Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, left to right, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 9, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

If the polls are to be believed, we have all just wasted five weeks of our lives. An election that, in law, should never have been called, the reason for which has never been adequately explained, limped through a listless campaign on track to producing a Parliament remarkably like the one it was supposed to replace. The “most important election since 1945,” according to Justin Trudeau, might as well never have happened.

Compare the most recent polls (at time of writing) to those taken at the same stage of the previous campaign. The similarity is striking: The Liberals and Conservatives are again in the low 30s, with the NDP at around 19 and the Bloc at a little over six. The seat projections, likewise, look eerily familiar: The Liberals are projected to win about 150 seats, the Conservatives about 120, the NDP and the Bloc about 30 each. Only on the margins has there been much change: the Greens have lost half of their support, while the People’s Party of Canada have tripled theirs.

But. Well, there are lots of buts. National polls mean little: to really get an idea of what’s going on, you have to drill down into the regional figures. Polls are snapshots, not predictions: Much could change in the last days of the campaign. And the polls are often wrong. Turnout is an especially difficult thing to model: Are Conservative voters more motivated than Liberal? Will NDP voters show up? Are PPC supporters so angry they will crawl over the proverbial broken glass to vote, or so alienated that they will not bother?

Regardless of who won the leader’s debate, Canadian voters were the losers

So much for where we are – how did we get here? At the start of the campaign, each of the party leaders faced their own personal and strategic challenges. For Mr. Trudeau, the personal challenge was his faded popular appeal: Once the Liberal Party’s most significant asset, he had become its most significant liability, under the accumulated weight of broken promises, ethical lapses and sundry other controversies. The party led all polls going into the election, some by double digits. But the leader trailed the party.

The strategic challenge, as for any Liberal leader, was to win the “progressive primary.” A substantial majority of Canadians might be described as left of centre. But their vote is divided among several parties, with no enduring loyalty to any of them. In 2015, many of those voters were drawn to the Liberal side by a youthful, charismatic leader and a positive vision of change; in 2021, they would have to be frightened into it, as the party best placed to avert the dread prospect of a Conservative government.

For Erin O’Toole, personal unpopularity also presented a challenge: His precampaign approval numbers were even worse than Mr. Trudeau’s. A year into the job as Conservative Party Leader, people still did not know much about him, but what they did know they didn’t much like.

His strategic challenge: Conservative support has a high floor and a low ceiling. Where Liberal support can range anywhere from 20 per cent to 50 per cent, the Conservatives can reliably count on winning at least 30 per cent of the vote, but have difficulty getting beyond 37 per cent or 38 per cent. Only once in the past eight elections, in 2011, have they managed it.

To remedy that, Mr. O’Toole needed to shift the Conservatives from an angry, grievance-based party, more concerned with turning out its existing supporters than reaching out to new ones, into one that could attract centrist voters. The aim was not just to expand the Conservative vote, but to distribute it more efficiently: fewer votes wasted racking up huge majorities in the West, more going to win those tight races in suburban Ontario and Quebec.

That meant presenting the Conservatives as a safe, inoffensive choice, largely indistinguishable from the Liberals ideologically, but with a less polarizing leader. (In Quebec, where votes divide on different lines, it meant pitching the Tories as a more pragmatic version of the Bloc: nearly as nationalistic, but with more ability to “deliver the goods.”)

The catch: people might believe that about Mr. O’Toole. But would they believe it about his party? For Mr. O’Toole, in short, the problem was his base; for Mr. Trudeau, it was him.

Between Liberal red and Conservative blue, there’s a green gap

As for the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, precampaign polls showed him to be the most popular of the three major party leaders, though with rather fewer picking him as their preferred prime minister. His political challenge was to persuade his voters that it was safe to stay with the NDP; that even in the unlikely event of a Conservative minority, they could be held in check by an NDP holding the balance of power.

That pretty much describes the parties’ strategies in most elections. This was to be, however, no ordinary election, with an electorate in an unusually agitated state of mind.

A year and a half into a pandemic that has killed more than 27,000 Canadians, with the country still struggling to emerge from a lockdown that had devastated industries, destroyed jobs, and otherwise frayed the national nerves, it was clear that a huge amount of undifferentiated anxiety hung in the air.

But what would it attach itself to? Health care? The economy? The debt? The pandemic, still unvanquished, itself? What did people want coming out of it? To take the unprecedented degree of government intervention in social and economic life during the pandemic as a template for a more interventionist state after? Or to return to something more resembling life before it?

And into this fume-filled room the Prime Minister tossed a match: He called an election – less than two years after the last, and more than two years before the date prescribed by law.

A snap election is always a risky move: It looks like what it most often is, a self-serving attempt to exploit a moment of advantage for the ruling party. A snap election called in defiance of a law whose stated intent, whatever exceptions the fine print might contain, was to prohibit such opportunism, is even more of a risk.

But to call a snap election in the middle of a pandemic looked unusually crass, not to say hazardous to public health. And to do so on the very day that Kabul fell, leaving thousands of Afghan nationals – and hundreds of Canadian citizens – to the mercies of the Taliban, looked not just opportunistic, but callous.

So while the conventional wisdom held that the snap election call would cease to be an issue after a few days, in fact it did not. It seemed, rather, to crystallize all of Mr. Trudeau’s worst qualities in the public mind: the cynicism, the sense of entitlement, the phoniness. And the more the Liberal Leader attempted to explain why he had called the election the worse it got.

The early election call became the lens through which everything he said or did was viewed. If the Prime Minister had so much he wanted to get done, why didn’t he just do it? He had the support of the other progressive parties for his agenda; why didn’t he just carry on governing, rather than call an election? Why ask for a new mandate, when there was so much he had not finished of the last?

The reason was obvious: He wanted a majority.

While the Liberal Leader struggled, in the early days of the campaign, the Conservative Leader prospered. Probably he benefited, as is often the way in politics, from low expectations.

But as he marched to the centre, his approval numbers improved; and as his support grew, so did the party’s. The platform helped. It contained little trace of the traditional Conservative concern for the deficit or debt: only a vague pledge to balance the budget “over the next decade,” to be achieved without any cuts in spending. Dozens of pages and hundreds of promises long, it seemed to offer a government solution to every conceivable problem, much as any Liberal platform would, while the rhetoric on corporations, trade deals and workers’ rights seemed more redolent of the NDP.

What the Conservative membership made of this is anybody’s guess. Mr. O’Toole seems to have calculated that, after six years in opposition, their hatred of Mr. Trudeau and lust for power would prevail over their desire for ideological purity. And it became clear as the campaign wore on that, in Mr. O’Toole, the Conservatives had found a leader whose talent for shape-shifting was a match for any Liberal leader’s.

A succession of Liberal attempts to force the Conservative Leader to choose between the centre and the base failed, unable to pierce the veil of O’Toolean ambiguity. The Conservative Leader would issue a promise that sounded like something new. Only on closer examination would it emerge that what he was promising was the status quo.

There remain a few issues where the Conservative position could usefully be distinguished from the Liberals’ – on daycare, on climate change – but in recent days Mr. O’Toole has begun to fudge even these. Where the Tories had proposed to scrap the Liberals’ plan to transfer funds to the provinces for daycare in favour of sending (much less) cash directly to parents, Mr. O’Toole suggested in a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault that he would still deliver at least some of the money promised to his government.

Likewise, in an astonishing interview with the Toronto Star, Mr. O’Toole let slip that his hitherto unambiguous promise, repeated many times, to scrap the federal carbon tax was in fact merely a suggestion; that the system of “Personal Low Carbon Savings Accounts” he had pitched as its replacement was in fact merely intended as an “alternative,” which the provinces could take or leave. Given how unworkable the Conservative plan is likely to prove, that almost certainly means the status quo.

More astonishing still, and potentially damaging, was his turnabout on guns. The substantive differences between the parties are again exaggerated – the “military-style” rifles the Tory platform proposed to unban had only just been banned a year ago. But as the promise, an obvious sop to the gun lobby, had no clear justification, it played to fears that Mr. O’Toole is not really in charge of the party, but is the captive of its factions – so much so, that Mr. O’Toole was forced to repudiate his own platform on this point, mid-campaign.

In the same vein, while the venomous mobs of anti-vaccine protesters dogging the Liberal Leader’s campaign could not credibly be linked to the Conservatives, they served at least to remind voters of Mr. O’Toole’s position on vaccine mandates – which had been the Liberal Leader’s position until shortly before the election – and to suggest he was beholden to the anti-vax fringe as well. Which, while not entirely true, is true enough.

The point of these attacks, I suspect, was not to lure Conservative-leaning voters to the Liberals, but, as always, to frighten progressives. Certainly that was the effect: Liberal support began to rise after Labour Day, while NDP support fell.

The greater damage to the Conservative cause seems to have been done by the rise of the People’s Party – the folks who really were behind the anti-vax mobs. An ungainly hybrid of libertarianism and populism, the PPC has become a haven for every crank and conspiracy theorist, not to say the odd racist or neo-Nazi, united only by their suspicion of experts and hostility to mainstream beliefs and institutions.

In vaccine mandates, the party found its issue. While the vast majority of Canadians are in favour of both vaccines and vaccine mandates, a sizable minority is opposed. Only the PPC, and its leader, Maxime Bernier, have catered to that minority, at least overtly. Mr. O’Toole’s careful triangulating, on this as on other issues, risks alienating the centre, without placating the fringe.

That so many people are so unwilling to trust the science on vaccines, or so unable to see the reasonableness of requiring them, in the middle of a public-health emergency, is troubling – as is the willingness of Mr. Bernier and, to a lesser extent, Mr. O’Toole to pander to this paranoia. But so is the Liberal Leader’s readiness to demonize the dissenters – “those people” – for political purposes. Mandates are an important way of persuading the unpersuaded, but there is no harm in mixing firmness with a little compassion and understanding.

Bipartisan demagoguery on vaccines, however, is nothing compared to the all-party abdication of principle on Bill 21: legislation passed by the Quebec legislature that, effectively, imposes a hiring ban on observant members of religious minorities across much of the public sector. There’s also Bill 96, which would further restrict the use of English in the province, while purporting to amend the Canadian Constitution to entrench Quebec’s status as a “nation.” Both came wrapped in the notwithstanding clause, to protect them from judicial scrutiny. Neither has attracted more than a peep of protest from any of the main federal party leaders.

While all federal parties have pandered to Quebec nationalism, Mr. O’Toole has taken this to new heights. Not only does the Conservative platform promise not to intervene in any matter of provincial jurisdiction, but it puts important elements of federal jurisdiction – tax collection, the language of work in federally regulated workplaces – under provincial control.

For his pains, he has increased Conservative support in the province by perhaps a couple of percentage points.

Where does this leave us, a couple of days before the vote? In a pickle, most likely. The two leading parties – again, if current polls are any guide – will each finish with less than a third of the vote, for the first time ever. Factor in turnout – most likely in the low 60s – and the next government will have a “mandate” of a little over one-fifth of the eligible voters: again, a historic low.

At this stage a Liberal minority remains the most likely outcome. But what kind of minority? The number to watch is 140. So long as they hold onto at least 140 seats, they should be able to pass legislation with the support of either the NDP or the Bloc, as before. Fewer than 140, and they would be solely dependent on the NDP: a weaker position. Fewer than 130, and they would likely require the support of both parties – a much weaker position.

The Conservatives would probably need to win a few more than 140 to form a government. A mere plurality of the seats would not necessarily suffice: the Liberals might choose to carry on governing, probably in some sort of arrangement with the NDP. It would likely require a substantial Conservative margin – more than 10 seats, at a guess – to persuade Mr. Trudeau to resign.

Of course, his party may have something to say about that. The point of the exercise, after all, was to win a majority. A large minority, at least as large as the one he had before, would allow him a graceful exit, a year or 18 months from now. But anything less and the pressure would be on him to step down sooner.

The Conservative leadership may also be in play. Perhaps Mr. O’Toole would not need to win outright to stay on; possibly an increased number of seats would be enough. But after all the compromises on policy he forced on the party? The fractious elements of the Conservative coalition, and their ambitious standard-bearers, may have other ideas.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe