As the federal election results trickled in across the country, and as a Liberal minority government was ultimately declared by the TV networks, I couldn’t help but think of the political parallels with the October 1972 electoral contest. In some ways, the similarities are eye-popping.
Besides the fact that Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre, secured a minority government (also in his first election after winning a previous majority government), it was also true that the conservative party of the day (Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives) finished with the second-largest number of seats. And just like the 1972 election outcome, the New Democratic Party is, arguably, holding the balance of power.
Who could forget Nova Scotia’s banana-eating Bob Stanfield, oftentimes referred to as the best prime minister that Canada never had? He lost that heartbreaking 1972 election by just two districts, even though he picked up 34 seats and the Trudeau Liberals lost 38.
Overall, the Liberals garnered 109 seats (out of a total of 264) on Oct. 30, 1972 — not that much different from today’s 157 electoral districts (out of 338 ridings). Twenty-seven years ago, the NDP won 31 seats, while the party now has 24 seats and is poised to prop up the Liberals once again in 2019.
Even when you compare the parties’ popular vote totals for the 1972 election (Liberals at 38 per cent, the Progressive Conservatives with 35 per cent and the NDP garnering 18 per cent) with the 2019 contest (Liberals at 33, the Conservatives with 34 and the NDP securing 16), the numbers bear a striking resemblance.
Interestingly enough, both the Liberals and NDP were able to work together on a host of public policy areas in 1972 — including the creation of Petro-Canada, work on an election expenses regulatory framework and the launch of a national program for affordable housing. Moreover, the left-leaning NDP was instrumental in pushing for a reconceptualization of the Canada-U.S. relationship, which led to the birth of the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA), a series of cultural initiatives (such as postal subsidies for Canadian magazines) to protect Canadian cultural sovereignty from the U.S. behemoth and the so-called “Third Option” (which highlighted trade diversification away from the United States).
Foreseeing the possibility of a minority government scenario in 2019, the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh outlined his party’s central policy priorities: increasing taxes on the country’s wealthiest individuals and richest corporations, fighting climate change, terminating oil subsidies and ending interest payments on student loans. He also indicated that he will press very hard for placing Indigenous considerations at the centre of all government decisions, securing a universal pharmacare plan and dental care system, and creating more affordable housing opportunities.
At least initially, and not unlike the situation in 1972-74, there would appear to be a fair amount of political common ground between the two parties. Of course, the real test will come when their political marriage of convenience (it lasted 18 months in 1972) is no longer electorally convenient. And just like the early 1970s, the Trudeau government of today will likely seek to orchestrate the death of the Liberal-NDP alliance on its own terms.
What is conspicuously different about the 1972 and 2019 elections, though, is the role of mostly Quebec-based federal parties. In 1972, the Ralliement créditiste party won only 15 electoral districts with roughly 24 per cent of the popular vote in Quebec. As for 2019, the revitalized Bloc Québécois garnered an impressive 32 seats with some 33 per cent of the popular vote. But unlike 1972, it is a real political force today — and a party with outsized power in this minority configuration.
Accordingly, this harsh reality could drastically change the federal political calculus and the lifespan of this current minority government. Much will depend on whether rookie party leader, Yves-François Blanchet, who has already ruled out any hope of a coalition arrangement, is open to the possibility of working with the Grits on an ad hoc basis.
Last, the 1972 election offers one final intriguing insight — namely, the outcome of the subsequent 1974 federal election. Indeed, all the opposition parties today would do well to remember that Pierre Trudeau came back with a vengeance in early July of 1974, sweeping to victory with a comfortable majority of 141 seats and 43 per cent of the popular vote (and forcing the departure of Stanfield in 1976). That may be something that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer might want to be mindful of, going forward.
Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.