The aftermath of the recent election is an appropriate time to reflect on political narratives of the last three elections and assess their impact on the outcomes. In addition, I will be revising the chapter of Public Representations on election narratives. To simplify, I will focus on the two major parties.
A Clear Win
In the 2015 election, the Liberals offered “Real Change” – tax cuts for the middle class, the universal child-care benefit, and a stimulative deficit – with Justin Trudeau as the charismatic change agent. The Conservatives promised that Stephen Harper would “protect the economy,” through a balanced budget and their own tax cuts, and criticized Trudeau as “not ready.” Trudeau’s effectiveness in the leaders’ debates and energetic campaign upended the Conservative narrative.
Forward, Backward; Security, Taxes and Scandal
For both parties, the narratives in the 2019 and 2021 elections were alike and a continuation of those of the 2015 election. The Liberals used “Choose Forward” in 2019 and “Forward. For Everyone” in 2021. The carbon price embodied forwardness in 2019 as did a vaccine mandate in 2021. In both elections the Liberals contrasted themselves with the Conservatives, whom they depicted as backward on carbon pricing, vaccine mandates, gun control, and abortion rights. They also accused Andrew Scheer and then Erin O’Toole of being throwbacks to Stephen Harper. Though O’Toole moved the Conservatives to the political centre, there were many clips of his “Take Canada Back” theme in his campaign for the Conservative leadership that the Liberals could use to make the accusation stick.
The Conservatives maintained their focus on the economy with the 2019 theme “It’s Time for You to Get Ahead” and the 2021 theme “Secure the Future.” Both platforms emphasized tax cuts and balanced budgets and depicted the Liberals as intent on raising taxes, for example in 2021 on the sale of owner-occupied housing. Though the 2021 Conservative platform moved towards the political centre by having a credible climate change plan and raising issues like mental health, Conservative advertising and messaging were dominated by themes of economic security, affordability, and lower taxes, as in the two previous elections. The Conservatives also attacked Trudeau personally, focusing on scandals such as the Jody Wilson-Raybould Affair (“Justin Trudeau: Not as Advertised”) in the 2019 election and on the broken promise not to call an election during a pandemic in 2021.
The Conservatives had to introduce their new leaders in 2019 and 2021. Andrew Scheer was proud of his middle-class roots, but his narrative was disrupted when it was discovered he inflated his resume and did not renounce his inherited US citizenship. Erin O’Toole has a stronger resume, but the Conservatives did little to introduce him to voters until late in the campaign.
The Trudeau Tracker
Throughout the recent campaign, my perception was that both parties were deploying counter-narratives, embodied in attacks and attack ads, more frequently than positive advocacy of their policies and their leaders’ virtues. One way to examine the impact of politics dominated by counter-narratives is to look at variations over time in leaders’ popularity.
The Angus Reid Institute has tracked public approval and disapproval of Justin Trudeau since before he became Prime Minister. When first elected Trudeau’s approval and disapproval ratings were both at 45 percent. His approval then soared above 60 percent in his first year as Prime Minister but declined steadily; by the 2019 election 60 percent disapproved and 35 percent approved. Early in the pandemic, his approval rating increased to 50 percent, slightly higher than his disapproval rating, and stayed at that level until early 2021. Then his approval ratings began declining and at the recent election 61 percent disapproved and 36 percent approved, virtually identical to the previous election.
Given our multiparty system in which the Liberals have not received more than 40 percent of the vote over this six-year period, there is an inherent limit on Trudeau’s popularity. The “honeymoon effect,” however, likely partially explains his unusually high ratings in his first year in office. The Trudeau Government has had many broadly popular policy achievements such as implementing the Canada Child Care Benefit, cutting income taxes for the middle class and increasing them for the highest 1 percent, reinstating the mandatory long-form census, and rejoining the Paris Accord, all early in its first mandate; renegotiating NAFTA with a hostile and erratic US administration in late 2018; and maintaining employment and providing vaccines for all Canadians during the pandemic.
Politics can be Personal
On the other hand, Trudeau’s personal judgment has sometimes been erratic, and he has made numerous unforced errors: holidaying on the Aga Khan’s private island, pressuring Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould, letting a sole-source contract to the charity WE, calling an election most voters considered unnecessary, and just a few days ago, spending the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation vacationing with his family. Perhaps the best explanation of these decisions is a sense of entitlement and disregard for the appearance of propriety, both inherited from his illustrious but stubborn father.
The Conservatives, as the Official Opposition, have criticized his behaviour at the time of these episodes and subsequently developed attack ads focusing on Trudeau’s personal judgments and scandals. If I still did econometrics, I would try to use time-series analysis to determine the separate impacts on Trudeau’s approval ratings of his government’s policy decisions and his personal scandals.
The Conservative leaders haven’t done much better than Trudeau. Andrew Scheer was forced to resign after the 2019 election, due to both the party’s failure to regain power and his own personal failures of judgment. And, as I write this, Erin O’Toole’s leadership of the Conservative Party is far from secure, also a reaction to a disappointing electoral performance.
The Election Outcomes
By focusing on election narratives, I’m interested in the campaigns’ main themes that are directed at the entire electorate, rather than on policies narrowly targeting interest groups. This leads to a look at the popular vote. I’ve compiled a table for the popular vote for the major parties in the last three elections.
|% of total||2019 votes||% of total||2021 votes||% of total|
The Liberal vote declined sharply in 2019 and continued to decline in 2021. The Conservatives vote recovered in 2019, but fell again in 2021, with some of its voters switching to the People’s Party. Just as these numbers should be of concern to Conservative strategists, they, along with Justin Trudeau’s approval ratings, should not inspire confidence among Liberal strategists. If his government remains in power for two or even three years, Trudeau will have served close to a decade as Prime Minister. Though Canada has no legislated term limit like the American presidency, the implicit term limit due to the pressures of the job and the perpetual political campaign is likely a decade. Before the next election, the Liberals will probably be looking for a new leader with a new narrative.