Justin Trudeau has made a calculation that the time is right for another election. Now, he’ll have to convince a country not yet out of the pandemic woods — and facing a fourth wave driven by the delta variant — that the gambit is necessary.
The clearest sign Canadians were headed for a snap summer vote may have come in June, when Trudeau vented about what he called the “toxicity and obstructionism” in the House of Commons. He accused the opposition of stalling government bills, including one to ban conversion therapy.
The headlines that followed Trudeau’s description of a dysfunctional Parliament were similar to those in the summer of 2008 — before another prime minister leading a minority government went to the polls early.
As Stephen Harper did back then, Trudeau has now pulled the plug on Parliament despite the fixed election date law. Canadians were set to vote next in October 2023 (assuming the Liberal minority government lasted that long).
With polls putting Liberals in majority territory, opposition parties have framed this election as Trudeau’s attempt to fulfil his political ambitions. They’ve raised alarms about health risks — although Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has said in-person voting can be done safely and several provinces have held elections during the pandemic.
Former Liberal MP Kim Rudd said she thinks many Canadians will agree Trudeau deserves a new mandate and another majority to take Canada through the pandemic and lead its economic recovery.
She said the Canadians who thought a minority Parliament might be a good thing two years ago because it would spur cooperation between the parties aren’t “seeing that as helpful in the way they envisioned.” A majority “makes sense now” in a way it might not have before, she added.
Rudd pointed to what she called Conservatives’ “obstructionist behaviour” on key bills — including the spring federal budget that extended emergency supports for workers and businesses, such as the wage and rent subsidies. The budget bill cleared the Commons on June 23 with the support of the Bloc Québécois and NDP.
Rudd said the government must be in a position to move quickly and take “decisive” action in the face of threats like the pandemic and the climate emergency manifesting itself in wildfires in British Columbia and northern Ontario.
“Minority governments don’t necessarily provide that urgent change, that urgent path forward,” she said.
‘There’s no reason to change’
Rudd won the Ontario riding of Northumberland-Peterborough South in 2015 and lost it four years later to the Conservatives; she said she’s not running again because of a cancer diagnosis. Her riding was one of 20 the Liberals lost in a 2019 campaign that was particularly bruising for the Liberals due to the SNC-Lavalin affair and news of Trudeau’s past episodes of wearing brownface and blackface.
At the dissolution of Parliament, the Liberals held 155 seats. They’ll have to win back swing ridings and capture new seats to hit the magic majority number of 170 in the Commons.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for a photo with people waiting for their shots while visiting a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Thursday, July 15, 2021 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Nick Whalen, a former Liberal MP for Newfoundland and Labrador’s St. John’s East, told CBC late last month he would have been content to avoid an early election because “good, progressive policy is being put forward, voted on and passed.”
Still, he said he thinks his party is well-placed to pick up seats that slipped away last time, including the one he lost to the NDP’s Jack Harris. Neither Whalen nor Harris is re-offering this time.
Whalen said the desire among voters on the centre and left in 2015 to remove the Harper government helped the Liberals capture a majority. “That sense of urgency no longer being there” in 2019 made a difference in tight ridings, he said.
This time, Whalen said, Liberals should remind voters of the work they’ve done in managing the pandemic and highlight compelling ideas for fair economic growth in the years to come, including the government’s plan for a national child-care system. The Liberal government made child-care deals with seven provinces and one territory this summer.
“We just have to give Canadians comfort that we’re still the best positioned to govern and there’s no reason to change,” he said.
Liberal strategist Susan Smith said she expects COVID to be top-of-mind for voters as workplaces reopen and children head back to school in September. And when they think of COVID, she said, they’ll think of how Trudeau’s government managed the country throughout the crisis.
“They’ll think about the CERB, they’ll think about wage subsidies, they’ll think about rent subsidies, they’ll think about the sickness benefits,” she said. “Those are the things the Liberal government put into place when they had the backs of Canadians in a crisis for which there was no playbook.”
Smith, the principal of Bluesky Strategy Group, concedes there is the “potential” for blowback amid a fourth wave, but said Canadians are feeling good after having “rolled up their sleeves and stuck their arms out” for their vaccinations.
Navdeep Bains, shown in the House of Commons on Dec. 6, 2019, says the Liberals are focused on moving Canada forward. (Blair Gable/Reuters)
She suggested Trudeau can deflect criticism over the early call by saying that his government needs a vote of confidence from Canadians because it has taken so many unprecedented steps to cope with the pandemic — and it intends to continue doing so.
Outgoing Mississauga Liberal MP Navdeep Bains, who left cabinet in January, serves as co-chair of the party’s national campaign committee. He dismissed the suggestion that the election’s timing is purely about what’s in the best interest of the Liberals.
“Our focus is, how do we move Canada forward? How do we focus on jobs and growth? And how do we do it in an inclusive and sustainable way?” Bains told CBC. “The government has a real plan to finish the fight against COVID-19.”
While Erin O’Toole is heading into his first campaign as Conservative leader with polls suggesting his party is behind, it’s Trudeau’s third campaign as Liberal leader. Bains said he expects Trudeau to shine.
“He gets a lot of energy when he sees people and meets people,” Bains said. “That is something that speaks to … his energy level and his passion to serve.”
Into the ‘big unknown’
David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, said that purely from a public opinion perspective — and setting aside concerns about a fourth wave — the Liberals might not get a better moment to take their shot.
Coletto pointed to strong Liberal numbers in the seat-rich battlegrounds of Ontario, Quebec and B.C., a generally positive mood among Canadians and “what appears to be a weaker Conservative Party.”
“That road to a majority … I don’t think it’s going to get more clear or more obvious in the future than it is today,” he said.
Coletto said he’s keeping an eye on B.C. — home to several three-way races — and Quebec, where he said the Bloc has supplanted the NDP as the alternative to the Liberals. In the last campaign, many high-profile Quebec Liberals were given a run for their money by Bloc candidates. Cabinet minister Jean-Yves Duclos kept his Quebec City seat by just 215 votes.
Coletto said the “big unknown” is what happens when Canadians begin paying attention to politics again.
While the Liberal leader’s numbers are stronger today than they were in 2019, “it’s not like there’s a deep, deep affection for Mr. Trudeau,” he said. Motivating their supporters to get out to the polls, he said, could be the factor that has the greatest impact on “the Liberals’ ultimate outcome.”
The challenge for the Liberals, he added, is to clearly articulate why they’ve triggered the election in the first place. “If it becomes more muted and unclear what it’s about, I think there’s a lot more risk there,” Coletto said.
Majority or bust?
By going early, Trudeau has made it clear that the goal is to trade his minority for a majority. Does that mean Liberals themselves will view this campaign as all or nothing? Would they be inclined to accept another minority as a win?
“I think winning an election and being able to form the government is a victory in any circumstance,” Smith said, adding that it’s never easy to secure a majority.
Whalen also argued that falling short of a majority while hanging on to power shouldn’t be regarded as failure — but he suggested that many Canadians could be left wondering what it was all for.
“Certainly if they go for a majority and they end up right back where we were, people are going to look back and say, ‘Well, why did we have an election at all?'”
Watch: Party leaders, Elections Canada ready for election:
Party leaders, Elections Canada ready for possible electionThere is mounting speculation about a possible federal election this fall and the major political party leaders and Elections Canada are ready if it happens. 1:57