After almost six weeks of campaigning, we’re finally here: Election Day 2019! Let’s take a moment to look back on the key moments, policies, and ridings of this election to understand how we got here, and give context for today’s election results.
1. Polling Trend Lines and Key Moments
Despite some headline-making moments, a new poll from 338 Canada shows that vote intention has remained relatively stagnant throughout the election and has only recently shown some dynamic changes. The Liberals and Conservatives have been neck-and-neck for most of the election, aside from a few days here and there caused by stories like the Ethics Commissioners Report, an unearthed 2005 video featuring Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer decrying same-sex marriage, and a series of images that show Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing brownface. While each of these headline-grabbing moments were shocking, the polling impact was consistently short-term.
The greatest long-term impact in polling trend lines has come from the two official debates and the TVA debate. The debates gave the NDP a bump due to a shining performance from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who was widely applauded as the most confident, comfortable, and likeable candidate on the stage. In an election defined by relative voter stability, the NDP has seen some of the most turbulent polling trends over the past year: Singh seemed to break onto the scene following the NDP leadership race, but his star faded following several months of “lackluster leadership.” However, Singh’s response to Trudeau’s brownface photos and his strong debate performances have branded him as “the most authentic” leader in the minds of voters, which has given his party a much-needed boost.
Similarly, with two nationally-broadcasted French-language debates, the Bloc Québécois also received far greater attention than it had seen to that point and the party capitalized on its opportunity to win over Quebec voters. With declining support for the Conservatives following the two French-language debates, the Bloc have surged and are now two points away from the Liberals, who cling to first place in the province. Many analysts criticized the debate format — particularly its 20-second response time — as a poor metric for governance, and noted that the two French-language debates (compared to only one English-language debate) gave the Bloc a disproportionate advantage. It is also worth noting that the debate breakdown seemingly positioned Quebec affairs atop of the election agenda, thereby placing a disproportionate share of this election’s attention onto Quebec in comparison to all other provinces. The polling trends seem to concur.
This late-stage surge in support for both the NDP and the Bloc have had major consequences on the political landscape as a whole. Much of the increased support for these two parties have come from progressive voters who were likely to have otherwise supported the Liberals. This progressive split has been the Liberal Party’s greatest threat in this election, and informed the LPC’s strategy of positioning this as a two-party election in which the Liberals are the only party that can beat the Conservatives.
While the NDP and Bloc gained in support, the Liberals dipped. And, as of Thanksgiving Weekend, the Conservatives were polling in first for the very first time since the official election period began.
With many Canadians feeling uninspired and resigned during this federal election, the key to victory for each party is to mobilize their base with Get Out The Vote (GOTV) tactics. We have already seen some success with GOTV in advance polling, with 4.7 million Canadians voting during advance polling (a 29% increase in advance polling compared to 2015, partly thanks to an Elections Canada mandate to increase voter participation). Tight exit polling between the Liberals and Conservatives (a Mainstreet tracking poll showed that the Liberals and Conservatives were tracking at 35% and 34.1% respectively) agree with the overall polling trend lines: this election is going to be tight.
2. Key Policy Priorities and the Voters Who Care About Them
According to the Angus Reid Institute, the number one issue for the majority of Canadians is climate change, particularly for swing and progressive voters. After climate change, top issues for Canadians are affordability and the cost of living, as well as healthcare. Unlike climate change – which ranks as a first priority issue for progressive voters but is significantly less valued from conservative voters – affordability and healthcare are issues that concern Canadians across the political spectrum.
In this policy discussion, it is also worth noting that Bloc Québécois leader, Yves-François Blanche, has had a unique role to play in representing a regional party. As a party not looking to form Government, his pitch is that electing Bloc MPs is how Quebecers can ensure their provincial interests are represented at the federal level. Mr. Blanchet (as well as Mr. Scheer) has stated that the Bloc will fight for the priorities outlined by Quebec Premier, Francois Legault’s election priorities:
1. Greater independence for the province on immigration affairs;
2. Commitment not to participate in any legal challenge to Bill 21;
3. Subjecting businesses under federal jurisdiction to the Charter of the French language (Bill 101); and,
4. Implementing a single income tax managed by the province.
Overall, each party has promised boutique tax cuts and spending programs that appeal to smaller and smaller segments of voters, with fewer sweeping universal policies. We can interpret these boutique spending programs as tactics aimed at incentivizing narrow segments of voters, in the hopes that at least one program will get these voters to the polls today.
As a top issue for progressives (Liberals, NDP, and Green) but a low-ranking policy priority for small-c conservatives, climate change is the most divisive issue in this election. While the Conservatives have proposed their own climate change platform and are not trying to appeal to climate change voters, this voter segment is hotly sought-after by the Liberals, NDP, and Greens.
The Liberals’ pledge is focused on feasibility in the short-term and ambition in the long-term, promising to meet the 2030 target and legislate a 2050 carbon neutrality target with mandatory reductions every five years. Liberals would plant two billion trees by 2030, invest $720 million to support transit and transport electrification, cut the corporate tax of net-zero emissions tech companies by half, and invest all the tax revenues resulting from the Trans Mountain pipeline into green and clean technology initiatives. Liberals would also continue ongoing plans to introduce a clean fuel standard, a national offset system, and a revamp of CEPA regulations.
Conservatives put forward a $2.5 billion climate strategy that involves repealing the carbon tax and instead installing a similar mechanism that disburses funds directly through an arms-length agency. The Conservatives would also take the climate change fight global by incentivizing exports of carbon capture technologies to major polluters around the world. The Conservatives have also promised that, within the first 100 days in Government, they would prioritize introducing a green home renovations tax credit and a green public transit tax credit. The CPC plan makes no mention of carbon emission targets, although it can be assumed that they will work towards Canada’s current 2030 targets which were made by former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
On climate change, as we’ve seen with many policy areas, the NDP and Greens have both put together ambitious but perhaps less feasible proposals. The NDP does not commit to new emissions targets, but it does make ambitious promises, such as pledging to establish a $3.5 billion Climate Bank to boost investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and low carbon technology. The NDP has also promised to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and redirect funds to low-carbon initiatives, and allocate $1.5 billion each year to green transit and transportation projects. They would power Canada with net carbon-free electricity by 2030 and move to 100% non-emitting electricity by 2050. Notably, the NDP’s six policy priorities (announced in the context of a potential minority government) includes a pledge to fight climate change by ending oil subsidies, helping workers transition away from the fossil fuel jobs, and committing to science-based emissions targets.
The Greens pledge to reduce 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. To do so, they have pledged to retrofit every building in Canada by 2030, impose a moratorium on new pipelines, ban tar sand extraction by 2030, and create a fund to invest billions on the green economy transition.
Affordability and the Cost of Living
Abacus Data ranks the cost of living as the top issue in this election across the partisan divide, and each party is pitching competing messages around affordability.
Liberals look to make life more affordable through tax cuts and federal spending on subsidies under areas like housing and childcare. They have pledged to make the first $15,000 of income tax-free, make parental benefits tax-free, eliminate federal taxes from employment insurance for parental leave, increase the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) by 15% for children under one years old, and add up to 250,000 new childcare spaces for before and after school. On housing, Liberals would introduce a federal vacancy and speculation tax on non-residents (1% annually) and increase the maximum home value eligible for the First Time Home Buyer Incentive from $500K to $800K. Liberals would build 100,000 affordable homes over a decade. On education, the Liberals would also make student loans interest-free for two years after graduation and have promised that graduates would not have to pay back any portion of their loans until they earn over $35,000 annually.
For right-leaning voters, fiscal issues like personal taxation and the federal deficit are top of mind. To mobilize their base and attract undecideds, the Conservatives have promoted a series of tax breaks and tax cuts to support those Canadians who, despite high employment levels, still feel like they can’t get ahead. The Conservative Party’s slogan speaks directly to this concern, telling potential voters “it’s time for you to get ahead.” The Conservatives promise to lower the tax rate on taxable income under $47,630 to 13.75% (currently at 15%). They pledge to reinstate the children’s fitness tax and children’s arts tax to help offset the costs of after-school programs for families. They would implement an old age tax credit, a federal disability tax credit, and eliminating GST from home heating and energy bills. On housing, the party would raise amortization limits to 30 years for CMHC-backed mortgages and change the mortgage “stress test” for first-time buyers. On education, Conservatives pledged to boost the Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) from 20% to 30% for every dollar invested up to $2,500 a year, to a maximum of $750 a year, and would create a post-school jobs program to help international students stay in Canada.
The NDP take a similar approach to the Liberals, but with more ambitious spending programs on housing, childcare, and labour rights. The NDP would spend $5 billion to build 500,000 affordable homes and allocate $125 million each year to removing GST from the construction of new rental units. On labour rights, they would ensure part-time and contract workers are compensated equally to full-time workers, establish a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour, and ban unpaid internships outside of education programs. The NDP would also spend $10 billion over the next four years to create 500,000 new child-care spaces. The NDP would place a price cap on cellphone and internet bills to make sure Canadians are not paying more than the global average price for these services.
The Greens, lastly, have made big spending promises that serve to improve affordability in areas like housing, education, and childcare. On housing, the Greens would increase the Canada Housing Benefit by $750 million for rent assistance for 125,000 households a year and establish a tax incentive for purpose-built rental housing at a cost of $700 million a year. On education, the Greens have promised to eliminate all tuition fees by offering $10 billion in post-secondary and trade school support to make post-secondary education accessible to more Canadians. The Greens have also promised to forgive the portion of existing student debt that is held by the federal government, which would cost between $9 billion and $16 billion per year. The Greens would introduce universal childcare, which would cost $1 billion in the first year, rising to $5 billion by year five.
Even though healthcare is a top issue for Canadians across the political spectrum, this policy area has not received the same level of attention on the campaign trail or during the debates.
Liberals continue their pledge to introduce pharmacare, in which the federal government would provide $6 billion as a “down payment” to the provinces over the next four years, but Trudeau acknowledged that a re-elected Liberal government would need to negotiate with the provinces on this pharmacare plan. As a first step to their pharmacare plan, the Liberals pledged to create the Canadian Drug Agency (and its according Canadian Drug Agency Transition Office) to assess the effectiveness of new drugs and negotiate a process on behalf of Canada’s drug plans to ultimately develop a national formulary.
Conservatives commit to spending $1.5 billion to buy new medical imaging equipment for facilities across Canada in order to reduce wait times and have promised to increase the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) by at least 3%, which provides long-term healthcare funding to the provinces and territories. The Party has criticized the cost of a national pharmacare plan, instead promising to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and address the gaps that make these drugs (especially those used to treat rare diseases) unaffordable for some Canadians.
The NDP has pledged to expand healthcare to include mental health, dental, vision, and hearing coverage. The New Democrats would implement a universal single-payer pharmacare program costing $10 billion a year. It would work with the provinces to tackle wait times and improve access to primary care and lead a National Seniors Strategy to make seniors health care a priority. The NDP and the Greens have both promised more equal access to gender-confirming surgeries and related medications.
As with many of their platform promises, the Greens’ commitments on healthcare are some of the costliest platforms out of the major parties. They pledged to restore the federal/provincial Health Accord basing health transfers on demographics and real health care needs in each province. Furthermore, they would expand the single-payer Medicare model to include a universal pharmacare plan as well as free dental care for low-income Canadians (totaling at $27 billion for year one). The Greens have also promised to tackle the “serious health threats” posed by pollution and toxic chemicals, and have pledged to pass legislation that guarantees Canadians the “right to a healthy environment.”
3. Ridings to Watch
As we have analyzed before, the real battles on Election Day will take place in mostly suburban ridings in Ontario, Quebec, and BC.
In the 905, the Liberals and Conservatives are neck-and-neck, with each poll saying a different party has the lead. Analysts point to the 905 as the gateway to government: if the Liberals win only a minority, or if the Liberals lose outright, it will likely be because of losses in the 905 where residents are increasingly concerned over the “soaring cost of living” alongside issues like transit, public safety, and healthcare. A simple drive through the area shows the red-and-blue battle of lawn signs, manifesting how tight these races will be in ridings like Richmond Hill, Markham-Stouffville, and Mississauga-Lakeshore.
In Quebec, the Bloc have surged in the polls thanks to strong debate performances by Blanchet, and are leaching support from the Liberals and the Conservatives who were hoping to pick up the NDP-incumbent seats in order to win a majority. Despite a turbulent leadership race and winning only 10 seats in the 2015 election, the Bloc is creating headaches for every party in Quebec and is on pace to win 35+ seats.
These political headaches manifest in ridings like Abitibi–Témiscamingue, Beloeil–Chambly, and Trois-Rivières ridings, where the Liberals and Conservatives are running strong candidates with local appeal, but who are now in the Bloc’s dust. In Trois-Rivières, both the LPC and CPC are running strong candidates (city councillor Valérie Renaud-Martin and former mayor Yves Lévesque, respectively), but former sovereigntist Louise Charbonneau is polling in first for the Bloc, due in part to a promise that she, like the Bloc, will do what is “best for Quebec … [without] compromise,” including fighting climate change. The Bloc has not only gained support among rural Francophones and suburban Francophones in progressive ridings around the island of Montreal, but also in Conservative ridings around Quebec City, like Beauport-Limoilou, Beauport-Côte-de-Beaupré-Île d'Orléans-Charlevoix, and Montmagny–L'Islet–Kamouraska–Rivière-du-Loup.
Interestingly, Quebec is second only to Ontario as the province with the highest proportion of undecided voters in the country.
In BC, the Conservatives have been gaining in the polls over the past few weeks, especially as progressive voters have leaned away from the Liberals and instead toward the NDP. The competition will be fierce. The 7 ridings on Vancouver Island and in Victoria are mostly toss-ups between the NDP and the Greens. Nearly every riding in the Greater Vancouver Area is a three-way race between the Liberals (currently leading overall in these ridings), the Conservatives, and the Greens. Especially in battleground ridings like Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam and Cloverdale-Langley, we can expect to see the Conservatives “pump up the NDP’s tires,” as Vassy Kapelos wrote, in an attempt to split the progressive vote between the LPC and NDP. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are likely to hold onto their seats in Northern BC and gain seats in Eastern BC and in the Rockies.
4. Implications and Conclusions
So, what’s this election about? It’s hard to say, because no over-arching narrative or ballot-box question has emerged. While 2015 was a referendum on Harper’s decade in power and saw Justin Trudeau emerge as a political superstar, the 2019 election has failed to capture the attention of voters, leaving many Canadians feeling resigned at the ballot box.
We can forgive voters for not feeling particularly mobilized by any one party. Each party has, at some point during this election, blurred the lines with another party’s platform – at least in a superficial sense. Both the Conservatives and the Bloc have committed to delivering on Quebec Premier François Legault’s demands for greater autonomy on issues like immigration and taxes, as well as committing not to interfere on the controversial Bill 21. Likewise, the Liberals, NDP, and Greens have all promised a version of a pharmacare plan (but at vastly different price points) and to support a carbon tax (but with a range of emissions targets). All the major parties have appealed to middle-income Canadian families with tax credits or spending plans aimed at making childcare more affordable: the three progressive parties have proposed expanded childcare programs, while the Conservatives pledged to maintain and increase social transfer payments by at least 3% every year to support provinces and territories financing childcare and early learning.
Ultimately, voters are likely to only see the headlines of party platforms, and – given their lack of enthusiasm for this year’s election – may be less likely to learn the differentiating details.
We can see this lack of enthusiasm in the polls: neither the Liberals nor Conservatives have gotten past 36% in the polls since the election period began. Chances of a majority Government at this point are almost null: under the existing scenario the party with the most seats will likely win by less than 10 or even 5 seats. Prospects of a minority government — a coalition of common interests — is the most likely scenario. Whether it is between Liberals and NDP, Conservatives and Bloc, or Liberals, NDP, and Greens will depend largely on which of the two major parties lands the most seats and how many more it needs to reach the magic number of 170: half of all seats plus one.
Voters could be excused for shrugging off this election. But as we see political parties incapable of compromise in countries like the US and Britain, perhaps a formal or informal coalition – forcing our parties to work together – is what Canadians need. With BC results set to come in at 10pm tonight, only one thing is for certain: we’re looking at a long night.