Looming election reminiscent of 1972 race that elected minority government and no one knew who won for weeks

On election night in 1972, it looked as if the two main parties, the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives, were in a dead heat — and both were ready to govern.

Liberals, PCs were virtually tied for seats after votes were counted

Liberal Leader Pierre Trudeau, left, and his wife Margaret, carrying son Justin, are checked by returning officers to cast their federal election ballots in Ottawa on Oct. 30, 1972. (Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press)

To say election night on Oct. 30, 1972, was exciting would be an understatement.

And according to Lloyd Robertson, who hosted CBC's election night coverage that year, this year's campaign has been reminiscent of the 1972 race.

"This current 2019 campaign strikes an easy comparison to 1972 when Justin Trudeau's father, Pierre, fell far short of forming a majority government when Robert Stanfield's Progressive Conservatives came close to toppling him from power after Trudeau the elder had swept the country in 1968," Robertson wrote in a recent column.

With four days until the election, the CBC poll tracker was forecasting that a Liberal minority was more likely than a Conservative minority, but that neither party was likely to claim a majority.

"Then, as now, Canadians had become disillusioned with their Liberal leader but weren't quite ready to rush to the side of the uncharismatic but worthy Stanfield," Robertson said.

Tight election night in 1972


48 years ago
As CBC wraps its coverage for the night, the Liberals and Conservatives are virtually tied. 1:53

As Robertson reported in 1972, just before signing off from a CBC News special called Decision Canada, the NDP under David Lewis was elected or leading in 32 seats, while the Social Credit party had won 15 seats, all in Quebec. But it was the results for the two leading parties that made the election a real nail-biter. 

As indicated by a colourful computerized board behind Robertson, the Liberals led by Pierre Trudeau had won 108 seats, and the Progressive Conservatives under Stanfield were proclaimed to have taken 107 seats.

"Our national standings boards indicate that's as far as we can go for the moment, anyway," Robertson said at the time.

That would mean a minority government — and parliamentary correspondent Ron Collister told Robertson that Trudeau wasn't much in favour of them.  

"I interviewed him on the plane just a few days before the end of the campaign," the reporter said. "What he was saying ... is minority governments don't work."

Furthermore, Collister described Trudeau's disdain for the series of minority governments Canada had previously endured and the "irrational concessions that were made to the provinces" under those governments.

"So that's Mr. Trudeau's view of minority governments, and now he himself is faced with one."  

'As close as you can come to a draw' 

Who will lead in 1972?


48 years ago
A tie in the seat count means there will be a minority government, but it's uncertain whether Pierre Trudeau will step down. 2:57

The next day, CBC News reported that the seat count had changed but nothing had been settled.

"The long count is over, and it's about as close as you can come to a draw: 109 to 108," said Robertson, in a post-election special.

Stanfield's party held the count of 109, and at a news conference he had said he was waiting to see what happened.

"I'm not entitled to assume the prime minister will resign," Stanfield said. "I have to recognize that constitutionally, he can wait to face Parliament."

But he said it was clear that Trudeau had lost the confidence of the electorate.

'An uncertain time'

Progressive Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield solemnly watches election returns on television at his campaign headquarters in Halifax on Oct. 30, 1972. (Chuck Mitchell/The Canadian Press)

According to reporter Collister, it was the fifth minority government in seven elections.

"It's an uncertain time in the history of Canada," he said. "We have a constitutional crisis, and we'll hear more about that later in the program."

In the meantime, Collister had film of Trudeau's remarks a few days earlier about minority governments.

"I don't know the events of the future, but I do know that if we hadn't had a strong government … at the time of the FLQ crisis … I'd rather pity the situation that Canada would be in," Trudeau said.

He also looked unfavourably on minorities of the past.

"The governments couldn't pass their own revenue measures, [and] were forced by opposition parties to go toward spending schemes which set us on a course of inflation which just about destroyed our dollar," Trudeau said.   

'The universe is unfolding as it should'

'The universe is unfolding as it should'


48 years ago
Pierre Trudeau thanks those who voted for him and his party in 1972. 1:29

The day after the election, Trudeau visited the Governor General. According to the Globe and Mail on Nov. 1, 1972, he had done so "as a courtesy" to outline plans, which was to meet his cabinet that day and then "make a statement on the outcome of the election." 

At his own news conference that day, CBC News recorded Trudeau thanking his supporters and expressing regrets for candidates who had lost.

He gave no sign of his own plans to govern, but seemed to be confident he was on the right course. 

Decked in a buckskin jacket, Trudeau leaves his office in Ottawa following consultations with aides and advisers. His press office said he would hold a cabinet meeting Wednesday, perhaps to decide the fate of his government, rocked by heavy losses in Monday's federal election. (Russell Mant/The Canadian Press)

"Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should," he said, quoting from the 1927 Max Ehrmann poem Desiderata.

As the Globe and Mail reported, "Nothing … compels him to leave office. He could meet Parliament and continue to govern until defeated in the House of Commons."

On Nov. 18, 1972, after three judicial recounts, the newspaper reported a final seat tally of Liberals 109; PCs 107; NDP 31; Social Credit 15; and two independents.

The Liberals carried on in office for 19 months, "propped up by the NDP," as Robertson wrote in his column earlier this month. They were defeated in the House on an NDP motion of non-confidence after introducing a budget in May 1974.

In the election that followed, on July 8, 1974, the Liberals won a majority.


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