After the election: Canada turns inward

The forty-fourth federal election in Canada held this past week returned a result almost identical to the previous federal election in 2019. The Liberal Party of Canada added just three seats to what they had on heading into the election (158 out of 338 total), but earned the lowest share of the popular vote of any winning party ever in Canadian history. Though the Conservatives received the most votes for the second-straight election, they stood pat in terms of the number of seats in the House of Commons despite moving towards the political centre. The left-wing New Democrat Party (NDP) gained one seat, whereas the Bloc Québécois – a party focused on the largely French-speaking province of Quebec – gained two. The balance of power remains completely unaltered. 

Such is the yield of a CAN$610 million discretionary election triggered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the middle of a pandemic. But what does this all mean for Canada and the future direction of its foreign policy? In brief: a more inward-looking Canada with very little foreign policy change.

To begin with, the Liberal Party under Trudeau will face many governance challenges as the country moves into the post-pandemic era. Irrespective of its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trudeau government spent a lot of money trying to secure vaccines and to limit the economic impact on businesses and households. The national debt soared as a consequence, which has implications for the Government’s later ability to cover rising health care costs as the population ages and interest rates likely go up. With Canada having the highest inflation rate in almost two decades, affordability will remain a key issue for most citizens, even if it works for the federal government because it can avoid higher interest rates. 

Compounding these problems is an overheated housing market. Of all the G7 countries, housing prices in Canada have risen for the longest time without a market correction. Adding to these difficulties even more is the thorny issue of climate change policy – an issue-area where, despite lofty rhetoric, Canada lags behind all of its G7 counterparts in meeting its targets to cut greenhouse emissions. 

The post-Covid-19 economy looks grim, not least because major economic growth of the sort seen after the Second World War when Canada was heavily indebted is highly unlikely. Tax increases, hard choices, and unsavoury policy changes are on the horizon for the federal government. A possible area where public expenditures may be cut could be in defence. So far, the Liberal government has made no gesture in that direction.

All major political parties pledged to increase public expenditures during the campaign, but it is the Liberal Party that will have to wrestle with these challenges for the time being. Complicating matters was Trudeau’s decision to trigger a discretionary election several years early when the major political parties were otherwise cooperating for the good of the country during a major national crisis. The election was a bad call not just because Trudeau risked a reduced minority or even losing power, but because that spirit of cooperation will be harder to conjure than before. Trudeau may have gained a few seats, but he ultimately failed in his core aim: acquiring a majority. 

Given that the Liberals seem to have hit a ceiling, the other parties may feel more confident in trying to drive a harder bargain even if they fared little better, thus stalling a lot of what is left on Trudeau’s legislative agenda. The Liberals will have to rely on the NDP to survive, which can further lead to more spending and fiscal imbalances down the road. Regional splits and tensions – whether with western Canada or Quebec – will regain the salience they had prior to the pandemic.

In a country where foreign policy change by default proceeds at a glacial pace, a useless election that at best reinforces the status quo will truly mean no major changes. That would be especially true for Canada-United Kingdom (UK) relations or Canada’s relations with the Antipodes. Indeed, foreign policy issues were conspicuously absent throughout much of the campaign, in part because ordinary Canadians do not care too much to make it an election issue relative to other priorities. 

Federal leaders did criticise Trudeau for calling an election the very day when Kabul fell. Conservative leader Erin O’Toole did raise the issue that Canada is behind key allies and partners in taking a stronger stance against the People’s Republic of China (PRC), whether with respect to Huawei, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, or the two Michaels in captivity. But the mishandling of Afghanistan and for that matter, the evident exclusion of Canada from the AUKUS agreement, were a non-issue for voters.

To be sure, Canada does have unambiguous foreign policy successes of which it can be proud and Trudeau can rightly celebrate. It has positively contributed to European security by engaging in much the same things as what the United Kingdom has been doing: a deployment of military personnel as part of the enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics and military training assistance to Ukraine. Even these successes went unremarked, however.

Put together, Canada will, in the years ahead, likely become more inward-looking than before. It will continue to support its European operations with little fanfare, but hardly more can be expected of it. Stiffer resolve against the PRC, for example, is improbable. For the Liberal Party under Trudeau, there is little appetite for it, nor perceived reward, notwithstanding the orientation of the Biden administration, the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, or even public opinion polls that reveal even Canadians’ growing scepticism towards Beijing. 

After this election, politics truly stops at the water’s edge, with citizens’ attention increasingly focused on the rising cost of living and the difficulties of making a down-payment. Trudeau’s third mandate might very well be his last because he simply could not translate a successful vaccination effort into a majority government. Post-pandemic politics will be gruelling and may end up stirring up a hot brew of resentment and disillusionment in the years to come.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is an Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also an Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo.

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