Everything is political, even – especially – national emergencies. This is true of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left the federal Conservatives in desperate straits.
This could change with time if the Liberals fail to deliver on their promise to protect Canadians from what could be a savage economic downturn.
But it won’t be lost on any politician in Ottawa that if an election were held tomorrow, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals would be headed for a third term.
The coronavirus pandemic is turning into the worst crisis Canada has faced since the Second World War. Voters are anxious; many are frightened. They are counting on their federal and provincial governments to protect them from both the virus and the economic fallout. The partisan stripe of any government is irrelevant right now.
Because they have acted decisively and co-operatively, John Horgan’s NDP in British Columbia, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in Ontario, François Legault’s CAQ in Quebec, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa and other governments have all benefited.
Politically, all incumbent governments are advantaged, and all opposition parties disadvantaged.
The fact that Parliament has been suspended makes things even harder for the federal opposition parties. And when a shrunken Parliament returns briefly to pass emergency legislation, Canadians will expect the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP to offer the Liberals their full support. In times like this, the opposition doesn’t get to play the role of opposition.
The situation for the federal Conservatives is particularly dire because the party is in the midst of a leadership race. For the front-running candidates, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, the political universe consists of about 100,000 card-carrying Conservatives who will choose the leader. (There is, I am told, little selling of memberships going on, and many e-mails sent to those on the list of existing party members have bounced back, leaving a relatively small pool of actual voters.)
Mr. O’Toole and Mr. MacKay must tool their messages to these Conservative partisans, which is why both candidates have been complaining loudly about asylum-seekers who continue to enter Canada at irregular border crossings.
This is a fair concern: Whatever international conventions may dictate, Canadians will have little patience with asylum-seekers who are allowed to cross the border when most American citizens no longer can. But this is hardly topic No. 1 right now for most people. The Tory rhetoric on this issue is harsh and inappropriate.
The dynamic will shift after March 25, which is the deadline for candidates raising $300,000 and acquiring 3,000 signatures in order to stay in the race. (Besides Mr. O’Toole and Mr. MacKay, Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis is expected to clear the bar, and perhaps one or two others.)
Once the leadership is decided on June 27, the new leader will be able to shift to a more statesmanlike tone. But for now, the Tories sound tone-deaf in the midst of this crisis.
Any passage of time is a long time in politics. Whatever the candidates say during the leadership race will be forgotten once it’s over.
And crass as this may sound, the Conservatives’ best hope is that the Trudeau government will fail in its efforts to contain the economic damage from COVID-19.
Millions of Canadians are going to be sequestered for weeks, perhaps even months. The economy is almost certainly already in recession, one that could get much, much worse. The Liberals are going to rack up deficits unlike anything seen outside of wartime, and even that may not be enough to prevent waves of bankruptcies and job losses.
If things get bad enough, voters might turn on their governments in anger. In that case, incumbents of any stripe could be tossed. That could help the Conservatives federally, just as it helps opposition parties provincially.
There is also another factor: Whatever is happening in the larger economy, the oil and gas sector is in particularly dire shape, which could once again harm Liberal prospects in Western Canada.
Conservative supporters are in the uncomfortable situation of knowing that their prospects for power depend on things going badly. That’s generally the rule for opposition parties under normal circumstances, and even more so now. For voters on the right, no matter how you look at things, they’re grim.
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