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Canada's Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at an election campaign stop on the last campaign day before the election, in Burnaby, B.C., Sept. 19, 2021.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

The basic themes of this election campaign were set on the first day. For the Conservatives, it was about the early election call. For the Liberals, it was about vaccine mandates. It didn’t get a lot deeper over the ensuing 36 days.

Of course, these were only proxies, entry points for what each party really wanted to talk about. The Conservatives wanted to make the election a referendum on Justin Trudeau’s leadership. The election call, a bit of rank opportunism made more glaring by the Liberal Leader’s windy attempts at justification, served as an immediate example of a more general inauthenticity.

For their part, the Liberals hoped to make the election a referendum on the less appealing segments of the Conservative coalition, and to sow doubts about Erin O’Toole’s ability to drag the party with him on his voyage (back) to the centre. They knew the subject made him uncomfortable, fearful as he was of losing voters on his right flank to the People’s Party. It, too, offered a persuasive example of a larger problem.

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In their attempts to exploit each other’s weakness, each had a large element of truth working for it. The prime minister called the election for two reasons only: because he wanted a majority, and because he thought he could win. No other explanation made any sense under examination. And yet he could not possibly say so publicly. He was caught in a lie, one that grew worse with each passing day: In seizing the opportunity of a snap election he had walked into a trap of his own making.

But the Conservative Leader, too, found his cleverness proved to be his weakness. The manoeuvre he was attempting, reaching out to centrist voters without alienating voters to his right, was always going to be tricky. The platform, a big-spending, Liberal-friendly compendium of bribes to targeted interests devoid of any coherent philosophical underpinnings, was intended to be the bridge, transforming the party’s image, from angry ideologues to smiling pragmatists, as quickly and conveniently as the Leader had changed his.

It was, in short, a lie, and as lies often do it collapsed under pressure. The unruly anti-vaccine protesters at the Liberal Leader’s rallies may have had no connection to the Conservative Party, but they were useful reminders of the types of people the Conservative Leader was trying to placate with his careful straddling on the issue.

His own talent for dissembling, meanwhile, though it helped to neutralize early-campaign Liberal attacks on abortion or private health care, eventually became a liability: As he rewrote his platform on the fly in response to Liberal attacks – on guns, on daycare, on carbon pricing – voters must have been left to wonder just who the real Erin O’Toole was, or where he mislaid his backbone.

It was a contest, in short, between fear and loathing: Which would mobilize voters more, fear of the Conservative base, or loathing of the prime minister? Over the first half of the campaign, it seemed loathing won: The prime minister who pitched the election as a much-needed clash of visions at such “a pivotal moment” for the country had not thought to prepare a platform outlining his. When at last it did arrive, it was to a chorus of “That’s it?”

But as the campaign wore on, fear mounted a comeback. In bleaching his platform of anything that would distinguish it from the Liberals’, Mr. O’Toole omitted to offer centrist voters much that would change their lives for the better; the only changes that remained, intended to placate the base, were the kind they did not like. If the aim was to make the election a referendum on leadership, moreover, it would have been better served with a leader who was not at least as unpopular as the Liberal Leader.

Neither party succeeded in its attempt to sell itself and its leader – as the visionary agent of change, on the Liberal side, or the reassuring face of normalcy, on the Conservative. The Liberals held onto power in part thanks to the unexpected rise of the People’s Party, most of it at the expense of the Conservatives, fuelled by a latent hostility to vaccines and vaccine mandates, especially among right-leaning voters.

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Or how unexpected was it, really? The supposition has been that the Liberal Leader called the election in spite of the pandemic, knowing he risked looking callous but unable to resist the opportunity of a double-digit lead in the polls. But did the pandemic, in fact, offer an opportunity of its own? What better time to press on the raw nerve endings the pandemic had exposed, using popular fears of vaccines to jumpstart the moribund People’s Party and split the conservative vote?

Consider: Had the election been held on schedule, two years from now, the pandemic would (please God) have been long over, the mass vaccination program, with its associated mandates, a distant memory. Without the oxygen of this approaching “tyranny,” Maxime Bernier’s campaign might never have got off the ground.

But call an election in the fevered atmosphere of a public-health emergency; spend the entire campaign insisting on the very policy, vaccine mandates, you had previously rejected as “divisive”; steer your campaign straight at the PPC, literally and figuratively, and who knows what profitable mayhem you can create?

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