Back to the Future—and Back to the Campaign Trail(s)

Let’s take a look at the first week of an apparently very important federal election that nobody actually wanted to have.

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Welcome to the most important federal election since 1945—or so Justin Trudeau would have you believe, anyway. We’re a week into this sleepy summer campaign and that’s starting to feel a little like an overstatement. Then again, the last few federal elections have opened with soft launches before anyone really finds their footing, so this sort of thing is par for the course. (This kind of precedent is nice after 18 months of “unprecedented times.”)

But let’s give the devil his due. While there was no pressing precipitant to send Canadians to the polls right now—the minority Liberals enjoyed the confidence of the House; things seemed remarkably stable for a protracted public health emergency occasionally punctuated by an ethics scandal or the government suing the Speaker—it’s totally fair to say that Canada stands at a critical historical crossroads. Even leaving aside the ongoing pandemic, there are quite a few kettles about to boil. The election comes hot on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declaring a “red alert” for the future of humanity—British Columbia remains in the throes of wildfire season, and it’s been barely two months since the town of Lytton shattered heat records and then immediately burned to the ground. It’s also happening against the backdrop of major global geopolitical shifts; Canada’s Parliament peaceably dissolved, somewhat inauspiciously, as chaos unfolded in Kabul where 20 years of American occupation came to a whimpering end. Plus, the national flag has been at half-mast everywhere for months because we are working our way through a reckoning with Canada’s complicity in genocide.

All things considered: yes, this election is a pivotal moment to collectively straighten out our priorities. We have an excellent opportunity to settle some questions about what this country is doing, where it should be going, and how we’d like to get there.

I’m not quite sure this is what Trudeau had in mind when he pulled the trigger on this, though. The first week of the campaign hasn’t done much to dispel the idea that this election call has a clear purpose beyond converting a minority government back into a majority. You can’t blame him for trying; that exercise had been a surefire success for every provincial government that tried during the pandemic so far. But the streak was broken on Tuesday when the Nova Scotia Liberals fumbled their re-election campaign and the province elected a “surprise” Tory majority. 

(There are limited lessons to draw from this for the federal election. Incoming NS Premier Tim Houston spent the campaign emphatically distancing his ‘Progressive’ Conservatives from their federal cousins, and outgoing Premier Iain Rankin definitely did not have the political savvy of Trudeau. But it is a nice reminder that COVID elections always come with a reasonably high chaos factor. You really never know what will happen, and you can’t take anything for granted—not that anyone in NL needs to be told that.)

Back to the national campaign: cynical power play or otherwise, Trudeau at least seems to be starting off the 2021 election campaign in a better place than 2019. People definitely seem a little more tired of his schtick after six years in office, but there doesn’t seem to be the visceral sense of anger towards him or his government that characterized the last campaign. Maybe this is partly the pandemic program afterglow—there are probably a lot of people who still feel a little fondly toward the guy who cut their CERB cheques. (A recent EKOS poll comparing income levels to party support is pretty illuminating here—the Liberals look untouchable among “poor” respondents.) It also helps that there is no remaining glow to take off the guy. The blackface photos, SNC-Lavalin scandal, and broken promises from his first term stripped all that off in 2019—for better and for worse, we know who we’re dealing with and most of us made up our minds years ago. Plus, no one seems to be stoking a fake national unity crisis in western Canada these days, which has also kept the temperature down a little bit.

The competition is different these days, too. It may be a stretch to say Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has “charm,” but he is certainly less overtly alienating than Andrew Scheer. The party he’s leading still appears fairly fractious, however. There is a clear tension between the social conservative wing of the party and a central campaign trying to woo “mainstream” voters. Presumably this is why you’ve got O’Toole giving a rousing defense of poppers as a pitch to the queer community while at the same time unveiling a platform that would allow medical professionals to refuse them healthcare. (Mel Woods in Xtra has a good explainer on the ‘conscience rights’ issue, as does Justin Ling in Maclean’s. It’s worth noting that in a rural area, or other places where access to a physician is limited, doctors declining care on religious or moral grounds for e.g. queer or trans patients—or people seeking abortions, or medical assistence in dying—means these groups could end up without any access to healthcare at all.)

The Conservatives do get credit for releasing a hefty policy platform on day two of the campaign—it gives us something substantial to chew on, even as it also opens them up to early broadsides from their opponents and critics. One of the most interesting policy distinctions between the two major parties so far in this campaign is the question of childcare. It’s a great weather balloon for registering the general ideological atmosphere in Canada right now.

In 2006, Stephen Harper’s Tories beat back Paul Martin’s Liberals partly on this exact proposal: voters ultimately preferred a tax credit (to allow ‘choice’ in childcare options) over a more universal childcare program. This question is being put to voters again, with both parties offering more or less the same choices they did 15 years ago. But the national mood seems to have shifted significantly from the halcyon days of Harperism; on the question of individualizing tax credits vs. universal programs, Supriya Dwivedi summed it up best when she pithily tweeted “Yup, I’ve got a boutique tax credit watching my kid today while I work.” For some reason—possibly a renewed recognition that we live in a society—the pandemic seems to have given people more tolerance for social programming that supports the common good. This rematch of the 2006 childcare question might end in a political inversion that rewrites the conventional wisdom that has dominated Canadian politics for the better part of the last two decades.

It’s still early days yet but it does already seem (on some emerging key questions at least) that the Tories have misread the room and set up shop on the wrong side of history. Or, as Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells put it to me more concisely the other day, the Conservatives have yet to give a compelling reason for people to vote for them—but, between childcare and conscience rights, have already given solid reasons for voters to turn them down.

The real wildcard in this election is the NDP. Jagmeet Singh isn’t as green around the gills as he was in 2019, and if the public really is hungry for a more robust social state then the deck might be stacked in his favour. As Luke Savage writes in Jacobin, polls consistently show a real public appetite for eating the rich (or at least some of their lunch). And six years of Liberal baggage—buying pipelines, nuking electoral reform, flaking on addressing First Nations water woes, etc.—have made it much harder for Trudeau and friends to steal leftist valour on the campaign trail. (Not that it will stop them from trying; check out the Liberals’ latest promise to introduce 10 paid sick days for federally-regulated workers,18 months into a pandemic where they have been governing the entire time.) Throw in the cataclysmic collapse of the Green party and the Dippers may also be positioned to pick up the climate warrior mantle—a designation that finally seems to be an asset in Canadian politics instead of a liability. (Incidentally, the National Observer has a handy climate policy comparison piece, so you can judge for yourself how everybody stacks up on this issue.)

If we really are headed back into another minority government situation—an outcome that seems plausible, even likely, at this early juncture—and the NDP comes in hot enough, they may be better positioned to throw their weight around in the next Parliament. Admittedly the crystal ball gets pretty cloudy here with several weeks to go, but it’s definitely an element to watch.

This is a rough sketch of the national landscape. (Also, the integrity of the Charter seems to be on the line in Quebec! Maybe we should pay attention to this?) What does this election mean for voters in Newfoundland and Labrador?

We’re unlikely to see much from the party leaders again, as they did all their policy announcements here before the campaigns kicked off. (At least, this is what I thought when I wrote this column on Saturday; as it turns out, Trudeau is back in St. John’s this evening, which makes me think St. John’s East is going to be a very hot race.) The Liberals are clearly angling to buy us off with the Muskrat Falls bailout, which is admittedly a compelling offer at face value—though if Des Sullivan is to be believed (and he’s usually quite good on this subject) it’s actually not much of a “deal” at all when you put it under the microscope. But maybe now that Andrew Furey is the last Liberal premier in Canada he can leverage more special treats out of the feds through his Ottawa connections—assuming the Liberals are comfortably re-elected with a strong NL contingent. (Wink, wink. Am I doing this right?)

Meanwhile, if the national NDP campaign stays competitive, St. John’s East might stay orange, and Seamus might be in for a sweat in St. John’s South-Mount Pearl. The Tories also seem to be giving Newfoundland and Labrador some love in these early days of the campaign—Erin O’Toole’s first town hall of the campaign fielded questions from this province. The Conservatives were reasonably competitive in a number of rural ridings in 2019—particularly Avalon, Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, and Labrador. I would still give the Liberals the edge but it is probably safe to say that “ABC” no longer holds up as a law outside of Town. But with a dearth of reporting on the ground outside the overpass, it’s really hard to get a read on these things.

(That’s another sleeper story in this federal election: we’re all watching it play out from a distance largely on the terms set by the central campaigns. This is due to both COVID rendering everything “virtual” and the decline—collapse?—of newsroom resources across Canada. The pandemic has helped push us into a news desert and that means this campaign coverage is going to be really weird and missing some of the finer details that help us fill in the blanks. Oh well! I’m sure it’ll be fine. Democracy thrives in darkness, right? At least the debates seem like they’ll be pretty good this year.)

Oh—and those poor municipal candidates. Have fun flying under the radar until the 20th of September. Or longer, depending on how Elections Canada handles a few million mail-in ballots. God willing they’ll have a better time of it than we did. Here’s hoping the country’s major centres don’t succumb to any cosmically ill-timed outbreaks—and that the big red phone in Bruce Chaulk’s office doesn’t start to ring.

Anyways: that’s week one of the most important Canadian election since the end of the Second World War. Are you vibrating with excitement yet? No? Well, that’s fine too. I’m sure it’ll start to pick up any day now.

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