Unexpected Outcomes of an Unwanted Election: Notes from the Fourth Wave

To give you an indication about how unusual the Great Unwanted Federal Election of 2021 has been, on the weekend here in St. Catharines, Ontario, I passed by an auto shop with a purple People’s Party of Canada sign in front.

My immediate reaction: this is a bad sign, and not just because the PPC is a reprehensible anti-immigrant, climate-change-denying, anti-vaxxer far-right outfit whose members are not above engaging in violence. There’s a reason why most businesses don’t post campaign signs in their windows. Basic common sense suggests it’s a bad idea to turn off the majority of your customer base who don’t agree with your political leanings.

So when I see a business, whose continued existence depends on attracting and keeping customers, commit so openly to an extremist party, I’m going to get a bit concerned about what that means for the institutionalization of hate and extremism in Canada. Especially with the PPC polling far above the 1.6% they scrounged up in 2019.

What these numbers actually mean for Canadian political and social stability will be determined by the outcome of today’s election and how the Canadian political and media establishments react to it – particularly the lessons that the Conservative Party of Canada takes away from it.

But we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the big reason why the PPC has become a problem at all is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to call an unnecessary and unwanted election in the middle of a pandemic. In doing so, Trudeau created the opportunity for a tiny, extreme right-wing fringe to piggyback on a significant anti-vaxxer/anti-lockdown movement that could end up being with us for a very long time.

Follow the Order of Operations

Like so much of what has happened in Canada and elsewhere in the past two years, this unforced error was the result of a failure to understand how pandemic politics and economics work. These politics are neither complicated nor novel. As I wrote almost a year ago, there is an order of operations that governments need to follow when dealing with the pandemic: If you (1) do everything you can to stop the disease from spreading (health), you will (2) minimize economic disruption, and (3) be politically rewarded for it.

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it: everything we know about COVID-19 tells us that, for once, the ethical thing to do (saving lives) is also the smart political and economic move. Which is why it’s been so surprising that so few politicians from Quebec westward have realized this simple equation. Similarly, it’s not surprising that politicians who put either the economy or partisan calculations ahead of dealing with the pandemic have ended up presiding over spectacular failures.

Politically, the damage from pretending that the pandemic is over can be a hit to one’s approval rating or, in the case of a federal election, providing the opportunity for the solidification of an extreme-right movement where there was previously a laughable rump.

This brings us to the reason why it was such a stupid idea to call an election before the pandemic was over. Basically, while voters tend to like the outcome of strong anti-pandemic measures (à la New Zealand), they do not like actually living through them. Even businesses, who have a material interest in ending the pandemic as soon as possible, have spent much of the past year individually arguing for exemptions to medically necessary lockdowns. These reactions are short-sighted but unsurprising.

However, this disgruntlement wouldn’t have been muchy of a problem had Trudeau called the election after the pandemic was in hand for a simple reason: We know that COVID mitigation measures work, and nothing succeeds like success. Calling for an end to lockdowns is a less-potent rallying cry when there is no longer a need for lockdowns.

In calling an unnecessary election in the middle of the pandemic, Trudeau has given this extremist hard core an opportunity to legitimize itself with a larger number of these disgruntled Canadians whose visceral opposition would have melted away as society returned to a semblance of normalcy.

This opportunity, furthermore, has been reinforced by non-Atlantic provinces’ kid-gloves approach to the anti-vaxxer movement (our performative kindness-and-understanding approach stands in stark contrast to Australia, where they’ve actually taken the pandemic seriously) and general attempts to place the economy above the pandemic. Taken together, they could potentially affect the balance of power in Canadian politics for the coming decade. Parties have to get their votes from somewhere, and the temptation for Conservative politicians to appeal to this extreme right could be significant. This is not good news for Canada: the last thing we need is for our Conservative establishment to be dragged toward the Trumpist right.

The sad irony of all this is that Canada (or parts of it) has actually figured out the winning formula for dealing with COVID: strong, consistent public-health measures and vaccines, lots of them.

The Atlantic provinces have kept life there relatively normal by treating the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved. It’s telling that newly elected Nova Scotia Premier, Progressive Conservative Tim Houston, ran on strengthening the province’s health care system. (Order of operations: deal with the pandemic first.) Too bad nobody in the rest of Canada even tried to take lessons from them.

Most disappointingly, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were actually doing a pretty good job in following the order of operations. They didn’t get into any political fights with the provinces, unlike Australia, which has a similar system to ours. Most importantly, their enormous bet in favour of getting Canada access to as many vaccines that we could use (and more) paid off handsomely. They didn’t get everything right (such as international travel and quarantine) and the COVID Alert App proved to be a failure, as some people (ahem) predicted it would, but they got the big things right.

But then Trudeau decided to place his desire for a Liberal majority ahead of dealing with the pandemic. He didn’t follow the order of operations. Here’s hoping that Canada doesn’t pay too high a price for his hubristic miscalculation.

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