Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau did the best he could last week, when asked why he triggered a snap election less than two years after the last one. He could have responded, “I have 170 good reasons for calling this election,” or “I’d like to redirect your question to our internal pollsters,” or even just offered a knowing wink and tap of his nose.
But we like pretense in this country. So instead, Mr. Trudeau explained that his gambit to secure a majority government was an act of service for Canadians, allowing them to grade a pandemic response that is not yet over, and to select a government to lead a recovery that has not yet begun.
A “pivotal, consequential moment” for an election, indeed.
A campaign without a clear ballot question necessitates an invention of one, by one of the participants. For the Liberals, it was obvious in those first few days that they hoped the issue of vaccine mandates would serve as a useful wedge; Mr. Trudeau could align himself with the majority of Canadians who support the measure, and cast the Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole as a Republican-lite vaccine libertarian who doesn’t care about protecting vulnerable populations.
The hope was that no one would notice that the Liberals did a complete about-face on their policy (in mid-July, Mr. Trudeau said he would leave the issue of mandatory vaccines to the provinces) and only announced their plans to require federal public-service workers and interprovincial travellers to be vaccinated in time for the campaign. Many of the important details – such as what would happen if someone refuses vaccination – hadn’t yet been worked out, which tends to happen when you adopt a sweeping new policy on the fly. But the important thing is that the Liberals were saying the right words, and the Conservatives could be coaxed into saying the wrong ones.
And Mr. O’Toole did skip straight into that trap on the first day of the campaign, when he dodged very predictable questions about whether all of his candidates would be vaccinated and whether he supports the idea of vaccine passports. But his team course-corrected quickly, releasing a statement later that evening that the party will require federal public servants and those travelling on planes, buses, ships or trains to be vaccinated, or else be required to submit to rapid tests (tests that ostensibly will be paid for by the taxpayer, which the party ought to reconsider).
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In less than a day, the Conservative position in effect became the Liberal position: Both will require federal public servants and travellers to be vaccinated – except the Conservatives have actually specified what will happen if someone refuses. The Liberals, by contrast, have mused about vague “consequences” for those who don’t comply, but in the post-campaign-rhetoric real world, those consequences will almost certainly be exactly what Mr. O’Toole has proposed, unless the party wants to bear the burden of mass public-sector layoffs and Charter-rights lawsuits.
Following the Liberals’ announcement, the union representing federal public-service workers released a statement that de facto endorses the Conservative position on vaccine mandates, which, needless to say, puts Mr. Trudeau in an awkward spot barely a week into the campaign.
With their first wedge attempt flopping, the Liberals have been flailing to find an alternative. Just a few days into the campaign, Mr. Trudeau uttered the words “Stephen Harper” – as clear a sign as any that the lobs against the Tories aren’t landing. On Day Four, the word “abortion” emerged on the campaign trail, even though the leader of each of the three front-running parties calls himself “pro-choice,” and no party with any sense of Canadians’ attitudes on the matter would risk the political damage of reopening the debate.
“Tonight in Quebec,” Maryam Monsef, Minister for Women and Gender Equity, nevertheless tweeted on Wednesday, “Erin O’Toole pretended to be pro-choice. He did the same thing in his platform. But in reality, he’ll let his team bring forward legislation to restrict abortion access. That’s the same position as Andrew Scheer.”
The message was that Canadian women must beware Mr. O’Toole’s hidden agenda, which is the same as Mr. Scheer’s hidden agenda, which stems from Mr. Harper’s hidden agenda – which never did materialize, over the course of a decade of governing.
The Conservatives are no doubt looking for wedges, too. They might have thought they had one when Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau seemed to leave the door open to recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan in an interview with CBC News, but as the Tories did on vaccine mandates, the Liberals quickly corrected when Mr. Trudeau ruled it out the next day.
There is hardly a wedge to be found on matters pertaining to Quebec, since each party leader appears content to abase themselves on the Fleur-de-lis altar. There is nothing resembling austerity (or really even fiscal conservatism) in the Conservative platform, and there certainly won’t be in those of the Liberals and the NDP. And each party will talk the talk on climate, regardless of whether their policy promises will actually deliver.
The struggle for this election will therefore be to find substantive and meaningful daylight between the parties on matters of substance, and not just floppy wedges that collapse after the first adjustment. One week down – four more to keep looking.
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