It is an amorphous mass, its shape undefined, its substance or sentience unknown. It is the Canadian federal election campaign so far: The Blob.
It’s not a campaign about nothing, but a campaign about everything. National child-care programs, long-term care, income supports, green industry, climate change, boosting the economy and every party’s own plan for creating one million jobs. All the major parties have their most extensive and expensive catalogues of campaign promises ever.
Yet there isn’t a focused question that politicians are fighting over. There isn’t a thing, or theme, at the centre. Maybe that’s partly because it’s only been a week, in August, when the public isn’t paying full attention. And the politicians may be keeping some powder dry.
Nevertheless, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau should be afraid of The Blob.
Just a week ago, Nova Scotians tossed out a Liberal government that had taken the province through 17 months of pandemic for a Conservative Party that focused on one driving issue for the future: health care.
The Nova Scotia election isn’t like this federal one. Defeated premier Iain Rankin had only been in charge six months, and he didn’t have Mr. Trudeau’s campaign-performance chops. But a big part of the Nova Scotia Liberals’ problem was Mr. Rankin didn’t have a focused answer to the basic question: What is this election campaign all about?
He’s not the first to make that mistake.
The most legendary Canadian case was Ontario Liberal premier David Peterson, who is widely cited as a cautionary tale about an incumbent calling an election too early, but was really the classic example of an incumbent failing to offer a focused answer to the question of what’s at stake, and why voters should cast their ballot for them.
Stephen Harper made another version of that mistake in the 2008 federal campaign. He didn’t lose the election, but he failed in his bid to upgrade his minority government to a majority even though his Conservatives had already managed to paint the Liberal opposition leader, Stéphane Dion, as hapless.
In that campaign, Mr. Harper successfully beat back complaints that infringed the spirit of his own fix-date election law to call an early vote. But even some of his own campaign staffers were frustrated by his professorial explanations of what the election was about, and failure to offer voters a pithy, focused answer to the question of why Canadians should vote for him.
Mr. Trudeau’s strategists know all these things. It is Politics 101. They know voters usually don’t cast their ballots to express approval of what governments have done, but rather about what they offer for the future. Yet Mr. Trudeau still hasn’t framed the election. He hasn’t provided a focused answer to the basic question raised by calling an election: What is this all about?
At his first opportunity, when he spoke to reporters after visiting Governor-General Mary Simon to trigger the campaign on Aug. 15, Mr. Trudeau focused on getting past the first day, rather than answering the big question. He led with a wedge issue, about which party will back robust vaccine restriction. That petered out after a few days.
And Mr. Trudeau’s answers to the big “why” question are still rambling discussions of all things Liberal, from child care to climate change to vaccine, having Canadians’ backs and choosing forward rather than backward.
Perhaps Liberal strategists figure Mr. Trudeau has time, that the real campaign will be a post-Labour Day sprint. But the danger for the Liberals is that The Blob takes on a shape they didn’t expect.
So far, Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives haven’t wielded an incisive issue on par with the health care focus that allowed Nova Scotia Conservative Leader Tim Houston to frame the election with his question.
The federal Conservatives are trying to make the economy their issue, but it’s a lot harder to convince voters any federal government can improve the economy, let alone convince them it will improve the economy for them. The Conservatives’ platform, including their economic platform, is unfocused, too.
But if Mr. O’Toole did somehow succeed in linking his party with economic recovery in the minds of swing voters, the Liberals would be left scrambling.
In the meantime, Mr. Trudeau should worry. He triggered this election, but he hasn’t shaped it.
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