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PETER McKENNA: Why Trudeau will likely still be prime minister on Oct. 22

The electoral math favours Justin Trudeau, writes Peter McKenna - Reuters

It’s hard to argue with a straight face that anything worthwhile came out of the Oct. 7 gong show of a leaders’ debate. But there was one kernel of truth that deserves to be unpacked.

In the prescient words of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May: “At this point, Mr. Scheer, with all due respect, you’re not going to be prime minister.” She went on to add, pointedly: “The question is going to be on seat count, if we have Mr. Trudeau in a minority or Mr. Trudeau in a majority.” In addition to being the best pure debater on the stage that night, May is absolutely correct in her electoral prognostication.

While the polls are now showing a tight race between the Justin Trudeau Liberals and the Andrew Scheer Conservatives, those numbers don’t tell the full story. The hard truth is that Scheer — given all the hits that the federal Liberal campaign has absorbed — should be at least 10 points ahead in the polls. The fact that he is not at this stage spells very bad news for the federal Conservatives. 

Because of the electoral map in Canada, no federal political party can form a government without garnering a significant number of seats in Ontario (with 121 electoral districts) and Quebec (with 78 ridings). And according to Nik Nanos, arguably the best pollster in the country, the federal Conservatives are trailing the Liberals in both provinces by nine points. If these numbers hold — and the Grits can retain their current seat totals in the 905 area code region and fortress Toronto — it will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge the governing Liberals.

In Quebec, the electoral fortunes of the NDP are in even worse shape than the Conservatives'. The polls now have the N-Dippers in fifth place overall —even behind the struggling Green party. As a result, the NDP could see every single one of its 14 seats in Quebec change hands, most likely to the Bloc Québécois or to the Trudeau Liberals.

The hard reality is that the Scheer Conservatives, in order to have any shot at forming government, need the NDP under Jagmeet Singh to have a substantial resurgence in the polls. And while Singh did have a decent performance in the English-language debate, it doesn’t appear to be enough to boost the party’s sagging public support. That, I’m afraid, is another major body blow to Scheer’s campaign fortunes. 

Moreover, most of Scheer’s polling support is concentrated in the prairie provinces, especially Alberta and Saskatchewan. But the problem is that the combined seat totals for these two provinces only amount to 48. And all the Liberals have to do in British Columbia (with 42 ridings) is to hang onto most of their current seats in order to retain their grip on political power.

In Atlantic Canada, it is highly unlikely that the federal Liberals will be able hold on to all 32 districts in the region. It’s just not going to happen. But the problem again for Scheer is that the best that he can hope for right now is to pick up a few seats in New Brunswick and two or three in Nova Scotia.

More importantly, Scheer faces another significant electoral obstacle when it comes to the overall seat totals. He’s in a very weak position if the final outcome on Oct. 21 is a hung Parliament — with no party claiming an outright majority of seats.

Even if the Liberals and the Conservatives have roughly the same number of elected MPs, Scheer will be hard-pressed to find any willing coalition partners. It will be far more easier for the Trudeau Liberals to find common cause with one or two of the other smaller parties.

Clearly, the Conservatives’ hard-line position on climate change will necessarily hobble Scheer’s coalition-building chances. There is just no way that the NDP or the Greens (or even Bloc MPs) could join forces in a minority government, given Scheer’s objectionable stance on the climate crisis.

It’s hard really to put your finger on why exactly Andrew Scheer is not on the cusp of becoming Canada’s 24th prime minister. But I suspect that it does have something to do with the claim, rightly or wrongly, that voters are troubled by his “Harper-lite” tendencies and behaviour.

So, fortunately or unfortunately, Justin Trudeau is still going to be Canada’s prime minister on Oct. 22. The only thing in doubt right now — as Elizabeth May observed deftly — is whether Mr. Trudeau will be leading a minority or a majority government.

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

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