Today is election day. Well, not here. We don’t vote until the usual first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. On Nov. 5, Virginians elect a new General Assembly and lots of local officials. But today, from Cape Spear to Tuktoyaktuk, Canadians are voting to elect a new parliament — and with it, a prime minister.
That probably doesn’t mean much to most Americans, nor should it. Still, there are some things to look for in the results that might — key word, might — have an impact someday south of the border. For instance:
1. Are voters simply tired? The chief executives in Ottawa and Washington have very little in common. It’s not just that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau comes from the left, and Donald Trump from the right. Trudeau has been everything that Trump is not — hip and cool, a prime minister who shed tears when announcing the death of a famous Canadian rock star (Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip). In the language of the times, Trudeau is “woke” to social justice issues. Trump is — well, Trump’s the guy who looked at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville and said there were “fine people” on both sides. They do, though, share this in common: They both dominate the national conversation in ways previous leaders have not. At what point do voters simply get exhausted and want a leader they don’t have to pay attention to? That’s part of the argument for Andrew Scheer, the leader of Canada’s Conservative Party. He’s bland and boring — the kind of guy who would make “Low Energy” Jeb Bush seem electrifying. That’s also part of his electoral appeal. It’s also part of the appeal of Joe Biden here in the United States. Yes, he’s old and out-of-touch with his party’s activist base, but to some voters, those are good things: He could be counted on not to do much as president. That way we could all go back to watching cat videos or whatever it is we were doing. American conservatives will likely cheer if Scheer wins, but they should be careful what they wish for. The same factors that might lead some Canadians to vote for the low-key Scheer might also lead some Americans to vote for anyone not named Trump.
2. Is Trudeau too far to the left? Canada tends to be more left-leaning than the U.S. — big on national health care, not so keen on guns. Trudeau isn’t even the most liberal candidate. There are two significant third and fourth parties to his left — the New Democratic Party and the Green Party. Still, if Trudeau loses, what signal does that send? One might be that he’s gone too far left even for Canadians. That would be a cautionary tale for the Democratic Party in the U.S.: If Trudeau can’t win in, say, the Toronto suburbs, how can a Democrat hope to win in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin?
3. How much are voters motivated by environmental issues? Trudeau has positioned himself as a “green” prime minister. One of his signature issues to combat climate change has been a carbon tax. It’s also not especially popular. If Trudeau loses, there will be multiple reasons — his enervating personality, some ill-timed domestic scandals — but one will surely be the carbon tax. That will be a problem for environmentalists. People say in polls they want to do something about climate change but when it comes to voting, they don’t necessarily vote that way. Australia, for instance, feels the detrimental effects of climate change more severely than most nations. During their summer, the metropolis of Adelaide sweltered under 116 degrees (the historical average high for January there is 82). In places, roads literally melted. Power grids failed as Australians cranked up their air conditioning. And yet what did Australians do in their national election in May? They voted for a conservative party that vowed to open a controversial coal mine.
Canadians feel the effects of climate change, too. This is, after all, a country that builds a lot of its identity on cold weather, yet a government report earlier this year found the nation was warming twice as fast as other countries. Canadians say they’re concerned about climate change — but they also don’t like the carbon tax and are keenly aware that their top export is oil. A Trudeau defeat would raise the question of just how can voters be persuaded to support stronger action on climate issues? If Australians boiling under record temperatures still vote in favor of opening coal mines, and Canadians watching their Arctic melt still vote out a carbon-fighting prime minister, what hope is there?
4. How will a blackface scandal play? Just weeks before voters went to the polls, Canada was rocked by the revelation that Trudeau had once donned blackface to imitate the singer Harry Belafonte and “brownface” to make himself look Arabic at an Aladdin-themed event. Gosh, this sounds familiar. Where have we heard this before? Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam may never face voters again, but Attorney General Mark Herring will when he seeks the governorship in 2021. Trudeau’s blackface episode is more serious than Herring’s. Herring was a 19-year-old college student when he dressed up to imitate the rapper Kurtis Blow. Trudeau was a 29-year-old teacher at the time. If Trudeau loses, there will be, as we’ve seen, many reasons why. Still, it would certainly give Herring some pause. On the other hand, Canadians may have already processed the blackface scandal and moved on: Polls showed a close election before the revelations, and they still showed a close afterwards — although the blackface photos did help Conservatives make their case that Trudeau is “not as advertised.”
5. How much is immigration a factor? Canada has faced an unexpected problem since Trump became president: People fleeing the U.S. and crossing illegally into Canada to seek asylum. Many of these are immigrants to the U.S. who fear they will be deported back to the dangerous countries they came from. (Let that image of people fleeing the U.S. sink in awhile; it ought to be discomforting). Scheer has promised a tougher response to this than Trudeau. However, Canada’s conservatives are not like American ones. There’s a remarkable bi-partisan consensus in Canada that immigration is a good thing overall, a consensus that the U.S. has lost. Indeed, Scheer recently said that not only would he keep Canada’s immigration levels at the same level, but also he might actually raise them. He’s no Trump, that’s for sure.
There’s much we can learn from our northern neighbor; it’s a good alternative laboratory for some policies. Tonight, we’ll learn a few more things, eh?