Philippe Lagassé: So who actually won on Sept. 20th?
You're probably thinking that I’m an obnoxious pedant. But the terminology matters, because exceptional scenarios do occur.
By: Philippe Lagassé
What exactly happened on Sept. 20th, 2021? Was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau re-elected with a fresh mandate? Did he win a third term? Surely, no matter how you square it, the Liberals won the election, right?
Well not quite. All three of these ways of framing the result — as the Liberals “winning” a third “term” with a clear “mandate” are simplistic and misleading ways of looking at the election results.
Let’s start with mandates. The temptation to frame our general elections as mandate bestowing events is strong, but doesn’t make sense. Did the Liberals win a mandate from the people with approximately 32.6 per cent of the popular vote? You have to stretch the concept of a mandate to make that case. Most Canadians didn’t vote for Liberal candidates, so it’s tough to argue that the electorate endorsed the party’s platform. Voters elected a House of Commons where no one party dominates. If anything, that tells us that voters chose not to grant any party a mandate.
If we insist on telling simplistic stories about the election results, that’s a far more accurate one. Voters gave the Liberals enough seats to remain in power, but they elected a House of Commons that will check the government. Alternatively, we can say that voters told the Liberals that they can govern, but only by working with other parties. Still another way to talk about it is to say that voters endorsed the status quo. These renderings have the virtue of avoiding the implication that the government has a mandate to pursue any independent agenda.
Like mandates, talk of the prime minister’s third term makes it seem like voters were making a decisive decision about who should head the government. The reality is more mundane. The prime minister — who has never stopped being prime minister since he was appointed in 2015 — went to the people in hopes of strengthening his party’s position in the Commons. In so doing, he risked the possibility that voters would elect a Commons where he could no longer be prime minister. There was also the chance that the public would simply leave his party with only a plurality of seats, not a majority. As it turned out, voters went for the third option. Rather than granting the prime minister a third term, the election was more akin to a performance review. Voters didn’t grant the prime minister more control over the Commons, but they didn’t turf him, either.
Talking about prime ministerial terms leads us down even stranger paths than mandates. Columnists are already speculating that Mr. Trudeau might not stay on as prime minister for full the life of this parliament. If he is succeeded by a new Liberal leaders, when does that individual’s term as prime minister begin? When they’re first appointed? If so, how does it makes sense to tie terms to elections? If elections don’t necessarily decide when a prime minister’s term begins or ends, what’s the point of speaking as if they do? Maybe it allows us to analyze the chances of a prime minister staying in power based on how many general elections they have under their belts, as in “prime ministers rarely win a fourth term.” But we have to ask how that provides any more clarity or insight than simply stating what we actually mean: governing parties don’t tend to carry four general elections.
Now the big one: did the Liberals win the 2021 election? Yes, insofar as they won the most seats. But we need to be careful here, too. If the Conservatives had won, say, five more seats than the Liberals, Prime Minister Trudeau could have tried to stay in power with the help of the NDP or the Bloc. In that scenario, the Conservatives would have “won” the seat count, but not dislodged the government. Winning is a fuzzy idea in those kinds of situations.
At this point, you’re understandably thinking that I’m an obnoxious pedant. The party that wins that most seats almost always governs, so I’m equivocating by focusing on improbable constitutional nuances that don’t matter in the real world. Except these exceptional scenarios do occur. In the 2017 election in British Columbia, Christy Clark’s Liberals won 43 seats and John Horgan’s NDP carried 41. Three other seats went to the Greens. Did Clark win the 2017 election? If our measure is seat counts, yes. Yet, when the legislature met, the NDP and the Greens brought the government down and Horgan became premier and has been since. That suggests that the NDP carried the election, despite holding two fewer seats.
The 2021 federal election is obviously different. The seat differences between the parties make it easy to declare that the Liberals won. While we can debate all the different ways the Commons might look under a different electoral system, the fact is that the Liberals were victorious on Sept. 20th under the first-past-the-post method we use to pick members of Parliament.
Indeed, when we stop weaving tales of governing mandates and prime ministerial terms, we appreciate what ultimately counts: who can command the Commons? That’s an old school way of discussing these things, but it’s still the best one.
Philippe Lagassé is an associate professor at Carleton University.
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