The past month has been filled with anxious predictions and endless punditry concerning Canada’s snap election, which was called by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and took place on Sept. 20. With a whopping total of 600 million Canadian dollars spent, the election was the most costly in Canada’s history, yet voter turnout was nearly at an all-time low and the net results left the political landscape looking practically the same as before. What was the point? What has changed? And what opportunities, if any, do the election results provide for progressives in Canada?
In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Dimitri Lascaris joins Marc to break down the election results and to discuss how to break the iron grip of political stagnation in Canada. Lascaris is a lawyer, journalist, activist, and he was a candidate in the federal
Green Party leadership race in Canada, finishing second with just over 10,000 votes. He is also a longtime contributor and current board member at The Real News.
Tune in for new segments of The Marc Steiner Show every Tuesday and Friday on TRNN.
Marc Steiner: Dimitri Lascaris. Welcome. Good to have you with us here on the show.
Dimitri Lascaris: It’s always great to talk to you, Marc. Thank you.
Marc Steiner: So, let me begin with just a broad question here for those listeners who are not in Canada, but maybe in the US or Europe or Africa, wherever they may be. How does it work in Canada where if a party wins a majority of the vote, they don’t win the election? Help us understand that first.
Dimitri Lascaris: Well, actually I would modify your question. What actually happens is that oftentimes parties don’t win a majority of the vote and they win a majority of the seats because we have-
Marc Steiner: Yes, correct. Right, right.
Dimitri Lascaris: So we have something called the first-past-the-post system, and it just basically means it’s a winner take all. Whoever gets the most vote in a riding which, in the American context, you would call that a congressional district, whoever gets the most gets a seat and everybody else gets nothing. So basically, we’ve got in some ridings 6, 7, 8 candidates running, and it’s possible to win the riding with somewhere between 25 to 35% of the vote. Some of them get an excess of 50%, but a lot of them, they get well under 50% of the vote and they get the seat and everybody else, all the other votes go to waste, basically.
So typically what you will see in a Canadian election is some party getting between 37 and 41% of the vote, and they get a large majority of the seats. So that didn’t happen here, and it’s the second time in a row that that didn’t happen. The Trudeau government got about 33, I think, 33% of the vote. So they ended up with, by a significant margin, the largest number of seats. I think they’re in the range of about 155 seats. You need 170 to have a majority, so they fell significantly short of majority, but they have the largest number of seats by a significant margin. So they’re going to have to work with the other parties in order for them to be able to advance their agenda, basically. That’s the bottom line.
Marc Steiner: So very quickly before I jump into the meat of really what happened in this election, does that mean that the Liberals will be forced into a coalition government with the New Democratic Party and, or the Greens, or one or the other?
Dimitri Lascaris: So, coalitions; You don’t have to actually form a coalition in order to function in a minority environment. And basically what happens in a non-coalition setting like we have now, and are likely to have for the next several years, is that decisions are made on an ad hoc basis by the parties whether or not they’re going to support a particular legislative initiative or not. So there’s no agreement, no formal agreement between them, but they’re going to work together and they’re going to share cabinet posts and so forth. All the ministers of the government are going to be Liberals. They’re just basically going to go piecemeal legislation by legislation, and try to find some party that has enough seats to get them over the 170 threshold to support that legislation. So it’s not a coalition, but it does require them to compromise.
Marc Steiner: So let’s get into some stuff that many of our listeners are really interested in seeing: What the results of this election and what they mean. So the Green Party, which you are a member of, or were a member of, had serious setbacks: They lost one seat, one of their three seats; [Annamie] Paul, who was the leader of the party who you ran against, wants to become leader of the party, I read is resigning. So what is the future of the Greens in Canada, do you think? What does this mean for that part of the electorate and that part of the body politic in Canada?
Dimitri Lascaris: Well, so as far as I know, Annamie Paul has not in fact resigned.
Marc Steiner: Okay, good. I read that this morning. It was wrong. Okay, fine.
Dimitri Lascaris: Look, you may have more recent information than I do, but based on my most recent information, she has not resigned. The story of how the Greens suffered the quite serious setbacks that they suffered in this election is a bit complicated. I’ll try to simplify it.
So Annamie Paul, as you indicated, ran against me and seven other candidates in a leadership contest last year, replacing Elizabeth May, who had been the longest serving leader of a party in parliament. She was there for 13 years. And I think one could fairly describe Annamie’s politics as centrist. She is progressive by the standards of the two largest parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, who have dominated federal politics in Canada for the entire post-World War II period, but she certainly isn’t a socialist or a leftist, I would say. Certainly that’s just my perspective. And I and two other can candidates openly campaigned as eco-socialists, and so there was a big philosophical debate in our party about which way we should go: Should we become champions of the left, or should we be a kind of centrist party with an environmental emphasis. And in a narrow victory, Annamie prevailed. Very quickly into her leadership, an issue that kind of hovered around the leadership contest but was never really resolved was thrust into the national debate, and that was the issue of Israel in Palestine back in May.
As I’m sure The Real News has covered, the Israeli forces entered into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, there were expulsions of Palestinians from the neighborhood of east Jerusalem—Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem—And then there was further bombardment of Gaza. And so, we had three MPs at that time. All three of them vigorously denounced what Israel was doing. Two in particular, Paul Manley and Jenica Atwin, specifically described Israel as an apartheid state, something which Human Rights Watch, a US-based human rights organization, recently affirmed, that it is an apartheid state. And Annamie Paul’s senior advisor, a person by the name of Noah Zatzman, someone she appointed to that post, shockingly posted on his Facebook page that our MPs were guilty of antisemitism, and that he was going to work to defeat them and replace them with Zionists.
That was on his Facebook page for several weeks. And then when this was discovered by the mainstream media two weeks after he posted it, he began to repeat to the mainstream media in Canada that our two MPs, Paul Manley and Jenica Atwin, were antisemitic because they had called Israel an apartheid state. The leader, to our great disappointment, did not do anything to defend either of our MPs until one of them, Jenica Atwin, defected to the Liberal Party. She left the caucus and Paul Manley remained, but the attacks on him continued. And then after Jenica Atwin left, she finally, in response to questions from the media, acknowledged that, in fact, neither of them was antisemitic, but she refused to chastise her senior advisor, or to disavow his behavior. And ultimately, he had to be removed from the post by the party and not by the leader because she was not inclined to fire him.
So that’s the backdrop against all of this. We had three MPs, actually, before the election. A few months before the election, we lost one of them in a defection to the Liberals. And then Paul Manley headed into this campaign—I think it’s fair to say hamstrung by these very damaging accusations that had been leveled against him by the leader’s office—And he was already in a tight race to begin with. And although the final count of the ballots isn’t in, because there’s some mail-in ballots remaining to be counted, and it’s a very, very close contest, I think regrettably very sadly because I have so much respect for Paul, I think that he’s not likely to retain his seat. I would say Paul Manley, in the time he’s been in Canada’s parliament, has been the most progressive member of parliament in Canada. His defeat is a great loss for the progressive community. And there’s going to be some rebuilding to do and accounting to be done about how we ended up in this place. But I think it’s terrible for progressive politics in Canada that we’ve lost Paul Manley, and we need to, as a party, come to terms with why that happened.
Marc Steiner: So let’s take what you just said, and this leads into another thought of this election: What does this election mean for the left in Canada? Whether that left is the NDP left or the Green left, or is there a left of the Liberal Party? Is this an opportunity for the left? Has this hurt movements in Canada? Analyze that for us.
Dimitri Lascaris: So, well, the good news is that as I indicated at the outset, it’s a minority government, which means that the Liberals are going to have to work with parties that are more, potentially will have to work, with parties that are more progressive. If they want to shift right, they can get a right-wing agenda implemented by courting the Conservative Party, who would be more than happy to, I think, advance a right-wing agenda. But if they want to pursue a progressive or even moderately progressive agenda—Which I think Canadians clearly want, all the polling manifests that amply—They’re going to have to deal with the NDP, which is at least nominally a social democratic party. The NDP has enough seats to get the liberals over the 170 threshold for passing legislation. So that’s the good news.
The bad news is that the left, or at least nominally left-wing parties, didn’t pick up any seats of any significance. The NDP is going to end up basically where it was before. The Greens entered the election, having lost Jenica Atwin, with two seats. It looks like they’re going to retain two seats because another Green one in Ontario to replace Paul Manley. We still don’t have enough seats in Canada’s parliament to really dramatically affect the agenda of the federal government. And so on the whole, I would say, I’ve called it the election that changes nothing. It really is. It’s remarkable how similar the configuration of our parliament is, it’s almost exactly the same as it was before the election. We spent some $600 million to hold this election. The only reason the damn thing was held was because Justin Trudeau was looking at the polls, thinking that Canadians were happy with the levels of vaccination in this country, and he thought he could bag a majority. That’s the only reason he did it. And everybody knew it. And he was completely incapable of offering any kind of a rationale that was convincing to people about why he ran the election. Everyone knew why he did. It was a power grab, and he failed. And now we’re back to where we were before.
And the really sad thing about this, Marc, is that we have a climate emergency and we’re no closer to resolving that climate emergency in this country and doing our equitable share of what is necessary to resolve it after this $600 million election, because the Liberals aren’t going to do it. The Conservatives aren’t going to do it. It’s only the parties of the left who are going to react responsibly to the climate emergency, and we’re running out of time. So on the whole, I think this is a very, very bad development. Although I’m happy the Liberals didn’t get a majority government, I think this is a very bad development for the planet. Canada is a huge emitter. We have these massive tar sands deposits which are being relentlessly exploited in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and we’re not dealing with that problem in a responsible manner. And the Liberals and Conservatives can’t be counted upon to do that.
Marc Steiner: So I want to come back to the climate question because it’s a critical—and I’m not going to leave this conversation until we really delve into that much more deeply. There was an interesting tweet that we found: Jen Hassan, who tweeted that “Pundits are saying this election didn’t matter, that nothing has changed. Don’t believe this for a second. Lots has happened. A weakened Liberal Party and a minority is an opening for people to push for changes,” which is in the spirit of what I asked a little earlier is about where the left is going and what that could mean. And if you tie that into A: This low voter turnout for Canada that took place, and in some articles, and I don’t know enough to even ask a specific question, but what I’ve read about potential voter suppression. Now, how do other things play together, or do they?
Dimitri Lascaris: In a broad sense, there’s voter suppression in every election. One of the things that suppresses the vote the most in Canada is that we have a first-past-the-post system: Many people who don’t want to vote for the Liberals or Conservatives feel that their vote is being wasted. So they go, why bother. In that sense, there’s voter suppression and in some other senses, there’s voter suppression, but you don’t really see the kind of really aggressive, blatant, brazen voter suppression tactics that you’re seeing in the United States now. Having said that, we had the lowest—it appears we’re going to have the lowest turnout in Canadian history. In excess of 40% of eligible voters did not vote in this election.
Marc Steiner: Wow.
Dimitri Lascaris: And you can’t have a healthy functioning democracy when close to half of the electorate is not voting.
Why are they not voting? They’re not voting because they think their vote is being wasted. They’re not voting because the two parties of the right, that’s what they are, the right-wing parties consistently flout the popular will. I’m going to give you a classic example of this, Marc. I think it says volumes about the structure of our political system. There have been polls in this country which have shown massive support for a wealth tax, massive support, 89%, the most recent poll, large majorities, huge majorities of people who identify as supporters of the Liberals and the Conservatives support a wealth tax. And yet, both the Liberals and the Conservatives are adamantly opposed to a wealth tax. They have no justification whatsoever. Whether you look at it only from the perspective of what appeals to their base, when you look at it from the perspective of what appeals broadly to the Canadian public, you should be implementing a wealth tax of some kind and they are fiercely opposed to it.
And Canadians are fed up with this kind of thing and so they stop voting, they stop voting; they don’t feel that their vote actually matters. These two parties get away with flouting the will of the people again and again and again. So look, going back to your tweet, I hope that person is right. I would love to be wrong about this. I do think that Justin Trudeau’s position is slightly weakened and that he will have to be somewhat more compromising. But the fact of the matter is that he has essentially the same number of seats as the Liberals had going into this election, and nobody has anywhere close to the same number of seats as the Liberals. And they are tied to the business community. They are the party of the affluent. They agree on 80% of the issues with the Conservative Party. It’s very similar to what you have in the United States, where you have two parties of big business and they scrap over who’s going to hold power, but at the end of the day, their agendas are extraordinarily similar.
Marc Steiner: That became very clear when you just looked at what both O’Toole, who’s the Conservative leader, and Trudeau were saying, and the platforms and the arguments around climate, that there’s only a hairbreadth of difference between the other platform and what these two parties stand for. And so, given that, and given the low voter turnout, and given what you were talking about earlier, when it comes to climate change, when it comes to the role that Canada plays in that, in this hemisphere and in this world, that to me is one of the most serious things to talk about. And, where you think that takes the discussion in Canada, what that means for the rest of us as well.
Dimitri Lascaris: Well, look, NASA scientist James Hansen said years ago that if we fully exploit the tar sands resource, it’s game over for the planet. He wrote that in the op-ed in the New York times, and he’s absolutely right. You know, when Justin Trudeau was first running, he was claiming to be a champion in the fight against climate change, but he went down to Texas and he told a room full of oil barons: What country in the world would leave hundreds of billions of barrels of oil in the ground? That’s what he said. He basically signaled to the fossil fuels industry that Canada was going to fully exploit that resource. In this country, the two parties, and even the NDP, to talk about winding down the fossil fuels industry. To actually shut it down, It’s verboten; it’s taboo.
You can’t say that if you’re a Liberal or Conservative or even a member of the NDP. And so, I think where we start in this country, where we need to start in this country with the kinds of dramatic changes we need in order to deal responsibly with the climate crisis, inequality, militarism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, is to broaden the scope of permissible political discussion. We need to get people in parliament.
Paul Manley was such a person, that’s why it’s such a sad and terrible thing that he lost. He was the kind of person who would ask those questions. He would stand up in parliament and he would look the NDP leader in the face. And he would say, “Do you or do you not support a ban on fracking? I do.” And he’d make them squirm. We need people like that in parliament to expand the scope of political discussion in this country because once we do that, once we show the people who are generally in favor of these types of reforms and agendas, that it is possible to win political power and exercise political power while pursuing a strongly progressive agenda. I think that will change the electoral landscape dramatically. So we have to get people in parliament, as many as possible, speaking truth to power. And this election I view as a setback, in that regard.
Marc Steiner: So a couple of quick things on the tails of that. When you look at what just happened in Canada, there are these record setting heat waves throughout Western Canada, people dying because of it; Wildfires consuming one entire town. So what does it take, do you think, in terms of a political movement in Canada? Because clearly people are concerned about this, but it’s not at the top of the agenda for whatever reason. So how do you build a movement around that and actually address that, because what you described a moment ago was the absolute critical nature of what we’re facing.
Dimitri Lascaris: Yeah. What you just referred to, it’s shocking. It shocked the conscience of Canadians in Lytton, BC, earlier this summer. We weren’t even in the depths of summer. I think this was very late spring, the very beginning of summer, experienced the highest temperature by several degrees. They smashed the highest temperature that Canada had ever experienced in recorded history, and the next day the town was incinerated by a wildfire. So the people in this country are shocked and appalled and terrified by the climate crisis. So we don’t need to convince them anymore that this is real, this is urgent. What we need to do is to get people in parliament who are going to actually prescribe the dramatic measures that are necessary in order to deal with it responsibly. I don’t have any easy answers in that regard, Marc.
I think we just have to be true to our convictions and access the public in any way, shape, or form that we can. The corporate media are not going to help us. I say it every time I speak on The Real News. This is why The Real News and organizations like The Real News are so important, because they provide a platform to people who are actually prescribing the solutions that we need, but the corporate media are shutting them down, and we have to reach the people and show them that there are candidates out there who are willing to fight for that kind of an agenda, who are determined and courageous enough to stand up to the corporate class and the capitalist elite when they inevitably try to shut down that type of a candidate, that type of a discussion.
And eventually I believe we’ll get there. What I have concerns about, many of us have concerns about in the activist community, is whether we’re going to get there quickly enough. We are at the precipice of disaster, both not just as a country, but as a species, as so many of us know, and now is not the time for timidity. So we have to just keep plugging away. I believe we’ll get there, but we are running out of time.
Marc Steiner: I agree completely. It is part of our role here to push that as hard as we can in the work that we do, because it’s so critical. And as a father, as a grandfather who—dare I say, as a great grandfather [both laugh], I have deep concerns and fears about the world that they’re inheriting and what they’re going to face and what they-
Dimitri Lascaris: -You know there was a… I’m sorry to interrupt. I have to mention this, Marc. I should have mentioned… There was a poll done recently, you may be aware of it, of youth in dozens of countries around the world. I just found this to be such a terrible statistic. 56% of the youth who were polled said that they believe humanity is doomed. That’s the level of alarm and skepticism; pessimism that now prevails amongst the younger people of this world. And it’s my generation, our generation, which is responsible more than any other generation for this predicament. We got to step up to the plate. We’re failing them. We have every obligation to act.
Marc Steiner: Well, there’s so much more to talk about, but we’ll leave it there for today. But I do want to come back and explore the power of the rising right in Canada, as well as the Indigenous. We’ll be doing that in the coming weeks together with some other people, as well as you, Dimitri. And I want to thank you so much for your taking time today, with The Real News, to do an analysis of what’s happening in Canada, and look forward to many more conversations. Thank you so much for your work. And thanks for being with us today.
Dimitri Lascaris: Take care, Marc. Pleasure to be here.