Erin O’Toole says his Conservatives will be ready for a snap election, but heaven knows he doesn’t want one. One of the first things the new Conservative Leader did was warn that Justin Trudeau might be trying to engineer one.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet has warned more than once that he might put forward a no-confidence motion. But it would take the combined votes of the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP to bring down the Liberal government.
So who wants an election? And who doesn’t? Most Canadians don’t seem to be itching for one. Are their politicians?
Mr. Blanchet is the only leader suggesting publicly that he’s gung ho, threatening to vote no confidence in the government unless Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resigns over the WE Charity controversy. But his threats won’t make much difference.
The Bloc, after all, has 32 seats, a long way from a majority in the 338-seat House of Commons, so unless the Tories and New Democrats are on his side, Mr. Blanchet is making an empty threat. He can afford to sound tough, too, because he is in a good position for an election.
He may be threatening the Liberals with an election, but if one comes, he will be competing with the Conservatives for votes. In general, the Bloc and the Tories compete for the support of Quebeckers outside of Montreal, who won’t even consider voting for Mr. Trudeau. And at the moment, every poll shows the Bloc is winning that competition hands down, with the Conservatives at a low ebb in Quebec.
That’s a problem for Mr. O’Toole, of course, but not his biggest. Polls suggests his Conservatives are behind the Liberals everywhere except the Prairies, and far behind in Ontario. Why would he rush into an election if the starting point is behind where Andrew Scheer left it in last year’s vote?
Mr. O’Toole is less than a week into the job, and despite his assertions that he will be ready for a snap election, he won’t have a national organization in place in weeks, doesn’t yet have an election platform for the COVID-19 world and is still an unknown to most Canadians. The Conservatives would probably prefer to run some pre-election advertising to introduce their new leader to the public.
That’s why Mr. O’Toole’s first news conference included a suggestion that Mr. Trudeau might be trying to “engineer” an election.
A quick look at Mr. Trudeau’s behaviour in August certainly makes it look like he’s up to something. He cut loose his finance minister, ostensibly to appoint one, Chrystia Freeland, more in tune with the big-spending interventionist recovery agenda he has in mind. He prorogued Parliament, pausing the parliamentary hearings into the WE Charity affair. His team signalled there will be a fall mini-budget. That means Mr. Trudeau will set up two opportunities to vote no confidence in his government – on a Throne Speech when Parliament reopens and on a mini-budget.
But in this Parliament, engineering an election would be very tricky for the Liberals.
The Liberals can fill a mini-budget with triggers that make it hard for the Conservatives to support it, presumably big-spending programs and green measures. But then it’s hard to offend the NDP in the same document, especially because the Liberals want to woo its voters.
Unlike the other major opposition parties, the NDP’s strategy is to work with the minority Liberals. Many senior New Democrats think their voters like to hear them talk about making Parliament work, and that their party succeeds when it claims credit for forcing progressive policies on the Liberals. The NDP isn’t flush with cash, so if Mr. Trudeau wants to, he can bargain for its support. He’d have a hard time presenting a big interventionist budget that doesn’t get it.
So unless there’s dramatic change, it’s really up to Mr. Trudeau. If he wants a fall election, he’ll probably have to call it himself.
Doing that during a pandemic is risky – especially if it is widely seen as cynical self-interest. Prorogation, taking advantage of a rookie leader – two, in fact, because the Green Party elects a new leader on Oct. 3 – might seem too crass. Perhaps later this fall, after elections in the United States and two Canadian provinces, calling a vote in the era of COVID-19 might seem more normal. Opposition attacks might help Mr. Trudeau justify going to the polls.
But really, it’s only Mr. Trudeau who will decide. The question is whether he is ready to gamble.
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