For Justin Trudeau, things will almost certainly get worse

Politics is about expectations, and Justin Trudeau lost because he did the worst job at managing those expectations, says Ken Boessenkool.

The next 18 months are going to make the last 18 months look like a picnic, says Ken Boessenkool

Leader Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters during the Liberal election night party in Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/CBC/Radio-Canada)

This column is an opinion from Ken Boessenkool. He was a senior campaign adviser to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and has worked or volunteered for Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, Jim Dinning, Ric McIver, and Christy Clark. He is not currently doing any political work in Alberta or elsewhere, paid or otherwise.

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Politics is about expectations, and Justin Trudeau lost because he did the worst job at managing those expectations. For months before the election, his people didn't argue about whether he would get a majority, only when. Pride goeth before a fall.

I think Trudeau's advisors failed to understand the nature of their public support for the past 18 months. 

It had less to do with support for Liberals, or enthusiasm for their leader, than it was a reflection of Canadians' desire for governments to be successful, matched with — for the most part — a pretty good track record at the federal level.

Every Canadian knew someone who may not have been able to put food on the table in 2020 were it not for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). And a large majority of Canadians are thankful for vaccine procurement and distribution. 

But misreading this as support to carry Justin Trudeau to his majority is on the Liberal leader and his coterie. They mistook the generosity of Canadians as their free pass. That deserves a harsh judgment. 

Winning a minority is losing when everyone thinks you should have got a majority.

But that's looking backward. What does this mean looking forward? 

A lot to think about

If Justin Trudeau couldn't find a way to get a majority under these conditions, will he ever? 

I see many long walks in the leaves this fall, as the Liberal leader ponders his future. And he has a lot to think about.

As do the other federal leaders — they didn't win because, well, none of them has a shot at becoming prime minister short of another election. 

True, they did all exceed expectations going into this campaign. They did so by holding the Liberals to a minority. The big question is: Will that be enough? 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his wife, Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu, arrive on stage to deliver his concession speech at his election night headquarters in Vancouver during the federal election. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Jagmeet Singh turned in an impressive performance. He got his second kick at the can, but he didn't move that can any farther down the road. He vowed on election night to keep on fighting. But his party is now well within its rights to say they want to go into the next fight with someone else. Politics is not baseball, you don't get three strikes.

Erin O'Toole also put in an impressive performance. The bulk of that performance happened prior to the election campaign. 

He found a sensible position on climate change with a credible carbon tax — the bare minimum needed to be competitive in the 905 region around Toronto. He managed key hot button issues so they wouldn't be the albatross they were for the previous leader. He moderated the party toward where the voters are.

This meant that he benefited from the Liberal misreading of the public mood. 

When the Liberals stumbled, he was able to step up. And he did step up. By mid-campaign all the momentum was his. But he didn't close the deal. He had some minor stumbles in the latter part of the campaign. 

More importantly, he didn't find a compelling reason for Canadians to vote for him. The critical 905 breakthrough proved elusive.

Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to supporters during the election night party in Oshawa, Ont. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

His only path to becoming prime minister is to survive as party leader into the next campaign. And he started down that path on election night when he doubled down on moderation. 

His speech, which was delivered to party members more than the public at large, was simple, direct and correct. 

He told party members he got his shot at being prime minister with a more moderate approach. And that he intends to continue that moderate approach for his second attempt.

He knows well that won't just be up to him. He will face first his caucus, and then his party. They will both review his leadership. I think he deserves a second shot. I have no doubts there will be those who don't.

O'Toole suggests Trudeau will call another election

2 years ago
Duration 1:09
Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole said in his concession speech Monday night that he anticipates Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will soon call another election since he did not get the majority he wanted.

Managing that challenge will be Erin O'Toole's preoccupation for the next year or so.

That will be enough time for Justin Trudeau to try to complete a number of key items in his agenda: childcare and climate change. 

But he may not get the chance to do even that.

I believe the next 18 months are going to be more difficult than the last 18 months. 

Stagflation and pandemic woes

The Liberals will face a number of pandemic and economic challenges far greater than the question of whether Trudeau stays.

I truly hope I am wrong about this, but I think we are closer to the middle of the pandemic than the end. And our economy is about to experience another pandemic-induced supply side shock that will rival the initial supply side shock of the pandemic.

Supply chains — the global path from raw materials to finished goods — are in disarray thanks to how the delta variant has infected the shipping industry. 

Prices are going to rise as goods become less plentiful. This will cause inflation, but not the type of inflation that the Bank of Canada can do anything about — raising interest rates or pumping less money into the economy will only make things worse. 

Inflation will not be due to too much money (which we can do something about) chasing too few goods, but rather too few goods (which we can't do anything about).

An employee prepares to place a component onto a printed circuit board. The global chip shortage is going from bad to worse, analysts say. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Millions of jobs around the world will go idle for lack of materials. You can't build new cars without microchips. Factories are already shutting down for lack of critical inputs. You can't sell bikes without bike parts. You can't even repair old ones. You can't move goods without transport trucks to move them.

What does this all mean? Inflation is heading up along with unemployment. In a word, stagflation. And all while pandemic waves continue to roll over us.

Welcome to the 1970s, with a sick helping of pandemic.

Pass the torch?

Being prime minister during the last 18 months was hard. In the early stages of the pandemic, our governments — provincial and federal — reacted appropriately with income support and restrictions. The next 18 months are going to make the last 18 months look like a picnic.

And that is what should be on Justin Trudeau's mind as he takes his walk in the leaves. Who could blame him if he decides to pass the torch?

After all, for Justin Trudeau, things are bad … but they will almost certainly get worse.


Ken Boessenkool is a lecturer at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill and a Research Fellow at the CD Howe Institute. He was one of the original authors of the so-called Alberta Firewall letter in 2001. He was a senior campaign adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper, and has worked or volunteered for Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, Jim Dinning, Ric McIver and Christy Clark.