It’s always a downer when a federal election rolls around and we are reminded that what is supposed to be a sacred moment in our democracy is routinely tainted by politicians gaming the campaign in their favour.
Take Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for instance. As far as can be deduced from his actions and announcements to date, he is aiming to have one of the shortest election campaigns allowed under the Canada Elections Act, and to participate in the fewest leaders’ debates allowed under the ever-shifting convention that determines how many debates are enough, and how few are too few.
If you recall, the 2015 campaign was the longest in modern Canadian history – 11 weeks, basically. As well, the prime minister who called the election on Aug. 4 of that year, Stephen Harper, participated in five debates, including one hosted by The Globe and Mail.
In contrast, this election campaign will last less than six weeks, and it could be as short as 36 days – the minimum allowed by law – by the time Mr. Trudeau gets around to asking the Governor-General to issue the writs. He has until Sunday to do so.
As well, Mr. Trudeau will participate in just three debates, including only one in English. Team Trudeau announced Friday that he will skip the leaders’ debate on foreign policy hosted by the Munk Debates in Toronto (this newspaper is a partner in that event), and a debate co-hosted by Maclean’s magazine and Citytv. The other leaders are in, as was Mr. Trudeau in 2015.
It’s fair to conclude that the Trudeau Liberals want to limit their leader’s exposure to political peril by curtailing the length of the campaign and depriving the other party leaders of too many occasions to share the stage. That’s a decision made by a one-term incumbent government that sits astride a strong economy and sees itself as a front-runner, but whose leader is vulnerable to attacks related to ethical lapses.
Mr. Harper made a different calculation in 2015. His three-term government was tired, and his personal popularity was bottoming out. The Conservative brain trust bet that a long election campaign, sprinkled with multiple debates and scads of advertising paid for by a bulging war chest, was their best chance to demonstrate that an incumbent PM was a more experienced and reliable choice than the untested Liberal leader or the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair.
It didn’t work, as history shows. There’s no guarantee Mr. Trudeau’s strategy of general anesthesia will work, either.
Mr. Trudeau is limiting himself to two nationally broadcast debates (one in French, one in English) organized by a neutral government commission, plus a third debate hosted by TVA, a French-language network.
In the spinning minds of the Liberals, Mr. Trudeau’s three debates add up to something more than Mr. Harper’s five debates because only two of those 2015 contests were broadcast on traditional network television. The others were shown on regional stations, the CPAC Parliamentary channel and something called the internet.
“The governing party tried to game the system and make sure the fewest number of Canadians engaged in the debates,” a spokesman for the Liberal Party said last week, describing 2015. “We think that’s wrong.”
And we think that’s ridiculous. So should anyone else who can count to five.
That said, no party is under any legal obligation to accept every invitation to debate. Once the leaders have agreed to a nationally broadcast debate in each official language, regardless of who organizes them, the minimum expectations have been met. As to whether they want to go beyond the minimum, the parties will make their own judgments on that, for their own political reasons – and voters are free to judge them accordingly.
What voters can also focus on are the reasons why a governing party and its leader would want to limit or maximize debate appearances, and why they would want a longer or shorter campaign. These things can be as telling as any well-timed verbal jab delivered from a televised podium.
Simply put, by keeping this campaign short and limiting Mr. Trudeau’s English-language debates to the bare minimum, the Liberals are telegraphing the message that they believe their best chance of winning lies, in part, in giving voters as little to chew on as possible.
Not that the Conservatives wouldn’t do likewise in the same situation. That’s the thing about federal votes: The parties tell us the election is all about us, but we’re pretty sure it’s about them.