The election was fought almost entirely on the record of the Liberals, who had been in power for all but one year since 1963.
Pierre Trudeau, who had been Prime Minister from 1968 to 1979 and since 1980, retired from politics in early 1984 after polls indicated that the Liberals would almost certainly be defeated at the next election had he remained in office. He was succeeded by John Turner, a former Cabinet minister under both Trudeau and Lester Pearson.
Turner had been out of politics since 1975. Upon assuming the leadership, he made immediate changes in an attempt to rebuild the Liberals' tattered reputation. For example, he announced that he would not run in a by-election to return to the House of Commons, but would instead run in the next general election as the Liberal candidate in Vancouver Quadra, British Columbia. This was a sharp departure from usual practice, in which the incumbent in a safe seat resigns to allow a newly elected party leader a chance to get into Parliament. The Liberal Party had lost favour with western Canadians, and policies such as the National Energy Program only aggravated this sentiment. Turner's plans to run in a western Canada riding were in part an attempt to rebuild support in that region. Going into the election, the Liberals held only one seat west of Ontario—that of Lloyd Axworthy, from Winnipeg—Fort Garry, Manitoba.
More seriously, there was great disaffection in Quebec with the Liberal government, despite their traditional support for the party. Conflict between the provincial and federal parties, a series of scandals, and the 1982 patriation of the Canadian constitution without the approval of the Quebec provincial government had damaged the Liberal brand in the province. Hope for success there led leader Joe Clark to begin actively courting soft nationalist voters in the province, and was one of the main reasons businessman Brian Mulroney, a fluently bilingual Quebecker, was chosen as Clark's replacement.
Although Turner was not required to call an election until 1985, internal polls showed that the Liberals had regained the lead in opinion polls. He requested that Queen Elizabeth II delay her tour of Canada, and asked Governor-General Jeanne Sauvé to dissolve Parliament on July 4. In accordance with Canadian constitutional practice, Sauvé granted the request and set an election for September 4.
The initial Liberal lead began to slip as Turner made several prominent gaffes. In particular, he spoke of creating new "make work programs", a concept from the 1970s that had been replaced by the less patronizing "job creation programs". He also was caught on camera patting Liberal Party President Iona Campagnolo on her posterior. Turner defended this action as being a friendly gesture, not recognizing that it was seen by many women as being condescending.
Other voters turned against the Liberals due to their mounting legacy of patronage and corruption. An especially important issue was Trudeau's recommendation that Sauvé appoint over 200 Liberals to patronage posts just before he left office. The appointments enraged Canadians on all sides. Although Turner had the right to advise that the appointments be withdrawn (something that Sauvé would have had to do according to constitutional convention), he didn't do so. In fact, he himself appointed more than 70 Liberals to patronage posts despite a promise to bring a new way of politics to Ottawa. He cited a written agreement with Trudeau, claiming that if Trudeau had made the appointments, the Liberals would have almost certainly lost the election. However, the fact that Turner dropped the writ a year early hurt his argument.
Turner found out that Mulroney was allegedly setting up a patronage machine in anticipation of victory. At the English-language televised debate between Mulroney, Turner and New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent, Turner started to attack Mulroney on his patronage plans, comparing them to the patronage machine run by old Union Nationale in Quebec. However, Mulroney turned the tables by pointing to the raft of patronage appointments made on the advice of Trudeau and Turner. Claiming that he'd gone so far as to apologize for making light of "these horrible appointments," Mulroney demanded that Turner apologize to the country for not cancelling the appointments advised by Trudeau and for recommending his own appointments. Turner was visibly surprised, and could only reply that "I had no option" except to let the appointments stand. Mulroney famously responded:
"You had an option, sir. You could have said, 'I am not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada, and I am not going to ask Canadians to pay the price.' You had an option, sir—to say 'no'—and you chose to say 'yes' to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party. That sir, if I may say respectfully, that is not good enough for Canadians."
Turner, clearly flustered by this withering riposte from Mulroney, could only repeat "I had no option." A visibly angry Mulroney called this "an avowal of failure" and told Turner, "You had an option, sir. You could have done better." Mulroney's counterattack led most of the papers the next day; it was often paraphrased as "You had an option, sir; you could have said 'no'." Many observers saw this as the end of any realistic chance for Turner to stay in power.
The last days of the campaign saw one Liberal blunder piled on another. Turner continued to speak of "make work programs" and made other gaffes that caused voters to see him as a relic from the past. Turner rehired much of Trudeau's staff during the final weeks in an attempt to turn the tide, but this did nothing to reverse the Liberals' sliding poll numbers. Trudeau himself did not campaign for Turner, instead only showing up to support Liberal candidates.
Besides the Tories, the NDP also benefited from the slip in Liberal support. Under Broadbent, the party had seen greater support in opinion polling than ever before, and had actually replaced the Liberals as the second party in much of the west.
Turner's inability to overcome the alleged resentment against Trudeau, combined with his own mistakes, resulted in a debacle for the Liberals. They lost a third of their popular vote from 1980, falling from 44 percent to 28 percent. Their seat count fell from 135 at dissolution to 40, a loss of 95 seats. It was the worst performance in their long history at the time; the 40 seats would be their smallest seat count until they won only 34 seats in 2011. Eleven members of Turner's cabinet were defeated.
At the time, the only government who had lost more seats during an election were the Arthur Meighen led Conservatives in the 1921 election, losing 104 seats to Mackenzie King's Liberals. However, in terms of percentage of seats lost, the Liberals' loss was larger. The Meighen Conservatives lost 68 percent of their seats compared to the Unionists' total from 1918, while the Liberals lost 72 percent of their seats from 1980.
Despite their hopes of winning more support in the west, the Liberals won only two seats west of Ontario. One of those belonged to Turner, who defeated the Tory incumbent in Vancouver Quadra by a fairly solid 3,200-vote margin. The other belonged to Lloyd Axworthy, who was reelected in Winnipeg—Fort Garry by 2,300 votes.
Particularly shocking was the decimation of the Liberals in Quebec. They won only 17 seats, all but four in and around Montreal. The province had been the bedrock of Liberal support for almost a century—the 1958 Tory landslide was the only time since the 1896 election that the Liberals had not won the most seats in Quebec. In Ontario, the Liberals won only 14 seats, nearly all of them in Metro Toronto.
Early in the election, Mulroney focused on adding Quebec nationalists to the traditional Tory coalition of western populist conservatives and fiscal conservatives from Ontario and the Atlantic provinces.
This strategy, as well as denouncing alleged corruption in the Liberal government, resulted in a major windfall for the Tories. They won 211 seats, three more than their previous record of 208 in 1958. They won a majority of seats in every province and territory. They also won just over half the popular vote, the last time to date that a Canadian party has won a majority of the popular vote.
The Tories had a major breakthrough in Quebec, a province where they had been virtually unelectable for almost a century. However, Mulroney's promise of a new deal for Quebec caused the province to swing dramatically to support him. After winning only one seat out of 75 in 1980, the Tories won 58 seats in 1984, more than they had ever won in Quebec before. In many cases, ridings where few of the living residents had ever been represented by a Tory elected them by margins similar to those the Liberals had scored for years.
The NDP lost only one seat, which was far better than expected considering the size of the PC tidal wave. Third parties usually get decimated in massive landslides. More importantly, their 30 seats were only ten behind the Liberals. Although the NDP had long since established itself as the third major party in Canada, this was closer than any party had gotten to the Grits or Tories since 1921, when the Progressive Party briefly surpassed the Tories. This led to speculation that Canada was headed for a UK-style Labour–Conservative division, with the NDP knocking the Liberals down to third-party status. It would be as close as the NDP would get to becoming the Official Opposition until 2011 when the party gained the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons and the majority of seats in Quebec.
The Social Credit party, who for a long time had been the country's fourth-largest (and occasionally even third-largest) party, suffered a massive drop-off in support from the previous election, in which they had already lost a major share of the vote and all their remaining MPs. Having performed poorly in various by-elections in the years that followed, the party's reputation suffered major damage in June 1983, when the party executive voted to re-admit a faction led by holocaust denier James Keegstra, which in turn resulted in the resignation of party leader Martin Hattersley. This, along with most of their traditional support in Quebec turning to the Progressive Conservatives, resulted in them losing 92% of their vote from 1980 and dropping from fourth place to ninth in the popular vote. For all intents and purposes, this was the end of Social Credit as a viable national party. It would make a desultory final appearance in 1988 before collapsing altogether in 1993.
The satirical Rhinoceros Party, despite a slight drop in their popular vote tally from the previous election, recorded their highest-ever finish at a general election, finishing as the fourth-largest party.
The Parti nationaliste du Québec, a successor to the previous Quebec-nationalist Union populaire party, ran for the first (and, ultimately, only) time in this election. Despite getting nearly six times the votes that their predecessors did in 1980, and finishing fifth in the popular vote, like the Socreds they proved unable to compete with the Progressive Conservatives, and failed to win any seats. The party would eventually collapse in 1987, though several of its members would go on to found the more successful Bloc Québécois.
The Confederation of Regions Party of Canada, formed mostly by disaffected former Socreds, were another party who debuted in this election. While they placed sixth in the popular vote and attracted a little over quadruple the vote of their forerunners, they still failed to seriously challenge for any seats. Much like the Socreds, they too disappeared from the national scene after 1988, though they continued on a regional level for several years afterwards.
All numerical results from Elections Canada's Official Report on the Thirty-Third Election.
"% change" refers to change from previous election.
x – less than 0.05% of the popular vote.
1 Tony Roman was elected in the Toronto-area riding of York North as a "coalition candidate", defeating incumbent PC MP John Gamble. Roman drew support from Progressive Conservatives who were upset by Gamble's extreme right-wing views.
2 Results of the Parti nationaliste du Québec are compared to those of the Union Populaire in the 1980 election.
The Revolutionary Workers League fielded five candidates: Michel Dugré, Katy Le Rougetel, Larry Johnston, Bonnie Geddes and Bill Burgess. All appeared on the ballot as independent or non-affiliated candidates, as the party was unregistered.Number of parties: 11
First appearance: Confederation of Regions Party of Canada, Green Party of Canada, Party for the Commonwealth of Canada
Final appearance: none
First-and-only appearance: Parti nationaliste du Québec
- Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, ON: Len Hopkins (Lib) def. Don Whillans (PC) by 38 votes
- Ottawa Centre, ON: Mike Cassidy (NDP) def. Dan Chilcott (PC) by 54 votes
- Nunatsiaq, NT: Thomas Suluk (PC) def. Robert Kuptana (Lib) by 247 votes
- Prince Albert, SK: Stan Hovdebo (NDP) def. Gordon Dobrowolsky (PC) by 297 votes
- Burin—St. George's, NF: Joe Price (PC) def. Roger Simmons (Lib) by 299 votes
- The Battlefords—Meadow Lake, SK: John Gormley (PC) def. Doug Anguish (NDP) by 336 votes
- Willowdale, ON: John Oostrom (PC) def. Jim Peterson (Lib) by 362 votes
- Saskatoon East, SK: Don Ravis (PC) def. Colin Clay (NDP) by 417 votes
- Humber—Port au Port—St. Barbe, NF: Brian Tobin (Lib) def. Mike Monaghan (PC) by 493 votes
- Mackenzie, SK: Jack Scowen (PC) def. Mel McCorriston (NDP) by 555 votes