Talks of a Trudeau mandate ignore reality and history

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, October 30, 2019
Talks of a Trudeau mandate ignore reality and history

Based on the prime minister’s speech on election night and the ensuing media coverage, one might assume that the new minority Liberal government has a mandate to govern based on their campaign platform. This is both a misread of the election results and the link between voting and policy preferences. In reality, our new federal government has a weak mandate, at best, and should be judicious and humble about implementing new programs and policy reforms.

The first and most obvious limitation on the Liberal mandate is that the party actually came in second. The Tories received 6.15 million votes (or 34.4 per cent) compared to the Liberals’ 5.91 million votes (or 33.1 per cent). Indeed, the Liberal share of the popular vote is the lowest for a party forming government in Canadian federal election history. Sir John A. Macdonald’s Tories in 1867 are the only other party to form government after receiving less than 35 per cent of the popular vote.

And that’s before adjusting for voter turnout. The preliminary data indicates that roughly 66 per cent of eligible voters actually voted, which is down from 2015. In other words, the Liberals in 2019 only received 21.8 per cent of the vote when all eligible voters are included. Admittedly one cannot ascertain with any certainty the intentions or preferences of Canadians who didn’t vote. However, it’s important to recognize that roughly one-third of voters did not provide guidance on their preferences for who and how they wanted to be governed.

It’s also helpful to place in context how rare it is for a majority government to be reduced to a minority after its first term. Only one other time in Canadian history has a majority government been reduced to minority after one-term—Mackenzie King and the Liberals in 1925 (the Liberals actually came in second in this election but formed government with help from the Progressives).

Another popular over-statement since Monday’s election is that there’s an overall policy mandate for the minority Liberal government because a majority of Canadians voted for “progressive” or “left-leaning” parties. First, this again ignores voters versus eligible voters. Only 41.7 per cent of all eligible voters cast a ballot for a progressive party.

Second, there’s an implied assumption that all Quebec voters who chose the Bloc did so because of the party’s progressive policies. Obviously some portion of that vote was based on policy positions. However, it’s as also likely that many Quebecers chose the Bloc as a protest against the policies of the governing Liberals and/or to ensure provincial considerations were top of mind for their representatives.

Third and perhaps most importantly, it assumes a link between Canadians’ votes and the policies advocated by each party. Ideally in a democracy, voters make choices based on policies. However, it’s hard to recall another election where policies and ideas played such a minor role. For example, the bump in the NDP vote coincided with party Leader Jagmeet Singh’s authentic, genuine and much-appreciated response to Prime Minister Trudeau’s blackface scandal. In other words, the NDP’s increased popularity was not because it announced a new policy Canadians got excited about, but because of Singh’s personal response to the scandal.

The new minority government, and Canadians more broadly, will be better served if the prime minister recognizes the historically weak nature of his re-election and the absence of any real mandate.