At Justin Trudeau’s campaign events, demonstrators on the far right have looked rabid and fanatical, as if they’d been sent here by Donald Trump. The bullheads are not great in number but may be enough to have a significant election impact.
The languishing Liberals need something to alter the arc of the campaign. Thus far, distressingly for them, it’s been a referendum on Mr. Trudeau. Given the degree of discontent with his persona and his performance, it’s a dubious proposition.
But if the campaign is turned into a culture war, one which alerts Canadians to potential risks of electing a party with ties to reactionaries and wingnuts, recalibrations maybe be in order.
Progressives don’t scare Canadians. The left in Canada is relatively tame. You don’t hear talk of antifa here. The far right are the frightening lot and while it’s true that the Conservative Party under the most recent incarnation of Erin O’Toole distances itself from its more radical elements, it resides in the same area code as anti-vaccine campaigners, climate-change deniers, gun lovers, race baiters and the violent protesters.
Not all in the Rogue’s Gallery are on the right, but certainly the lion’s share. The People’s Party, headed by former Conservative cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, is their natural habitat. It is seeing an uptick in support, which will take some votes from the Conservatives.
Mr. O’Toole has been running a strong campaign, but ridding himself of the reactionaries is no easy task. He won the Conservative leadership a year ago by pandering to social conservatives. Key to his win was his catering to gun-rights advocates, particularly those in Quebec. Mr. O’Toole’s success in beating Peter MacKay hinged on his being the second choice of social-conservative candidates Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan.
He had lost his first leadership bid in 2017, running a moderate campaign and changed gears the second time around. There’s vulnerability here. Nasty-minded opponents could find justification for running an ad entitled “The Two Faces of Erin O’Toole.”
His new moderate ways aren’t necessarily shared by his party membership, an example being its vote at its spring convention not to recognize the climate-change threat as real.
It was the perception of the party as being too much in league with hard-right populism that helped turn the tide against Stephen Harper in the 2015 beating he took from Mr. Trudeau; as a final act in that campaign he had cozied up to former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his supporters. In the 2004 election, Mr. Harper felt it was bozo eruptions by far-right caucus members that led to his defeat.
A tightening of the race in recent days has coincided with the appearance of the fanatics at Trudeau rallies and with Mr. O’Toole’s remarkable acrobatics in respect to his previous support for assault weapons.
The New Democrats have seen growth in their support and Conservatives are hopeful they will siphon off votes from the Liberals. But if it’s a tight race, many NDP voters could hold their noses and vote for Mr. Trudeau to prevent a Conservative victory.
The NDP, which is being helped as perhaps are the Liberals by a plunge in support for the Greens, would also be served well if the ballot question was one of leadership.
Jagmeet Singh scores much higher in leader approval ratings than do Mr. Trudeau and Mr. O’Toole. He comes across as genuine, sensible and fair-minded – not your typical out-for-himself politician. He has been helped by a very uncritical media.
In this campaign he could have a greater effect if his platform was more imaginative. There’s little to demarcate it from his policy book in the last election nor to deeply distinguish it from Liberal priorities. The party’s chances of a big breakthrough are limited by Mr. Singh’s weakness in Quebec. In the 2019 campaign the party went from 16 seats under Tom Mulcair down to one under his leadership.
But both Mr. Singh and Mr. O’Toole are on target to make gains. If the election was held a few days ago, the Conservatives could well have scored a victory. If they can keep making Mr. Trudeau the issue, there’s a good chance it will happen.
In the English-language debate Thursday, Mr. O’Toole must convince voters that Trump-styled reactionaries have no place in his party. That could lose him more support to the People’s Party but it would pull in moderates and help prevent the Liberals from capitalizing on a culture-war campaign.
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