Newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a campaign rally in Winnipeg on the eve of the election (Photo courtesy Liberal Party of Canada)

Election 2015: what just happened – and what's next for Canada?

The election of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister could usher in major domestic changes and improve the perception of Canada on the world stage, U of T Professor David Soberman says.

U of T News interviewed experts from across the university during the federal election campaign, getting their views on the issues, the advertising, polling and strategy leading up to Oct. 19.

Read more Election 2015 coverage

After the Liberals won a majority government – the first party to jump from third place to first in more than 100 years – four U of T professors offered their views on what lies ahead. 

Soberman is professor of marketing and the Canadian National Chair of Strategic Marketing at the Rotman School of Management. Nelson Wiseman is a professor of political science and director of the Canadian Studies Program. Chris Cochrane is a political science professor at U of T Scarborough. Peter Loewen is an associate professor of political science. 

“Of course there will be a change as Trudeau is younger and I think more charismatic than (Stephen) Harper. This will affect our image internationally. In many ways, the change will be similar to how Pierre Trudeau changed the image of Canada compared to the prime ministers who preceded him (Pearson, Diefenbaker and St. Laurent).

“I also think that the Liberals will pursue a foreign policy that is less in sync with the U.S. Republican view of the world. This should help our image as much of the world is negatively pre-disposed to the U.S. view.

“I think that Trudeau will also adopt a policy that is more progressive and pro-active with regards to the environment and the challenge of global warming.  

“Finally, I think that the Liberals will continue the Conservatives’ policy with regard to the liberalizing of trade and the lowering of trade barriers. For example, I do not foresee the Liberals implementing a reversal of Canada’s commitment to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) as would have been the case with an NDP government.”

Soberman, an expert on political advertising, said he believes, “the Conservatives’ advertising did not work. In the course of the election, the Conservatives’ advertising did more to help the Liberals than hurt them. The entire ‘just not ready’ campaign and ‘nice hair’ ads simply did not strike home with the electorate because they were based on Justin Trudeau being a shallow and incompetent leader.

“In fact, many predicted prior to the debates that Harper and the other leaders would dissect Trudeau in the debates due to his inability to deal with the complexity of the issues that face a prime minister. This proved to be completely wrong because as we went from one debate to the next, Trudeau proved himself to be competent and articulate (anything but the shallow greenhorn that Conservative ads seemed to claim).”

Asked what surprised him during the campaign, Soberman said, “it was the decision by the Liberals to run deficits and jump to the left of the NDP. This was  very clever as it clearly differentiated the Liberals from the other two parties. It gave credibility to the Liberal commitment to spend more on infrastructure and it made (Thomas) Mulcair’s commitment to a balanced budget seem incredulous.”

“The civil service, especially in foreign affairs, will be happy. It will be a big change because the previous government dismissed the views of the diplomatic corps. What I have seen is that people in the foreign affairs bureaucratic establishment are very keen for Canada to play a more active role behind the scenes. The current government, showing their disgust for the diplomatic corps, hasn’t permitted Canada’s representatives abroad to make speeches unless they are closely vetted or written from the centre (of the PM’s office).”

Asked what impact the new government might have on universities, especially funding of scientific research, Wiseman said “it’s too early to tell. The Liberals’ promises are quite vague, and if there is a reversal (from the Conservatives cutbacks on such funding) it will be slow. But I am sure there is great relief in the academic community. 

“The position of the outgoing government wasn’t simply cutbacks, it just felt that the money going to research should be tied to potential commercial applications and that philosophy is also what was driving a large part of their foreign policy. In some areas, the outgoing government has been innovative and acted in many ways that Canadians can support, including maternal and child health. That speaks well of Canada, however, over-all, there was less money put into foreign aid.

“Universities are always going to lobby for more (money). The Liberals have not talked about higher education, it is essentially talking about vital needs – infrastructure, housing, transit – so if there is a ramp up in spending in those areas it is going to be very cautious and slow.”

“The circumstances going into this election were not favourable for an incumbent. The Conservatives had been in power for nearly a decade, they were mired in a legal fiasco that reached into the Prime Minister’s Office, and the country was in the midst of a recession, albeit a minor one. At the outset of this election, there was no question that the Conservatives were vulnerable. For many Canadians, this was a good time for a change.  

“What happened? The final verdict on this question will have to wait. One thing that is clear already, however, is that Justin Trudeau was underestimated, yet again. He was underestimated when he broke into the Liberal party and contested a seat in Papineau, which was by no means a sure thing for the Liberals. He was famously (and perhaps more trivially) underestimated in his boxing match with Patrick Brazeau. He was underestimated in the Liberal leadership campaign when we wondered whether his charisma could substitute for his lack of experience. And he was underestimated at many points throughout this campaign, especially going into the debates. In short order, he’ll be the Prime Minister. It’s safe to say that he’s answered his doubters.”

“This election will be one for the ages. A politician and a party largely written off (full disclosure: including by me) now possesses a majority government. The Conservative Party is weakened, though not devastated, and the NDP has returned to a rump. How did this happen? There are two important factors: impressions and expectations. 

Throughout the election, colleagues and I conducted the Local Parliament Project, a daily representative poll of 600-1,200 Canadians. We asked a lot of questions, among them voters’ impressions of the leaders and expectations of the outcome. These two factors alone tell much of the story. First, Justin Trudeau greatly improved his impressions in the latter half of the campaign. At the start, voters were convinced that he was intelligent, empathic and trustworthy. They were not convinced that he was strong. But they were by the end of the campaign. The same growth was not evident for either Mr. Harper or Mr. Mulcair. 

Second, voters’ expectations about which party was most likely to win their riding and win the most seats coalesced in the final two weeks of the campaign. While substantial confusion reigned throughout most of the campaign, it disappeared in the last two weeks. Then, voters understood that the Liberals had the best chances of winning. The die was cast, and Mr. Mulcair only tumbled from there. The Prime Minister, who relied on that confusion, could do nothing to change these expectations.” 

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