“Prime Minister, why are you calling the election today?”
He will pause. He will shrug, slightly; a small smile will cross his lips. He will say something about how there comes a time in the life of any parliament when a government needs a fresh mandate.
He will say that with the end of the pandemic in sight, there is an opportunity to debate what kind of future Canadians want for themselves. He will suggest the opposition seems more interested in obstructionism and political games than in working together for the good of all, and so for all these reasons it is time to go to the people – to let them sort it all out.
But the truth – the one thing he will not say – is that he will call an election because he thinks he can win.
Fresh mandate? That was supposed to be what last summer’s prorogation of Parliament was all about. Remember? The Throne Speech? That “generational” budget?
Obstructionism? The government has passed all of its major bills, saving only those it neglected to bring forward until the last days of the session – and, of course, those that died on the order paper with prorogation.
Ah, but a 10-point lead in the polls, that is always a powerful argument for heeding the call to democracy. Six recent surveys show the Liberals ahead by between eight and 12 points, nationwide.
But of course, the national polls don’t tell the half of it. The Grits lead by 20 points in Atlantic Canada, by more than 10 in Ontario. They hold slight leads, as well, in Quebec and British Columbia. They are even showing signs of life on the Prairies.
This has less to do with any great surge in support for the government – no poll has the Liberals at more than 38 per cent, which is a point or two less than their share of the vote in 2015 – than with the fading popular appeal of the Conservatives.
If the latest polls were to be reflected in the results on election night, the Tories would turn in the worst showing for a united Conservative party since – well, possibly ever. The current record, at less than 28 per cent, was set in 1945: another election held in the immediate aftermath of a monumental national challenge, in which an incumbent Liberal government, having spent massive amounts getting the country through the crisis, asked for a mandate to spend massive amounts recovering from it.
This is the point at which the columnist concedes that “to be sure, campaigns matter,” and to be sure, they do: The calamitous Conservative re-election campaign of 1993, like the calamitous Liberal re-election campaign of 1984, began with the incumbents ahead in the polls.
But there are reasons to think a Conservative loss is baked in, and not only because their leader, Erin O’Toole, has so singularly failed to connect with Canadians (one recent poll, by Ipsos, has him level with the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh for “best prime minister,” at 23 per cent).
In every recent election, the Conservative strategy has been the same: to warn centrist voters that the alternative to the Tories is not the Liberals, with whom the public are familiar, but a strange and frightening coalition between the Liberals and the other parties of the left.
You could hear Mr. O’Toole trying this out in his speech to caucus the other day. “There aren’t five choices for Canadians,” he was heard to say. “There are two: Canada’s Conservatives on one side and the Liberal-NDP-Green-Bloc coalition on the other.”
There’s some truth in this: The Conservatives do tend to line up against the other parties more often than not, when the issue isn’t pandering to Quebec nationalism (where the parties are unanimous).
But it’s a little harder to frighten people with the prospect of a left-wing minority government when a) they’ve seen it in action for the past two years, b) the Liberals seem within striking distance of a majority, and c) you are not promising anything all that different. Indeed, Mr. O’Toole’s “a decade or so” timetable for eliminating the federal deficit is roughly twice as long as that outlined in the recent budget.
By the same token, the standard Liberal election strategy, which is to menace left-leaning voters with the prospect of a Conservative government if they were so foolish as to vote for anyone but the Liberals, also looks a little less viable. With the Tories so far behind, many NDP, Green and Bloc voters will feel they have licence to vote with their hearts.
Therein lies the danger for the Liberals. Under Justin Trudeau, the party has moved well out to the left, perhaps in hopes of stamping out the NDP insurrection, once and for all. But it hasn’t worked. Current polls have the party closing in on 20 per cent – outside of the 2011 “Orange Wave,” its historic highwater mark.
The effect of the Liberals adopting so many NDP policies seems to have been to confirm, for voters wavering between the two, that the NDP were not so crazy after all. Meanwhile, as Mr. Trudeau’s personal appeal has sagged under the accumulated weight of scandal, cynicism and abuse of power, Mr. Singh’s has soared: He is the only national party leader with a net positive approval rating. If they get the same policies with either party, but a more sincere-seeming leader in Mr. Singh, why wouldn’t these voters go NDP?
It doesn’t seem to be helping the NDP in Quebec, where the Bloc has cornered the anti-Liberal vote. But with the Greens in turmoil, the Tories sinking and the Liberals arguably having plateaued, the NDP may be the party to watch in this election.
(That would be the election that, according to Section 56.1 of the Canada Elections Act, must be held on the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year after the last election: Oct. 16, 2023. What, you thought I had a different date in mind?)