How will the Trudeau Liberals go down in history?

They say fortune favours the bold, but that need not be the case when it comes to snap elections. There are no guarantees of victory and coming out worse for the wear is always a real possibility. The history of parliamentary democracies the globe over is laden with heroes and littered with goats who have taken the risk to call a snap election.

The heroes are those savvy enough to correctly read an electorate’s mood, call an election and return with a stronger government. The goats are those who have miscalculated the public in some way and returned a weaker government, or worse yet, lost the right to govern altogether.

As we inch closer to voting day for Canada’s 44th general election, one big question on everyone’s mind is, by calling a snap election will Justin Trudeau and the Liberals go down in history as heroes or goats?

Minority parliaments are challenging. The governing party is forced to work with the opposition to get things done, and usually this necessitates watering down their ideological positioning or capitulating on some issues of policy.

Minority governments also open the governing party, their policies, and their members, up to more scrutiny through committees. The rough seas that a minority parliament might bring mean the party in power always has its eye on a majority, and if it finds an opportune moment to strike, may call a snap election.

What do those opportune moments look like?

An opportune moment to call a snap election could be the emergence of a polarizing issue that’s dividing the electorate and that the government believes they are on the right of (read: will get them more votes than their opponent by taking a certain position). These types of snap elections are effectively referendums.

Another opportune moment may be when government senses a positive shift in the public’s perceptions towards them, or equally, growing negative perceptions of the opposition. In other words, the government can either sense a halo effect is upon them, or they can smell the blood in the water.

A classic example of a snap election of the referendum type occurred in 1917 when Canadians were divided over the issue of conscription. After having garnered the necessary support inside government and with the public, Sir Robert Borden (Prime Minister from 1911 to 1920) called a snap election, taking a pro-conscription position, and came out the other side with a convincing majority.

In 1958, less than a year after winning a minority government, John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives called a snap election. They sensed blood in the water. On the right, the Social Credit Party, which was the main threat to the Progressive Conservatives was bleeding support. On the left, the popular Liberal leader, Louis St. Laurent – a favourite of Quebecers – had just stepped down. Diefenbaker sensed a vacuum on both the left and right of which he could take advantage, and he did – in a big way. His snap election provided the largest majority ever, by percentage of seats won (Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963).

So, what kind of snap election are we looking at currently? Has Justin Trudeau identified a referendum question that he can put to Canadians to be on the right side of, or has he sensed a shift in sentiments towards his government on which he’s seeking to capitalize?

When Trudeau emerged from the Rideau Hall a few short weeks ago, he said that Canadians had some big decisions to make – big decisions like what the next 17 years would look like for Canada. Framed this way, it sounded as if this Liberal government was calling a snap election of the referendum kind, putting it to Canadians to choose the government who they trusted most to define what the post-pandemic future will look like.

At the same time, we know the Liberals are hoping to capitalize on their effective efforts to procure vaccines, leading Canada to being one of the most vaccinated countries on the planet. Polling ahead of the election had the Liberals far ahead and many attribute this to goodwill garnered through their vaccine efforts.

Ultimately, the Liberals are seemingly simultaneously straddling the fence of referendum and capturing positive public sentiment, unable to chart a defined strategic path forward. As a result, the public isn’t getting clear messaging on why they are going to the polls and what the question at the ballot box will be.

This approach is risky – as risky as calling a snap election in the first place.

Are Canadians going to the polls for a referendum on big ideas for the future as Trudeau suggested? Looking at the platforms it doesn’t appear so.

Are Canadians going to the polls for a referendum on mandatory vaccines? Again, it doesn’t seem so – the issue has been raised, but it’s certainly not been highlighted as the ballot box question to date.

Finally, are Canadians going to the polls because the government has identified significant good will or a vacuum of support they can harness? If they have, they haven’t effectively highlighted where it is and courted those groups or regions effectively so far.

There’s a lot of election left. Anything can happen. One thing’s for sure though – shortly after September 20, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals will, after calling a snap election, have either secured themselves as heroes is in the books of political history alongside Borden, Diefenbaker and others, or relegated themselves goats, left out to political pasture. Time will tell.