivalent of the Liberal Party of Australia).
Following nearly a decade of Conservative Party governments led by Stephen Harper, Prime Minister Trudeau led the Liberals to a victory in the 2015 election.
This achievement looked unlikely four years prior, when the Liberals were pushed to third place in the polls.
The son of a former prime minister who served for more than 15 years, Mr Trudeau came to power promising significant political change, particularly in areas such as climate change, the anti-ISIS movement, and immigration.
But as his tenure has gone on, the prime minister has faced significant criticism, with his approval rating hovering just above 40 per cent.
In an opinion piece published by The Conversation, Assistant Professor Charis Kamphuis from Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia criticised Mr Trudeau and the Liberal Party for frequently succumbing to corporate pressure.
“The Trudeau Liberals are quickly running out of opportunities to keep their promises and show Canadians that they will do the right thing when it comes to corporate accountability,” Ms Kamphius said.
Mr Trudeau has also come under fire for his indecisiveness on climate change, despite the promises he made along the 2015 campaign trail.
Even during that campaign, Mr Trudeau simultaneously supported the expansion of climate change policy and committed to attend the Paris climate conference, while also supporting the construction of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline in the province of Alberta.
In June 2019, the Canadian government declared a climate emergency, but then the following day, approved plans to approve the expansion of a pipeline in Alberta and British Columbia, which prompted criticism from youth climate activist Greta Thunberg on Twitter.
The recent blackface scandal is yet another reason for Canadian voters to doubt Mr Trudeau and look for other options to lead their country, with the strongest alternative being the Conservative Party.
Leading up to the 2019 election, the Conservatives have replaced long-time leader and former Prime Minister Mr Harper with the much younger and more unknown Andrew Scheer.
But Mr Scheer has struggled to capitalise on Mr Trudeau’s mistakes, and has had difficulty building a public persona and generating support outside of the pre-existing Conservative base.
Mr Scheer’s policy platform, which was not released until 10 days before the election on October 21, is fairly typically centre-right: introducing tax cuts and credits, increasing jobs, repealing laws such as the carbon tax and the “No More Pipelines” Act, and restricting illegal immigration.
Mr Scheer and his policies have frequently been compared to that of former leader Mr Harper; though this may not be a good thing for him as the Harper Government was defeated in dramatic fashion in the 2015 election.
So, has Mr Trudeau done enough to damage to his own reputation to allow his opponent, the young Conservative upstart, to take the prime ministership?
The powerful third parties
But of course, the Canadian House of Commons is made up of more than two parties.
There are also several minor parties that gather significant support in Canada: the progressive New Democratic Party (who had a brief four-year stint as the official opposition from 2011-2015), the Green Party of Canada, Bloc Quebecois (who campaign for the sovereignty of the francophone Quebec province) and the right-wing People’s Party of Canada.
These minor parties hold far more significance in Canada than in Australia due to their different voting system.
Canada uses a system known as ‘first-past-the-post’ voting, as opposed to Australia’s preferential voting system, in which voters select only one candidate, instead of listing candidates in order of preference, with the candidate with the most votes winning.
Professor Don DeBats, Head of American Studies at Flinders University, said this system makes “third parties much more powerful”.
“The whole point of preferential voting is to get rid of minor parties,” Professor DeBats said.
“Canada has a huge history of third parties becoming major political players; it’s quite hard to see that happening in Australia.”
These parties may play an even more important role in the upcoming election, with the probability of a hung parliament and minority government high.
As of writing, the CBC predicts there is a 75 per cent chance that neither the Liberals or Conservatives will reach the magic 170 seats needed to reach a majority and form government in the House of Commons.
With this in mind, the minor parties will most likely play a key role in deciding which party is able to govern for the next four years, and will likely have significant say on the policies the new government proposes.
The curious (and difficult) case of the French
The other major factor that differentiates Canada and Australia is how much more multicultural Canada is, most notably its significant French population.
While French Canadians make up less than 25 per cent of the overall population, they are a vocal and powerful minority.
Professor DeBats said Canadians have “put up with the great difficulties that the French have created, but have been committed to retaining that kind of different culture, even though it’s quite antagonistic in many cases”.
No example illustrates the influence of the French Canadians than in 1993, when the Bloc Quebecois became the official federal opposition while campaigning for the end of the federation and the independence of Quebec.
“Here you have a party which is dedicated to the end of a nation being the loyal opposition,” Professor DeBats said.
Since this time, the Bloc has seen a significant reduction in support, particularly after being replaced by the NDP as the largest minor party.
“At one point the Canadians were so enamoured of their tolerance that they had no plan B,” Professor DeBats said.
“But they finally got tough with Quebec and said ‘actually, you’re not going to get out of here’.”
But with a popular new leader for the 2019 election and increasing support in Quebec, the Bloc may once again be on its way to dominating politics in the province and being a significant player in the House of Commons.
So, why should we care?
People can make as many jokes as they like about Canada for being the overly-polite, maple-syrup-loving little brother of the US, but we need to respect Canada for the influential economic and political power that it is.
And, although it may be half a world away, the outcome of the Canadian election will have a major impact around the world.
Canada has significant global political influence: the nation is member of the G7, a major economic power with the world’s 10th largest GDP, and the world’s ninth largest producer of carbon emissions.
The outcome of the upcoming Canadian election has real consequences around the world, whether the international media believes they are newsworthy or not.
But of course, this election, in the end, will likely come down to two parties and two leaders: Justin Trudeau and the incumbent Liberal Government or the unknown Andrew Scherr and the Conservative Party.
The question for Canadians voters is: Who is better – the politician you do know or the one you don’t?