Liberal partisans are gathering virtually Thursday for the start of what will likely be the federal party’s last major convention before an election, expected as early as this year.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has insisted that he does not want an election, but his party organizers have been nominating candidates and laying the groundwork for one. And campaign readiness is playing a big role in the Liberal Party’s three-day convention. Amid the policy discussions is a long list of election workshops, including human resources training, advice on fundraising and digital campaigning, and tips for navigating tight races.
“We’re certainly not focused on the election,” Liberal MP and convention co-chair Terry Beech said Wednesday, but he added, “I think this is probably the last convention before the next election.”
The convention is an opportunity to highlight policy contrasts with other parties, energize the party’s base, and test out technology and online event logistics for a possible COVID-19 pandemic election, senior Liberals and former campaign organizers say. The coronavirus has put a damper on what would normally be loud election chatter 18 months into a minority government, but with vaccinations ramping up, so is talk about a possible campaign.
With a lead of about 10 points in his firm’s poll tracker, Nik Nanos, the founder of Nanos Research, said Wednesday the Liberals are well positioned for a majority.
He said the party needs to stay united and avoid the pitfalls Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole faced at his party’s convention in March, where members rejected a motion that recognized the reality of climate change. The vote was seen as a direct rebuke of Mr. O’Toole, who had told his party the issue is real and Conservatives need to stop debating it.
Mr. Nanos said his firm has seen support for the Conservatives fall since then.
All parties are preparing for an election and, as of Wednesday, the Greens had nominated four candidates, the NDP had 40, the Liberals had 132 and the Tories had 185. The NDP have said they would vote with the government on any confidence vote during the pandemic, meaning it’s likely the Liberals would have to pull the plug on their own government if they want an election soon. That’s politically doable, in particular because of how much has changed since the 2019 election, said Michele Cadario, who was the Liberal campaign director for then-prime minister Paul Martin in 2004.
The Liberals should use the convention to preview the budget and start highlighting policy differences “that you can take to the polls and make into a ballot question,” she said.
Mounting COVID-19 case counts across the country and record intensive care admissions in Ontario make an election call immediately following the budget unlikely, but that could change in a few months if the pace of vaccinations keeps increasing, said David Herle, the former campaign co-chair for Mr. Martin and Kathleen Wynne, and host of the Herle Burly political podcast.
“They are using this convention primarily as a campaign workshop, so I think they would be ready to go but my sense is that this is a very live debate within the government,” he said.
While there are risks of going to the polls in a pandemic, Mr. Herle said people often forget there’s also a risk of not going and missing a window of opportunity.
The Liberals still face several challenges, including a sluggish start to the vaccine rollout, and pressure to chart an economic recovery amid a recession and significant deficits that the government most recently forecast at $381.6-billion for 2020-21.
The government will table its first budget in more than two years on April 19, and it’s expected to contain plans to spend as much as $100-billion on economic stimulus. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is already billing it as the most significant fiscal blueprint of “our lifetimes.” In January, she said it would focus on building an economy that is more innovative, competitive, greener and more sustainable.
Ms. Freeland will make a keynote appearance at the convention on Thursday night alongside Mr. Martin. On Friday, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney will address the virtual crowd. Mr. Trudeau will close out the gathering with a speech on Saturday afternoon.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said the convention is all the more important given the challenges of connecting with party members during the pandemic, and to lay out priorities.
“A large gathering virtually to connect with and engage with the Liberal membership, I think is really important just to connect but also in advance of any potential election,” he said.
The federal government has been heavily criticized for failing to adequately prepare for the pandemic, but its financial supports were established quickly and Mr. Erskine-Smith said there’s consensus that the economic crisis would have been much worse if the government hadn’t stepped in.
Despite the significant challenges in responding to COVID-19, former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan said the Prime Minister “led well through this situation.”
“I think the polls are where they are because the government has been there for Canadians,” she said.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.