OTTAWA — Canada’s election is everything America’s 2020 race isn’t: It’s polite, predictable and decidedly low-key.
Canadians calmly excused away past photos and videos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing racist markup. They refused to take the nationalist bait of a new right-wing People’s Party pledging a Trump-style “Canada First.” There’s no cable TV shouting or brutal tabloids and no billionaires splashing their cash in the run-up to today’s elections, in which Trudeau is likely to lose his governing majority — at a minimum.
Notwithstanding a late-game intervention by Barack Obama on behalf of Trudeau, the election is generally seen as too boring or inconsequential for non-Canadians to comment on. But Canada can’t afford for its politics to be boring — particularly right now.
Much like the Australia I grew up in, Canada is an English-speaking middle power, one that relies on exports and a big immigration program to keep growing. Yet the country is wedged between two elephants — China and the United States — and doesn’t seem to want to talk about it. And Canada’s party leaders, with the exception of the minor party leader Maxime Bernier, who paid for billboards with the slogan “Say NO to mass immigration,” have tended to minimize immigration as a campaign issue.
That may be smart economics, but it underplays the sense of unease on the topic expressed by voters in POLITICO polling. After all, it takes only one look at Brexit to see how avoiding immigration as a political topic can blow up in the face of establishment parties.
Both parties have missed the boat when it comes to engaging young Canadians. Millennials are the biggest pool of potential voters in this election, but their main political engagement in 2019 has been hitting the streets in massive climate strikes. The youth climate campaign didn’t endorse candidates, run registration drives or mobilize voters.
Young Canadians obviously care, but don’t appear to see electoral politics as a means of shaping their future.
Is it any wonder? Trudeau wants to build oil pipelines and meet his Paris Climate Agreement targets, but won’t explain how he can do both. “The point is right now, we need to get elected,” Environment minister Catherine McKenna told Macleans. “If we are re-elected we will look at how best to do this.”
That approach doesn’t cut it with most millennials.
When POLITICO showed up at a free big-screen election debate viewing party Oct. 7 at an Odeon cinema complex in Ottawa’s southern suburbs, it was a youth-free zone. The complex is a prime hangout for young locals, but they were in other theaters: by the debate kick-off a lone elderly couple had wandered in.
If you want political fireworks, Canada is the wrong place to look. Canadian magnate Conrad Black wrote recently of the Prime Minister and his Conservative party rival: “Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer are among the most amiable and naturally likable party leaders I have met.”
Nice doesn’t mean transparent, though. Neither of the biggest parties — the Liberals and Conservatives — is headed for a majority government, according to opinion polls. But good luck getting a straight answer from who they’d prefer to work with in a minority or coalition government.
Canada is allergic to coalition governments (the last one formed in 1917), though these are common arrangements in Parliamentary government systems. When the New Democratic Party hinted it might form a coalition with the ruling Liberals, its leader Jagmeet Singh back-pedaled almost immediately.
Televised debates would be a good forum to test candidates on what other governing arrangements might work. The Liberal government of Trudeau even created an official Leaders’ Debates Commission to facilitate more debates. So it’s a shame Trudeau undercut his own Commission by agreeing to only one official debate in each language.
On the global level, Canada’s complacency continues.
Opposition leader Scheer, for example, wants to cut foreign aid yet also hopes to win a seat for Canada on the U.N. Security Council. The government for its part was a virtual no-show at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Canada’s two biggest parties have failed individually and collectively to articulate how Canada should position itself between an erratic U.S. and a punitive China. Canada’s export-driven economy has helped avoid the tide of rising protectionism and nativism via trade deals with Europe and Pacific Rim countries, but what now?
Scheer goes so far as to rule out pursuing a trade deal with China, and has no plans for non-economic partnerships with the world’s most populous nation.
If China policy was bipartisan it wouldn’t need to be an election issue: the parties could wing it behind closed doors. Because the parties are split and do not discuss it in any detail on the campaign trail, whoever forms the next government will enjoy the thinnest of China mandates.
Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, says that doesn’t work as a China strategy. A middle power like Canada needs a clear and consistent position to have any impact. Even with full bipartisan support, it took Australia 10 years to seal its China trade deal in 2015, “in a different era, when it was much easier to separate the economics from the politics.”
Added together, Canada’s federal election has resolved little about where the country should head. Trudeau lost his shine, while Scheer never developed any. Whoever forms the next government, that dynamic condemns either leader to muddle through.
Yet as Canadians are fond of saying about this election, nodding in the direction of their southern neighbor, it could be worse.
This post was originally posted at https://www.politico.com/news/2019/10/21/canada-election-political-challenges-052249.