Canada’s political upheaval is not done yet

Canada’s political upheaval is not done yet

2018 was a bad year for provincial incumbents in Canada.

In Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, voters fired their premiers after single terms in office.

Year-end polls suggest the same fate could await the premiers of Alberta and P.E.I. in 2019.

In just the past six years, Quebec has disposed of three premiers. None of New Brunswick’s last three government leaders was afforded a second term.

The volatility that has turned so many premiers into disposable figures has so far not been a feature of the federal scene. Those of Justin Trudeau’s predecessors who first led their party to government with a majority were given a second term in office. Back-to-back majorities, though, have been less common.

Still, looking to a national campaign that is more than half a year away, there are more unknowns than certainties, and the political dynamics could still change for the worse for Trudeau’s Liberals.

No one, for instance, is taking for granted that Jagmeet Singh will still be leading the NDP by the time the general election comes around next fall.

Even as Singh prepares to campaign for a B.C. seat in a byelection early next year, more and more New Democrats are musing about his abdication, followed by the quick coronation of someone who can save the party’s furniture next fall.

The anybody-but-Singh movement has gathered much steam within NDP ranks this fall.

In the event that the New Democrats do find a way to climb out of their current hole, the Liberal prospects of a second majority mandate could diminish greatly.

Meanwhile, the issues that will dominate next year’s election conversation are still very much in flux.

Only a few months ago, NAFTA’s future looked like it was going to loom large in the federal campaign. But ever since a tentative tripartite agreement was struck with the U.S. and Mexico, the issue has largely dropped from the radar.

Over the fall sitting of Parliament, the Conservatives and the Liberals drew battle lines over the imminent introduction of a federal carbon tax in the provinces, such as Ontario, that have not put in place equivalent carbon-pricing measures.

The tax is to be offset by individual refunds. The Liberals believe that will blunt its potential negative impact on their electoral fortunes.

It will take at least a few months and most likely until the summer to get a fix on whether the carbon tax really has the makings of the ballot-box issue the Conservatives are hoping to bank on next fall.

In contrast with many of its European allies and the U.S., Canada has so far been spared a divisive election battle over immigration. Many expect that to end with the 2019 campaign.

But in Quebec, where the issue did surface in the recent provincial election, the debate took an unexpected twist with the focus shifting from cultural unease over a steady influx of newcomers to the latter’s much-needed contribution to resolving the labour shortages that attend the aging of the province’s population.

At year’s end, one of the more striking features of the geopolitical environment is how much lonelier Canada’s position in the world has become over the past three years.

For the most part, that is the result of events beyond the control of the prime minister.

Major partners like France, the United Kingdom and the U.S., which used to have Canada’s back on the world stage, are all plagued with crippling governance dysfunctions.

How the deteriorating international dynamics and their undeniable impact on Canada will play out, if at all, in next fall’s federal choices remains to be seen.

A word in closing on the past year’s big provincial developments.

When historians look back on Canada’s political year, the recasting of Quebec’s political scene will likely stand out as the watershed event of 2018.

It will take some time to know whether the Coalition Avenir Québec victory really is the epilogue in the existential Quebec debate over the province’s future that has spanned more than 40 years. One way or another though, Oct. 1 is a political moment worth bookmarking.

That being said, if one were to measure the significance of an electoral outcome on the scale of the social disruptions it heralds, one would pick the victory by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in Ontario over François Legault’s breakthrough.

In little more than six months, the current government at Queen’s Park has set back the clock on fronts ranging from the protection of the environment to the treatment of the province’s French-language minority and the governance of Canada’s largest city. Ontario’s less than rosy fiscal situation suggests that the real heavy lifting is yet to come.

Here is a year-end prediction: In four years’ time Quebec will have been less transformed by the CAQ than Ontario by Fordism.

Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert

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