Times have changed. That’s the idea Justin Trudeau will put to the test as he is set to launch an election campaign Sunday.
For starters, it will serve as the basic pretext for calling an election two years before his official term ends. You can expect he will argue that the pandemic has changed the country so much it is time to seek a new mandate.
Beyond that, the entire Liberal campaign will be a political gamble that times have changed.
It is based on the idea that the pandemic has altered the mindset of Canadian voters – that they have been given a sense of vulnerability not just about COVID-19 but what comes after, that government has to do more, and that they are in no mood to count the costs.
Already, Liberal ministers have been fanning out for weeks to make funding announcements while they are still in government announcing plans, rather than politicians making promises – for $10-a-day child care, infrastructure projects and other programs, and on Thursday, pumping $1.4-billion into Telesat to promote rural broadband access.
Sources say Mr. Trudeau is expected to visit Governor-General Mary Simon on Sunday to trigger a campaign that will end in a Sept. 20 vote. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Mr. Trudeau’s pandemic promise was that the federal government would do “whatever it takes” to get folks through it. Over 36 days of an election campaign, he will tell Canadians his approach to the future will be a lot like that, too. Bigger Liberalism. More.
The polls suggest Mr. Trudeau is solidly ahead now, but only two years ago he and his Liberals faltered in an election test. He kept power, but lost the popular vote, and his majority.
Then, he was defending $30-billion-ish deficits. Now, he isn’t just coming off a $354-billion pandemic-year deficit, there’s a $154-billion projected deficit for this year.
In 2019, the Liberals were fighting Conservative opponents attacking their carbon levy and NDP and Green opponents saying they weren’t doing enough on climate change. Since then, the Liberals have pledged to triple the carbon price, and budgeted billions and billions for green-industry programs.
It’s not that they won’t still get criticized on all sides. It’s that they have decided the pandemic allows them to pick a side more decisively.
Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have always campaigned to the left to squeeze the NDP, but usually had to keep an eye on the swing-voter middle ground, and concerns of fiscal prudence, or stark change. In 2021, there is a built-in calculation that swing voters aren’t thinking that way.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is, on the other hand, planning more of a classic swing-voter campaign, appealing to the middle ground, promising something more like a return to normalcy, with a little more management, and prosaic priorities – portraying himself as a leader with worked-out plans.
It seems pretty clear that the Liberals have decided 2021 swing voters aren’t about planning so much as being protected, and that Mr. Trudeau’s whatever-it-takes pandemic mantra strikes the right emotional connection for voters who feel vulnerable.
One part of the Liberal campaign will be to point out that the pandemic isn’t yet over, and argue that they will finish the job. As the incumbent, he was the leader seen on TV on a near-daily basis, and will boast that he got the country through it – that’s a preamble to an election message suggesting Mr. Trudeau is all about protecting the vulnerable in the future.
The NDP are aiming at undermining the idea that Mr. Trudeau protects the vulnerable, with a tax-the-rich campaign built on the idea that the Liberal Leader allows rich “friends” to pay little while ordinary folks bear an unfair burden.
And the thing is, the entire Liberal operating principle for this campaign is built on a political assumption that can only be tested in an election campaign: that the pandemic has changed minds, and concerns dramatically.
That’s a gamble that Mr. Trudeau has been signalling for roughly a year now, since his first election flirtation, when he pushed out then-finance minister Bill Morneau and prorogued Parliament, only to back off in the face of a second wave of COVID-19. Mr. Morneau’s replacement, Chrystia Freeland, reinforced it in a big-spending budget this spring. After Sunday, it will be put to the test.
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.