The strange death and rebirth of the Liberal Party under Trudeau

The 2011 federal election appears to have fundamentally changed Canadian politics. And maybe he did. Not quite as we imagined.

In theory, this vote announced the arrival of a new political era. The days of the Liberal Party were over — the largely centrist institution that dominated Canadian politics in the 20th century was no longer suitable for use. Canada would be finally becoming more like its sister democracies, with a clear struggle between a party distinct from the political right and a party distinct from the left. The future seemed to belong to the Conservatives and the NDP.

Then things changed again, as they always do. Foremost among these unforeseen events is the election of Justin Trudeau as leader of the Liberal Party, which occurred ten years ago this week.

In the short term, Trudeau’s mere presence breathed new life into the lungs of a prostrate party. Over time, it also gave the party a new sense of direction. If the worst thing that could be said about the Liberal Party was that it represented the “soft middle”, the best thing that could be said about Trudeau’s early leaders is that he made the party less soft.

He announced that he would support the legalization of marijuana. He said his party would take a strictly pro-choice stance in favor of abortion rights. He unceremoniously expelled Liberal senators from the party’s parliamentary caucus. And then he presented a party platform that did not include a commitment to balancing the federal budget.

Each of these moves — like Trudeau’s own decision to seek party leadership — has been met with some level of consternation and skepticism. But four years after the party was given up for dead, the Liberals won 184 seats and Trudeau became prime minister.

What has since taken shape is the most active and militant generation of liberals to hold power since the government of Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s.

Justin Trudeau arrives on stage in Montreal on October 20, 2015 after the Liberals’ victory in the general election. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2011, when Michael Ignatieff led the Liberals, the party platform called for $8.2 billion in new investment over two years. In 2015, Trudeau’s platform covered $149.8 billion over four years. The words “racism”, “gender” and “reconciliation” did not appear at all in the 2011 platform. These words appeared 28, 46 and 19 times in the Liberal Party’s 2021 platform.

Some of these shifts in language and emphasis might simply reflect changing times (“reconciliation” hadn’t really entered the popular lexicon when the liberal platform was drafted in 2011). But they also reflect a leader and a party that enthusiastically tried to speak to emerging demands and issues.

On its tenth anniversary as leader, the Trudeau government may be closer to the end of its term than the beginning. Much of the brilliance comes from the famous son of Pierre Trudeau. But the Liberals remain competitive in public opinion polls and well ahead of the NDP.

Have the prophecies come true?

One way to read the events of the last 10 years is to conclude that post-2011 theories of realignment have proven to be broadly correct – that the party system did polarize, with the Liberals becoming the dominant party of the left.

There may be something to that, at least in the short term. But it is also possible to exaggerate how far the liberals have moved to the left. Liberals remain much less inclined than New Democrats to speak of class or to despise the rich and powerful.

Despite major new social investments, the Liberals still seem reluctant to create new programs run by the federal government. Dental care only exists because the NDP demanded it, while Liberal interest in pharmacare has faded.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh prepare for the start of the federal election's English-language leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh prepare for the start of the federal election’s English-language leaders’ debate in Gatineau, Que., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Even considering federal spending trends, the Liberals’ leftward shift looks more like a nudge. As a percentage of GDP, federal program spending in 2023-24 is expected to be barely comparable to what it was in the late 1980s, when the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney was in power.

In electoral terms, it is also possible to conclude that Trudeau’s electoral victories have only embellished what is in fact a long-term decline in the position of the Liberal Party.

The cap on Liberal support appears to have fallen steadily since Mackenzie King’s Liberals won 51.3% of the vote in 1940. Louis St. Laurent reached 49.2%, Pierre Trudeau 45.4%, Jean Chrétien 41 .2%. . While Trudeau won a majority in 2015, the Liberals were only able to secure 39.5% of the vote.

If the cap drops further, it will be difficult for a future Liberal leader to stand on his feet.

But it’s basically the same thing for the Conservative Party — a party that has his own existential challenges. John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives won 53.6% of the vote in 1958 and Mulroney 50% in 1984. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives could not get more than 39.6%.

In a system that includes both a durable NDP and a resilient Bloc Québécois (and a Green Party of sorts), it could simply be very difficult for a party to regularly get much more than 40% of the vote.

So the liberals are unlikely to be able to dominate this century as they did the last (from 1896 to 2006, the liberals ruled for 80 years). When governing, they may need to work more often with other parties (as they are now).

Not soft enough?

Ten years after Trudeau became the 13th leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, there is a new complaint — that the party is now not soft enough.

Political polarization is cause for concern. Taken to extremes, it can engender the kind of tribalism that makes a democracy difficult to manage. And it is quite possible that the next Liberal leader will decide that Trudeau has pushed the party too far left. Economic or political circumstances could force the Liberal Party to change direction, as it has done in the past.

It is also possible that the political center is not, or was not, quite where it was thought. And while some pundits might prefer moderation, other Canadians might rightly want progress to happen faster than a more centrist approach would allow.

Any Liberal aspiring to win an election might also note that while the Liberal vote has eroded, the combined Liberal-NDP vote has consistently hovered around 50% for the past 40 years, peaking at 59.2%. in 2015 and falling only once below 46%. percent (in 2008). And on an issue as central as climate change, Conservative voters are far less enthusiastic about government action.

But the ultimate lesson of the 2011 election and the past decade is that the future is very difficult to predict – and that political success depends on both luck and adaptability.

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