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The 2019 Federal Election: Implications for Climate Change and the Environment.

October 22, 2019

For something that was described as being about "nothing" Monday’s election turned out to be about quite a lot where climate change policy and the environment were concerned.

The outcome might be best described for Justine Trudeau’s Liberals as the better than expected, given the impact of the SNC Lavalin scandal and blackface/brownface controversies.

The Liberals lost five seats in Québec to the resurgent Bloc Québécois. Perhaps more seriously they were wiped off the electoral map in Alberta and Saskatchewan, despite their politically costly support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project and late-mandate pull-back on the application of the revised federal environmental assessment legislation (Bill C-69) to the oil and gas, mining and other natural resource industries.

Ontario Strategic Voting saves Liberals

The Liberals' salvation came principally from Ontario, where voters made last-minute decisions to back Justin Trudeau's government and block a potential Conservative victory. Those choices came in part at the expense of the NDP and to a lesser extent the Greens, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area.

The resulting electoral map looks surprisingly similar to the outcome of the 2014 provincial election. The Liberals and NDP split northern Ontario and the cities and towns in the south, while the Conservatives were left with their traditional southern and central rural Ontario base.  Among other things, the outcome reinforces the argument that Ontario Premier Doug Ford's 2018 election victory was an aberration - one that Ontario voters didn't want to risk repeating at the federal level.

Conservatives unable to grow beyond their base

For Andrew Scheer's Conservatives, there were small gains in the Maritimes, and near total victories in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The party was also buoyed by the demise of Maxime Bernier and his right-wing People's Party of Canada.

Although the Conservatives have tried to portray their 23-seat gain and marginal victory over the Liberals in total popular vote as a major advance, it masks serious problems for the party.The reality is that, even in the face of a troubled Liberal government, two thirds of the electorate rejected the Conservatives' agenda of inaction on climate change, doubling down on resource commodity exports, and tax cuts — with major cuts to programs to pay for them.  The result reinforced the view that the party is unable to grow beyond its western Canadian and rural bases with its current policy focus and leadership.

NDP holds balance of power

For the New Democrats the outcome is a mixture of good and bad news. The party lost 18 seats, mostly to the Bloc in Québec. Its hopes for growth in Ontario in the face of the Liberal's mixed performance in government, were also dashed, even in traditional urban strongholds, by the last-minute strategic movement of progressive voters to the Liberals. At the same time, the party emerged with enough members elected to hold the balance of power for Mr.Trudeau's minority government, giving it considerably more leverage than before the election.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has already signalled that further action on climate change will be part of his agenda, although it is unclear what specific additional measures he will seek. Mr.Singh has also been somewhat ambiguous on the future of the Trans Mountain Pipeline project, a potential show-stopper for an NDP-Liberal alliance.

The Bloc wildcard

Yves-François Blanchet's Bloc Québécois did far better than expected at the beginning of the campaign taking seats from the Liberals, New Democrats, Conservatives and People's Party. However the strength of the Liberal's performance, in combination with that of the NDP, means that the awkward situation of the Bloc holding the balance of power in a minority Parliament has been avoided. What role the Bloc will now play remains an open question. The party's sovereigntist orientation seems on hold for the time being. Climate change is almost certain to remain a central theme for the party, but the Bloc's focus beyond that is unknown, other than to press what it, and Premier Legault's ADQ Quebec government, perceive as Quebec's interests, wherever it can.

What next for the Greens?

The outcome offers a complicated landscape for the Greens as well. On the one hand, at nearly 1.2 million votes, they obtained the highest absolute popular vote in the Party's history, although falling short of their 2006 high in popular vote percentage. The Greens' vote, being widely distributed across Canada, is notoriously inefficient at translating votes into seats. That reality was born out again in last night's election of a total of three members - the party's best election night performance ever - but not even enough for party status in the House of Commons.

The Liberal and NDP seat totals mean that the Greens do not hold a balance of power in the minority House of Commons, as they currently do in British Columbia. That means that their direct influence on Mr.Trudeau's minority government will remain limited.

The Greens however, can claim success in other ways. Their consistent polling numbers in the 10 per cent range leading up to and during the campaign forced the other progressive parties, particularly the Liberals and NDP, to shore up the environment and climate change dimensions of their platforms to avoid losing potential voters to the Greens.

The Green's presence in the election, and particularly leader Elizabeth May's role in the leaders' debates was instrumental in keeping climate change and environmental issues in the forefront of the campaign. Some, including Ms.May, argue that outcome is more important that seat counts. It may also be, under Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system, the best the Greens can hope for, for the time being.

In the end the Justin Trudeau's Liberals owe progressive voters a very large debt for their survival on Monday night. If they want to hold on to those voters, they will now have to deliver on climate change, social justice, indigenous reconciliation and a host of other issues, over term of their new government. Otherwise, the Liberals could find themselves in serious trouble next time they have to face the electorate. That could be particularly the case if the Conservatives come to the realization that they must move beyond their own drift into a right-wing western and rural grievance party, and can offer a more moderate and less ‘anything but Conservative’ strategic vote-inducing alternative to the Liberals.