Election watch: Conservatives lead as Canada prepares for autumn federal elections

Canadians head to the polls for federal elections in October 2019. The election is likely to be a tight contest between incumbent prime minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, and the Conservative Party, led by Andrew Scheer.

Canada flag, parliament

Election watch: Conservatives lead as Canada prepares for autumn federal elections

Politicians, parties and voters are gearing up for Canada’s upcoming federal election, scheduled to take place on 21 October 2019. Voters will elect all 338 members of the House of Commons – the powerful lower house of parliament – for four-year terms, as set out in the Canada Elections Act; approximately 27.1 million people are eligible to vote. The election will see incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of the centre-left Liberal Party attempt to secure a second term in office, in what is likely to be a close race against the centre-right Conservative Party, led by Andrew Scheer. Several smaller parties, most notably the New Democratic Party (NDP) but also the Bloc Québécois (BQ), Green Party, and People’s Party of Canada, are also likely to obtain parliamentary representation.

The key issues in the election will include:

  • The government’s record on the economy
  • climate change policies
  • the SNC-Lavalin affair
  • foreign policy, particularly relations with China and the US
  • attitudes towards immigration and pluralism

The election campaign, which is likely to begin in earnest in August 2019, will predominantly focus on how Trudeau’s administration, and Trudeau himself, have performed in the past four years. As of May 2019, national opinion polling gives the Conservative Party 36.2 per cent, a six per cent lead over the Liberal Party. Despite this, such a performance would not necessarily translate into a working majority for the Conservative Party, and could see the Liberal Party form a coalition administration. Furthermore, it is important to note that public opinion has fluctuated significantly since the beginning of 2019, and is likely to continue to do so in the run-up to October’s vote, as the graph below illustrates. The outcome of the election will have important implications for firms which do business in and with Canada; these are analysed below for better understanding of the parties’ agendas and likely prospects.

Canada election polling

Source: Nanos Research polling (25/01/2019-31/05/2019)

Liberal Party

The Liberal Party, which currently holds 177 seats in the lower house and a slim working majority of seven, approaches the election after several months of intraparty feuding over the SNC-Lavalin affair – a major scandal of alleged political interference and obstruction of justice in a criminal case by Trudeau himself. The dispute relates to Montreal-based engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) giant SNC-Lavalin, which is accused of bribing officials in Libya to win contracts during the government of deceased former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

In seeking to reach a settlement with prosecutors to avoid a lengthy legal battle, the company openly lobbied for a deferred prosecution agreement, and for it to compensate authorities through fines, thereby effectively admitting its guilt. Trudeau and his inner circle reportedly pressured former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to green-light SNC-Lavalin’s preferred means of settlement. Wilson-Raybould, however, refused and was removed from the cabinet. The scandal, which led to the expulsion of Wilson-Raybould from the Liberal Party, prompted allegations from Scheer that Trudeau was covering up corrupt acts. The scandal had a significant knock-on effect on opinion polling; Trudeau’s approval rating fell sharply as the scandal broke. While the immediate political fallout from the scandal has largely subsidised as of May 2019, it has severely eroded public trust in Trudeau and the Liberal Party and provided an impetus for their opponents.

The Liberal Party will hope to win the election on two pillars – its record in government, and its policy programme, which as of May 2019 remains under development. Under Trudeau, Canada’s economy has grown steadily, with annual growth rates ranging from a minimum of 1.8 per cent in 2018 to a maximum of 3.0 per cent the previous year; inflation has also been under control, reaching a high of 2.5 per cent in 2017. Trudeau’s administration has renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the US and Mexico, rebranded as CUSMA in Canada, which, providing it receives ratification, largely ensures that the North American market will remain tightly integrated. The government also introduced duties on carbon emissions, raising the price of fuels and prompting criticism and legal challenges from its political opponents. Furthermore, the government also legalised the recreational use of cannabis nationwide.

Conservative Party

Currently leading the national polls, Scheer’s Conservative Party will seek to oust the Liberal Party and return to government, having previously led the country between 2006 and 2015 under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The party has surged in the polls since the SNC-Lavalin affair damaged Trudeau’s reputation and opened up divisions among the Liberals, and will hope to secure the 170 seats required to form a majority government. The election is the first major electoral test of 40-year-old Scheer, who, despite his relatively young age, is an experienced politician, having previous served an entire term as Speaker of the House of Commons. As of March 2019, Scheer enjoyed an eight-percentage point lead over Trudeau in personal approval ratings.

While the party has yet to publish its platform for the 2019 elections, it is likely to focus on several key themes. Firstly, it will condemn Trudeau’s government for slow progress on the construction of several key oil pipelines, particularly the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and propose ending the ban on oil tankers off the northern section of the coast of British Columbia province. Secondly, the Conservatives will focus on the Liberal’s record on public spending, particularly its running of a budget deficit, which in the year 2017-2018 stood at CAD19 billion (USD14.5 billion). The Conservatives will also look to highlight the SNC-Lavalin scandal as a means to weaken the reputation of the Liberal Party and of Trudeau in particular. A Conservative administration would also exclude Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd from the country’s new 5G network.

Other parties

Aside from the two largest parties, a number of smaller parties will stand in the election. If, in the possible scenario that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives secure a majority of seats, the smaller parties could become crucial in determining which large party is able to form a coalition administration.

The New Democratic Party, a social democratic party which currently holds 41 seats of the 338 in the House of Commons, is likely to be the largest of the small parties. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh will seek to improve on the party’s previous election result; however, the party is likely to struggle to do so – it is currently polling around 15 per cent nationally and is projected to win between 20-30 seats. The next largest party is likely to be the Bloc Québécois, a social democratic party which advocates Quebec sovereignty, followed by the Canada Green Party, and the People’s Party of Canada.

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