How the Liberals took down the Tories

Canada’s 42nd election was a triumph on a scale no sensible pundit or pollster could have predicted

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau is accompanied by his wife Sophie Gregoire as he arrives to give his victory speech after Canada's federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau is accompanied by his wife Sophie Gregoire as he arrives to give his victory speech after Canada’s federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Nothing like this was supposed to be in the campaign cards. Touted from the outset as the closest race ever among the three main federal parties, an up-for-grabs contest bound to result in a minority government, Canada’s 42nd general election turned into a Liberal triumph on a scale no sensible pollster or pundit would have dared predict. Justin Trudeau will now become Canada’s 23rd prime minister, leading an unexpected majority government.

For Stephen Harper, all hope vanished on the battleground where he secured his surprise 2011 Conservative majority—and where Tory strategists had banked on him again dominating in 2015—the great massing of 55 ridings in and, especially, around Toronto. And so the driving force behind the deal to unite the fractured Canadian right in 2003 leaves the Tory leadership after nearly a decade as Prime Minister.

As election results rolled in from east to west, sizeable Liberal gains that had been widely predicted on the East Coast turned into an outright sweep, as the party won all 32 Atlantic province ridings. It was a harbinger. In Quebec, the Liberals made strides beyond any mainstream forecast. But only when the votes were tallied in Toronto, and its surrounding suburbs, was it finally undeniable that Tory losses would be much too severe, and Liberal victories far too abundant, for Harper to imagine clinging to power.

It was left to voters across the Prairies and British Columbia to convert what was already at least a solid Liberal minority win into a resounding majority. Justin Trudeau will become prime minister, as his father Pierre Trudeau was before him, with Liberal MPs occupying, according to the count in the early morning hours, at least 184 of the 338 seats in the newly expanded House of Commons.

It was in Toronto, way back on Aug. 4, that Harper announced his first key promise of the campaign: a 15 per cent tax credit on home renovations between $1,000 and $5,000. He did it at a tile store in Eglinton–Lawrence, the riding held by Joe Oliver, his finance minister. Eleven weeks later, Oliver was unseated by a Liberal, along with a raft of other Toronto-area Tory and NDP incumbents, and nobody remembered that reno tax break.

Yet offering homeowners money for fixing up their houses looked, at first, like a classic Harper-era Conservative gambit. A succinct policy message, easily understood, aimed at the self-interested heart of the voting middle-class. In 2015, though, with about 60 per cent of Canadians telling pollsters they were hungering for change, the familiar Tory reliance on niche pocketbook policy offerings utterly failed to work its old magic.

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau prepares to give his victory speech after Canada's federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau prepares to give his victory speech after Canada’s federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Even less fruitful was Harper’s mid-campaign bid to shift the debate to identity issues, especially his government’s polarizing policies on banning the niqab from citizenship ceremonies and stripping the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism.

Trudeau stoutly opposed Harper on both these values-laden issues. The popular verdict? A poll late in the campaign by Abacus Data for Maclean’s found that those voters most concerned about their government’s values were more than twice as likely to support the Liberals as the Tories.

More broadly, however, Trudeau ran on the catch-all slogan “Real change now.” After nearly a decade of the Harper government, voters evidently liked the sound of that. Voters knocked the Michael Ignatieff-led Grits down to a humiliating third place in 2011; they lifted Trudeau’s overhauled Liberals back to the party’s accustomed 20th-century position of dominance.

Reduced to about 102 MPs, the Conservatives now enter a difficult rebuilding phase, without Harper. Although he didn’t mention his resignation in his election-night speech, his party announced that a leadership contest is on the way. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who started the campaign with the polling lead, and perhaps ran too cautiously to hold it, saw his party relegated, with only about 42 MPs, to its traditional position trailing the Liberals and Tories.

In his first national campaign as leader, Trudeau’s performance was almost impossible to fault. He ran on a carefully calibrated Liberal platform, which promised a middle-income tax break (offset by a hike on earnings over $200,000); bigger federal support cheques to most parents; and three years of deficit spending to inject vigour into a listless economy.

His assertive, expectation-exceeding performances through five televised debates—starting Aug. 6 at one hosted by Maclean’s in Toronto—made the tag line from the Tory attack ads—“Justin Trudeau is just not ready”—ring hollow.

His rallies rocked. His stump speech delivery steadily improved. His athletic good looks made him appear even younger than his 43 years. At six foot two, he often gave the impression he was floating just above the adoring throngs, providing the Liberal machine with a steady stream of compelling footage from the hustings to edit into YouTube videos and TV ads. But no image will be as indelible as the one he created while delivering his victory speech in Montreal.

“Canadians chose change—real change,” he told an ecstatic partisan crowd, his voice finally grown hoarse after 78 days of tireless campaigning. “This is what positive politics can do. This is what a positive, hopeful vision and a platform and a team can make happen.”

In Calgary, his adopted hometown, Harper had to hope his concession speech would begin to dispel the bad odour of late-campaign desperation ploys, especially his appearances at two Toronto campaign events with Rob Ford, the city’s internationally ridiculed former mayor.

“The people of Canada have elected a Liberal government, a result that we accept without hesitation,” he said. But Harper also spoke of his pride in the Conservative policy record, especially on the economy and foreign affairs. And, perhaps alluding to the more controversial parts of his campaign, he declared: “We gave everything we have to give and we have no regrets whatsoever.”

For Harper, federal politics has come full circle in a way that must feel almost cruelly ironic. He has written forcefully in the past about being first drawn as a young man to Conservative politics by anger over the policies—especially the National Energy Program—and political style of Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father.

Mulcair didn’t lapse in the campaign’s late stages into the sort of dubious tactics Harper tried. Still, Trudeau’s relentless rise must have tested the famously intense NDP leader’s composure. His party led in the polls from Aug. 2, when Harper visited the Governor General at Rideau Hall to officially start the campaign, until Sept. 21, when the Liberals passed the NDP for good.

The real watershed in that contest arguably came between Aug. 25, when Mulcair promised that as prime minister he would balance the books, and Aug. 27, when Trudeau declared that he would run three years of deficits. That gamble paid off by allowing the Liberals to differentiate themselves to progressive voters as more willing than New Democrats to spend to usher in change.

In his concession speech in Montreal, Mulciar said Trudeau “made ambitious commitments to Canadians, and Canadians will have high expectations for the next Parliament.” Despite the NDP falling far back from the high-water mark it set in 2011 under the late Jack Layton, Mulcair cast the election as a sort of moral victory. “Canadians have turned the page,” he said, “on 10 long years, and have rejected the politics of fear and division.”

Beyond the decisive swing in Ontario, where the Liberals won a commanding 79 of 121 seats, the political map changed dramatically across the country. In Quebec, the Liberals won 48 of 78 ridings. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, they took nine, up from just two in 2011, of 28 seats in the two provinces. Trudeau will even have two MPs from Alberta, the Tory heartland, up from zilch. In B.C., Liberals took 17 of 42 seats. (All these totals were from Elections Canada around midnight, when they were still shifting slightly.)

Many major figures from the Tory and NDP ranks lost their seats. Bad news set in for the NDP when the party’s popular deputy leader, Megan Leslie, was defeated in Halifax. In Ontario, along with Joe Oliver falling, Chris Alexander, Harper’s hard-hitting citizenship minister, was beaten by Mark Holland, the Liberal he had ousted in 2011. As for the Liberals, among the many winners are only a few cabinet stalwarts of the old Jean Chretien and Paul Martin governments, but veteran John McCallum was re-elected near Toronto, along with Ralph Goodale in Saskatchewan.

A thorough changing of the guard is now in order in official Ottawa. Trudeau decided to enter politics in 2006 after he backed Toronto Liberal Gerard Kennedy’s failed bid for the party’s leadership. Among Trudeau’s top strategists are veterans of Kennedy’s team, experienced in Ontario provincial politics, but still quite young, notably Gerald Butts, 44, his ever-present best friend and top adviser, and Katie Telford, 37, his campaign chief. He thanked them both in his victory speech.

Exactly when Trudeau will reconvene the House is not yet clear. But he has said his first order of business will be to pass a bill to cut the tax rate on incomes of between $44,700 and $89,401, for a saving at tax time of up to $670.

One of his biggest promises hasn’t really received much attention: Trudeau vows to convene an all-party committee to review new ways of electing MPs, such as ranked ballots, on which voters would list their picks in order of preference, and proportional representation, which would guarantee parties a share of seats closer to their share of the popular vote.

Trudeau pledged that within 18 months, his government will get rid of the familiar “first past the post” system, in which all that matters is which candidate earns the most votes in each riding, and enact some sort of reform.

In other words, he vows that the very democratic mechanism that gave him his victory tonight, and handed Harper such a terrible defeat, will be no more. If he makes good on that promise, whatever else the election of 2015 was, it will go down, for Canadian voters, as the last of its kind.


How the Liberals took down the Tories

  1. But it WAS predicted. You just weren’t listening.

    It was never deadlocked or tied or in question….and there wasn’t the slightest hint of ‘Trudeaumania’

    Pollsters have been wrong for about 5 years now…..when are you going to stop listening to them?

      • No they weren’t. I watched them every day.

        • How you would know whether polls were accurate, regardless of watching them every day, because what would you be comparing them to? Did you talk every day with a representative sample of Canadians, say, 1000 people or so? I got a Nanos poll every day too, which shows a slow but steady rise of the Liberals for the entire election period, and a more rapid rise for the last 10 days. The Conservatives and NDP had a bit more complex movements. The 3-way “neck-on-neck” period lasted for about a week, and only looked that way if one didn’t check the longer-term trends; the NDP was already on the way down. It did look like it might become a Conservative win for a bit because the Conservatives were also on an upward trend by then, and had better numbers than the Liberals. That changed only in the last 10 days when they suddenly dipped.

          It makes sense that the closer we get to the election the closer the poll would get to the actual results, if the poll mechanism is reliable. Nanos’ last poll on Sunday turned out quite accurate, as does the last FORUM poll from the Wikipedia link provided above:


          Talking about how pollsters were wrong for 5 years makes no sense at all since there is no way to prove it one way or another because the only real numbers we have are the election results. The electorate does change its mind over time, as is obvious from the huge change between 2011 and yesterday, so of course polls are not steady. Clearly a lot of people who voted for Harper in 2011 changed their minds about him since. Undecided voters make up their minds in the last few days. Many voters might not tell a pollster how they actually end up voting because several years out from an election they might learn in a certain direction, but might not have decided for sure. Swing voters might shift depending on an issue that suddenly comes to the fore. Strategic voters tend to decide very late because they don’t actually want to vote strategically if it isn’t necessary. Some voters don’t tell pollsters the truth.

          During my lifetime polling has become amazingly accurate, as long as the pollster has integrity.

          I agree that I didn’t see much Trudeaumania here on Vancouver Island (which went NDP), but friends from Atlantic Canada talked about it, so it clearly did happen, I just wasn’t in touch with it. I think we might see more of it now because of that happy rainbows and sparkles speech.

          • Okay….focus. There was no Trudeaumania. I saw the original display Teenage girls chasing Pierre and screaming….like they did at the Beatles.

            I said months ago that short of accidentally blowing up New Brunswick, Justin would be PM People wanted Harper gone.

            I said the polls would go up and down for months……usually by the ‘margin of error….and keep doing that until the last moment when….kaboom…..the Libs hit the road running

            And that’s exactly what happened

            ‘National Newswatch’ even had several stories on the same page showing just that pretty much every day. Libs up by a point, Cons up by a point, NDP up by a poin…..tie, hung parliament….everybody down by a point.

            Canadians simply weren’t answering pollsters. Haven’t done for years.

            So in the end…..Justin won overwhelmingly

            It’s not hard to figure out if you know Canadians.

          • Well no.
            That the polls had the Libs, Cons and NDP at 1,2 and 3 with a good possibility of a Liberal majority may be contradicted by your imagination, but that doesn’t change reality.
            Sorry. Fantasy-based is out, evidence-based is in, I’m told.

      • Good for you.
        Unfortunately only the polls of the last day or two have a vote result to compare to, and those polls were fairly accurate.

  2. If he has no regrets whatsoever about this campaign, he really doesn’t have a conscience.

  3. Welcome to the real world Mr. Trudeau. This country, this world, is not all rainbows, lollipops and everyone getting along. Be careful, this world bites, it bites very hard.

    • You forgot ‘unicorns’. Cons always ssy that for some reason….’rainbows, lollipops and unicorns’

      • I only read these comments to see what absolute nonsence Emilyone can dream up. She is so negative and thinks she is one of the “smartest” people in Canada.
        what a BITCH

        • Oh now you’ve done it! You read the comments for Emily? Her head’s going to be so big she won’t be able to fit through the door!

    • For all of Harper’s warts, it astounds me that Ontarians can stew in the mess the Ontario Liberals have created and still vote Liberal at the Federal level. The World Bank has stated that if Ontario was a sovereign nation it would be viewed to be worse than Greece. In spite of his apparent love affair with Wynne, one can only hope that Trudeau has more honesty than Wynne and better advisers.

      • It astounds me that after the mess the provincial Tories created in Alberta, that Albertans still voted for the Cons.

      • You have no idea what you’re talking about. Financial analysts are noting that Wynne’s Ontario is relatively stable and generally headed in the right direction. You wouldn’t be a disgruntled Con, now would youy?

    • Thank you, seasoned old wise one. I’m sure young Justin will take your sage advice. Would you like to advise us as to who will win the world series?

  4. Most accurate pollster, Nanos. He had them almost dead on.

    • This is a sad day for Canada – despite all the moans about Harper he was a great Canadian leader who provided good government to this bifurcated country. Emily can chortle all she like but we now have a midget for prime minister. A mere echo of his daddy run by puppet strings from the old gang. .

        • Yes, the election is over and I didn’t lose, the country did. It was so obvious with the Gagnier issue that the old Liberal corruptionists were waiting in the wings.

          • The campaign is also over…..so you can quit with the partisan hokum.

          • Funny, I think the country won.
            So there you go

      • You always hope for some class in defeat – but I see comment after comment by posters like you who descend immediately into name calling – its sad.

        Harper could only be considered a great leader if he brought the country together. He used race based politics as a wedge issue to get votes, muzzled scientists and the free press, disdained evidence based policy, and created a voting act designed to suppress those who don’t vote Conservative. This is not the mark of a great leader.

        • I would hope that you believe the role of an elected leader is to align with his constituents desires. Since 80% of Canadians of all stripes agreed with the niqad issue, it’s hard to portray that as a “wedge” issue.
          For leadership look at his financial record verses the rest of the G7:
          -Created more jobs per capita than any of them following the near depression.
          -The first country in the G20 to achieve a balanced budget .
          -Canada’s middle class went from mid pack to the wealthiest over his tenure.
          We lost as Emily said (who really doesn’t understand how deep of a financial hole Ontario has dug) but it will turn out that all of Canada will lose under the man child. If you are old enough to remember, under his much brighter father, mortgage rates hit an all time high of 21%. That was a real treat!!

          • The role of an elected leader is to lead and move opinion – not kowtow to it. Especially to the darker side.

        • Public servants, and yes, even scientists who are employed by the public service have never not free to make comments without permission from the political authority, whether Lib, Con or NDP.

          And what is this race-based politics nonsense. In reply to the Quebec position about face coverings he merely said that they would have to look at it after the election. I agree that the face should not be covered when giving the oath of citizenship as do 80% of the population. And that is not a religious issue – the face coverings are a cultural issue, not a requirement of Islam.

          And the caution over which Syrian refugees should be admitted is just reasonable since that area is rife with ISIS and other jihadists. And what’s this about muzzling the free press – the press is always free except in wartime situations – and some those situations are semi-wartime.
          The only thing I can fault him for is his stance on marijuana. His stance on violent criminals and paying some attention to the victims rather than the criminal was long overdue, as was tightening up on the lax sentencing of violent criminals.
          And I agree that people who leave the country and do not pay taxes to Canada should not have a vote It had nothing to do with Con or not Con.

          • Obviously Canadians don’t agree with you.

          • And that is not a religious issue – the face coverings are a cultural issue, not a requirement of Islam.

            The SCC disagrees with you. The test of whether wearing a niqab is a religious issue is whether or not the individual sincerely believes it is. http://www.leaf.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/SCC-Judgement.pdf where the rule on individual belief expounded in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, 2004 SCC 47 is specifically applied to the niqab. It is a Charter right.

            Aside from the niqab issue, there was the “old stock” reference; the different classes of citizen created by C-24; the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and hotline… all hot buttons designed to turn Canadian against Canadian. So, yeah – plenty of bigotry and the politics of division.

      • The midget is outgoing:

        “Laureen and I entered public life because we believe that hardworking Canadians should keep more of the money they earn.”

        • The Koran merely says that Muslims must dress modestly. How many Muslim men do you see wearing bags over their heads. This was a tribal thing to suppress women.

          • As much as it might pain your authoritarian heart, you don’t actually get to tell people how to practice their religion.

      • This is great day for Canada and for our democracy. I am very happy to be one of 70% Canadians that voted for real change and to get our Canada back from “Harper’s Government”!
        I hope that you noticed that I did not say – Canadian Government.

        • Your man child got less of the popular vote (39.5%) than Harper did in the last election. Four years from now when Canada is in as poor shape as Ontario, you’ll change your tune. Unfortunately it will be a Conservative government which has to do all the hard work and clean up both Ontario and the Federal mess.

          • How do you know he voted for Trudeau? He just said he was one of the 70% that voted for change.

          • You know, Jerome, the only thing more relentless than a frustrated Con is a powerless and frustrated Con. I expect we’ll be seeing your aimless carping for months to come.

      • This is a great day for Canada. Harper was a massively divisive force in this country. His government was deceitful, arrogant, and an insult to democracy. Harper was an intellectual lightweight who spent his life hiding in his mommy’s basement formulating crackpot ideas. His hatred for Pierre Trudeau poisoned his entire outlook on life. Once a real political adversary confronted him, he folded like a dollar-store tent.

    • Spammer. If I want to read self-important wind-baggery, I turn to Macleans comments section. I don’t need links to even more of the same. Take your spamming somewhere else.

  5. Justin Trudeau got here by saying “yes” to everybody. Governing well is about saying “no” most of the time.

    1) The accumulation of government debt mostly only borrows economic growth from the future. In a crisis, this is a good thing to do. When there is no crisis, not so much.

    2) Fiscal discipline in Ottawa is the main reason Canadian interest rates have remained low. The lack of fiscal discipline in Ottawa will lead to rising interest rates will imperil all budgets, federal, provincial, and private in Canada. Only the United States can spend with impunity, because they are still (at least for awhile) the world’s reserve currency.

    3) A huge victory for Canada’s establishment, 1%’ers, oligarchs, banksters, who the Liberal Party really represent…not so much for the rest of us. The looting of Ontario by the elites that started with McGuinty and Wynne In Ontario goes national. Proximity to easy money is the prime driver of wealth inequality.

    4) The United States has had easy money since Greenspan replaced Volcker as head of the US Fed. Every President since Reagan, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush, 2, and Obama has endorsed easy money, and the financialization of the American economy over the real economy. This is the root cause of wealthy inequality. McGuinty and Wynne have adopted Clinton and Obama’s version of this, and Trudeau will bring Ontario’s version of US financialization (and subsequent rising wealth inequality) to Canada.

    5) Many of you are going to learn the lesson of “be careful what you wish for”.

    • It never ceases to amaze me when Conservative voters make ominous noises about Liberal fiscal discipline. The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (Harper’s old buddies!) prepared this handy chart: https://www.taxpayer.com/media/CoverStory24-27WEB.pdf

      You’ll notice modest deficits under Trudeau, sharply increasing under Mulroney, shrinking deficits (leading to surplus) under Chretien/Martin and a return to big deficits again under Harper.

      If you’re worried about fiscal discipline, you really shouldn’t be voting Conservative.

    • I am sorry that your guy lost badly by a young man “that is not ready, yet”. As election results show 70% Canadians decided that Harper has to go. This is democracy in action wheatear you like it or not.
      Get over it.

  6. The Conservatives missed the boat on key issues that Trudeau hopefully thinks about and is now in a position to tackle — things a future Tory leader better take into account.
    Now perhaps Canada will again– again — become a Peace Keeping nation rather than an aggressive Peace Making nation. Bravo.
    And perhaps it will again become an international environmental leader rather than the opposite. Bravo.
    And perhaps Canada will become an international technology leader rather than a start-up country whose tech industries are sold and will now remain Canadian. Bravo.

    • The liberals ended peacekeeping after the Somalia and Rwanda fiascos of 1993 and 1994, and with good reason. You might want to look into it sometime.

  7. Canada wanted a change. But after Harper
    started to talk like Trump regarding the niqab
    issue, that turned me against him even more.
    So it was either the Liberals or NDP. Tom
    Mulcair was against TPP, and he looked like
    another old, white guy lacking personality,
    so I went with the Liberals.

  8. Let’s hope this brings career’s end for Lynton Crosby, the opportunistic, carpet-bagging political fixer from Australia who, on the evidence, cooked up the odious anti-niqab and Barbaric Cultural Practices snitch line gambits.

  9. The more I look at this election the more it looks to me that the roles of the Liberals and the NDP got switch when you compare this election to the one in 2011 and the fact that the Conservatives went back to their base that was around 2004 (99 seats). The 2015 Liberals were able to capitalized more than the 2011 NDP for the simple fact that they had a history of governing at the federal level and therefore more people believe that they will do a good job if they got power in 2015. Mulcair played the part of Iggy when it came to this campaign while Trudeau played the part of Layton. The difference between the two was the Trudeau had the Liberal brand behind him and to an extent his father’s name to help him but I would say that Trudeau worked hard and proved and became likeable just like Layton did late in the 2011. Trudeau ran an amazing campaign that has brought the Liberal party to what seems to be their rightful place in Canada’s political landscape.

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