Peter Donolo is vice-chair of Hill + Knowlton Strategies. He was director of communications to former prime minister Jean Chrétien.
It’s the worst-kept secret in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been gearing up to call an early fall election, just two years into his mandate. It’s the most telegraphed “snap” election in Canadian history.
The problem is that he is presenting no rationale, no casus belli, for an early call. He has no real problem passing legislation in Parliament. His political opponents are decrying an early election, pointing out that Canadians are punch-drunk from more than a year-and-a-half of dealing with COVID-19, and anxious about new variants that threaten to torpedo our tentative return to a semblance of order.
Sniffing a majority government in the wind is not a viable public pretext for an election; most voters would see that – rightly – as a prioritizing of Mr. Trudeau’s interest, not theirs. Moreover, while every poll shows the Liberals currently leading their rivals, elections in Canada have become notoriously volatile affairs. Remember when Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals entered the 2015 election in third place? Add to that the fact that the Liberals have yet to pierce majority territory in most polls, and that incumbent Liberal governments historically tend to lose altitude during federal election campaigns, and it starts becoming clear that – as currently defined – a fall election looks less like a slam dunk for the Liberals, and more like a risky proposition.
The irony is that there is a reason to call an early election – a compelling reason. And it’s staring Mr. Trudeau right in the face: vaccine passports.
The Prime Minister has basically dodged the issue up to now. He has claimed that it’s up to the provinces to decide whether to issue such proof-of-immunization systems – not exactly bold leadership during a prolonged period of crisis. But he could change all that in an instant – exhibiting decisiveness and boldness, capturing the mood of the vast majority of Canadians and allaying public fears and anxiety. Most importantly, he could actually take effective action to protect his fellow citizens.
Until we have a nationwide, coast-to-coast standard to safeguard Canadians from infection spread by those who refuse to be inoculated, our chain of protection will be as strong as its weakest link.
In seeking a mandate to introduce a pan-Canadian vaccine passport, the Prime Minister would be acknowledging that he is proposing an unprecedented step. And that is exactly why governments should seek new mandates. Instead of an election about nothing more than whether the Liberals can wheedle a majority from a groggy and resentful electorate, it would be about whether voters give them the go-ahead to move in an important, if not uncommon, direction.
It would also be an example of when doing the right thing also happens to be good politics.
The fact is that 80 per cent of those aged 12 and older have already received at least one dose of vaccine. By that measure, we can infer that a supermajority of actual voters have been inoculated, given that teenagers under 18 have been relatively slow in getting the vaccine. Anyone who has ever advised a political leader will tell you that when you have an issue that roughly 80 per cent of the electorate agree on, you have a winner – especially if your main opponent won’t touch it.
And that seems to be exactly the case here. By all accounts, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is a decent and reasonable person. So are most of his supporters. But among them are a highly vocal minority of people who see vaccine passports as the first step in a forced march to totalitarianism. They posit wacky ideas about vaccines being worse than the coronavirus. And they vote.
For the Conservatives, the unfortunate truth is that these people vote disproportionately for parties of the right. How else can one explain the bizarre heedlessness of Canada’s Conservative premiers when it comes to COVID-19, including the refusal of Ontario Premier Doug Ford to require teachers and personal support workers to be vaccinated, or the rush by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs to drop mask requirements?
As unsavoury as it surely is for him, Mr. O’Toole needs the lion’s share of that 20 per cent or so of anti-vaccine voters in order to win the election. And if a vaccine passport becomes the ballot question, he will likely be cowed into an awkward and self-defeating silence, leaving the field open to those advocating the move.
In the end, it is Mr. Trudeau’s call – figuratively as well as literally. Will he make the election about nothing more than a sly play for more seats? Or will he present Canadians with a purpose and seek their partnership?
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