So, we’re kinda tied. Can this week undo the knot?
The final federal election campaign days see the two major parties statistically even. Few thought it possible; Justin Trudeau looked like he would be the 2021 Opportunist World Society’s Man of the Year for staging an election when his opposition was unthreatening, the pandemic was restrained and the public was appreciative.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has not proven to be the dark menace and Trudeau has not proven to be the angel of light Liberals would wish Canadians to think. Their campaigning this week will tilt the outcome one way or another.
To coin a phrase: a week is a long time in politics.
Fine, someone else – British prime minister Harold Wilson – said it first in the 1960s. Someone else then ramped it up, from “a long time” to “an eternity,” probably due to inflation. But it’s true enough in this case, because even if the Liberal decline has stabilized in recent days, how the two recreational runners and electoral front-runners pour on a finishing kick will determine the outcome – assuredly a minority Liberal or Conservative victory, with nothing assured after that about a coalition.
But there are many wild cards in the deck to be played:
1) Jody Wilson-Raybould. Her publisher either was prescient or fortunate to release her explosive book, Indian in the Cabinet, on Tuesday. All weekend long, excerpts emerged that revived the scandalous first-term Trudeau gambit to spare SNC-Lavalin from prosecution. In recent days the former Trudeau minister and outgoing Vancouver-Granville Independent MP has been putting the prime minister on the defensive. She said Trudeau wanted her to lie about the pressure campaign to undermine SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution. She wants Trudeau in the final days of the campaign to let the RCMP have access to documents and witnesses in their probe of possible obstruction of justice. Trudeau has tried to squirm from questions and wriggle off the hook, so this week will be a test of wills, and even though the assertions are not new, their renewed presence might haunt the Liberals when votes are cast. SNC-Lavalin and Wilson-Raybould are, for political opponents, the gifts that keep on giving.
2) Indifference and Irritation. When you don’t need an election, you don’t much care about one, and that was likely part of the Liberal calculus in conducting one. When an election is called unnecessarily, there is typically squawking for about 36 hours and then the issue disappears. In this case, the squawking is continuing through the 36 days of the campaign, and it appears the Liberals will pay the price for it, at best restoring their minority and at worst relinquishing power. The party placed Trudeau as leader for his electability, so even if he wins, he stands to lose his leadership in the term ahead after two failures to seize a majority. It will not help that O’Toole will only look better as a politically moderate force the longer Canadians see him.
3) Jagmeet Singh. He rose meteorically in 2017 and crash-landed in 2019 but walked safely from the rubble when he agreed to support the Liberals in minority government. In the two years since he has found his voice, and even though he gets to make promises he knows he won’t have to keep, his authenticity has drawn away young Liberal voters. It is no surprise that Trudeau has trained sights on him in recent days, because the party’s votes are draining leftward. It has been interesting to witness Singh’s own hedging of the bets, with restraint on O’Toole and uncurbed critique of Trudeau.
4) The left-behinds. The protests that have followed Trudeau involve people with an array of grievances, many related to the handling of the pandemic, some related to the handling of the economy. In usual circumstances, these people would find a home in a major opposition party, but what they have found is that those parties don’t want them, primarily because many in the protests are anti-vaccination and some are aggressive to the point of violence. Where they wind up is likely the People’s Party of Canada, and if they are experienced voters and not just first-timers, that is helpful to the Liberals because their shift likely hurts the Conservatives. Even two or three percentage points in a riding could cost a seat.
5) O’Toole. It is not enough to win the Exceeding Expectations Award of Excellence in an election. This next few days will be a test of the entire Conservative organization to understand if it has another gear approaching what it knows the Liberals possess, and its leader will have to make a couple of deft moves to draw support. What is clear is that Canada doesn’t fear O’Toole or buy into the Liberal fear-stoking of a hidden agenda; if anything, O’Toole’s transparency on where he would take the party has shed some support among social conservatives. The thing to remember is that every prime minister in the last half-century has centralized power, not distributed it to caucus and the party. The Prime Minister’s Office runs the country and anyone ascending to the role as leader gets to define the government. O’Toole will need to remind any queasy voters that it will be a party of his making.
6) Trudeau. A major element in his success is his capacity to campaign, navigate around and even through adversity, and gain some sort of acceptance if not forgiveness for his flaws. A question this week is whether O’Toole is himself accepted as a new option to a rather tired brand. But the larger question is whether Trudeau has one more push in him, even if it might mean that he will not be long for the job in regaining it.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.