Skip to main content

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau listens to a question at a campaign rally in Saskatoon on Sept. 19, 2019.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Revelations that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau once liked to darken his skin colour for fun have galvanized this once-sleepy election campaign. But the furor doesn’t alter the fundamental question facing voters: Which leader should they trust in a time of increasing economic insecurity?

David Herle, the political consultant who has guided many a Liberal campaign, believes that this election centres on “the holy grail of working-and-middle-class affordability, which is the issue for every election in the world right now.”

Whether it be suburban Toronto or suburban Philadelphia or suburban London or suburban Berlin, those who struggle to navigate the challenges of the gig economy – in which employment is precarious, security non-existent and benefits few – are searching for political leaders who will help them get beyond their paycheque-to-paycheque existence.

The Conservatives focus on providing workers with more money to spend. Their platform places a heavy emphasis on cutting income taxes and carbon taxes. The Liberals focus on providing additional security, on everything from child care to old-age pensions. On Friday, Mr. Trudeau expanded that list to include personal security, by proposing new gun-control measures.

But of course it’s never just about policy. It’s also about trust, or lack of it, in the leaders. The Liberals try to discredit Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer by accusing him of harbouring a hidden agenda that would restrict abortion access or that would limit full equality for sexual minorities.

The Conservatives, in turn, accuse Mr. Trudeau of cronyism, corruption and broken promises – “not as advertised.”

While many minds are made up, veteran pollster and political consultant Greg Lyle points to one crucial group of undecided voters, what he calls “time-for-change Liberals." These are voters who are unhappy with what is going on in Ottawa and want to see change, but who generally believe, as he put it, that “the Liberal Party has its problems but they’re still the best party to form government.”

The Liberal goal is to demonize Mr. Scheer, pushing these discontented voters back into the Liberal fold, while the Conservatives emphasize the need for change.

The photographs of Mr. Trudeau in blackface and brownface bolster the Conservative narrative. But it is NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh who has most poignantly explained why Mr. Trudeau’s past racist acts harm visible-minority Canadians today.

If the issue does permanent damage to the Trudeau brand, Mr. Lyle believes, it is the NDP Leader who is best positioned to inflict it – perhaps during the leaders’ debates in October.

Another October event that could sway the outcome is Thanksgiving weekend. For three days, the political parties will be forced to largely suspend their campaigns, while Canadian families get together to chew over the state of things and consider – many for the first time, perhaps – which parties, policies and leaders they should support.

“The Thanksgiving thing is interesting,” said Jaime Watt, who heads the consulting firm Navigator. “That’s when the smart sister-in-law explains the whole thing to the family.” But he still doesn’t know whether anything that has happened in this election campaign will serve as “a triggering event” that will frame the smart sister-in-law’s narrative.

Despite the invective, the fear mongering, the furor over this old photo or that old speech, all developed nations confront this reality: Globalization has not worked for everyone. The knowledge economy leaves those without the tools to profit from it vulnerable and insecure. Vulnerability can breed resentment, leading to a populist backlash.

Progressives believe insecure working- and middle-class Canadians need and want increased social supports. Conservatives don’t entirely disagree – on Friday, Mr. Scheer promised a Conservative government would spend $1.5-billion on medical imaging equipment – but place a greater emphasis on reducing the size and demands of the state. In this election, neither side is dominant. Polls show the Conservatives and Liberals essentially tied, and neither leader very popular. The NDP and Elizabeth May’s Green Party compete for third place.

“The election hasn’t gelled because nobody’s talking about things in a way that reaches people on the affordability question,” said Mr. Herle. “The people who figure that out are going to turn this campaign into something.”

The leaders have a little more than four weeks to make that sale.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.