Election Turning Points
As the 1988 federal election got underway, Liberal leader John Turner and his party were in sad shape. The polls had the Liberals in third place and Turner was seen as weak and indecisive. A botched child care announcement made things worse, raising questions about the competence of the leader and his team.
As senior Liberals began to muse about a mid-campaign Turner resignation due to his chronic and acutely painful back problems, CBC aired a story detailing an apprehended coup to replace Turner with Jean Chretien. Everyone assumed Turner was finished, but he shook it off, fought back and regained the lead in the polls. In the English-language debate, he clearly bested Brian Mulroney.
As damaging as last week’s images of Justin Trudeau in blackface were, it is still unclear as to whether they signal a turning point in the campaign or merely just a blip in voter intentions. Most polls released since the blackface blow-up have indicated virtually no movement. While most Canadians appear to be ready to “forgive and forget,” the media are apparently in no such mood. At several events over the weekend, Mr. Trudeau faced repeated media questions about loose ends in his explanations and apologies but turned them aside. Mr. Trudeau offered to apologise personally to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh who responded on CBC’s The House, “…I am open to having a conversation, as long as it remains private and I am not in any way used as a way for the Liberal Party to redeem the situation.”
Framing the campaign: Trust and values
After a tumultuous week, a fault line has emerged between media assessment of the blackface incidents and their probable impact and the views of voters. The sense of moral outrage in media coverage has blurred the lines between editorial comment and news while many voters, including people of colour and their organizations seemed to accept Mr. Trudeau’s apologies and move on. Nevertheless, the events and media coverage have reset Campaign 2019 and put it on a different course.
Our Elly Alboim says the media reaction was predictable and a function of the current culture of political journalism and the stresses that media confront during an election campaign.
To read Elly’s full comments about the coverage and his assessment of the new course of the campaign, please go to his column at Carleton University’s Capital Currents here.
Is Canada headed toward another minority government?
With the two leading parties “fighting to the death within the margin of error,” as one observer put it last week, it is not too early to consider the possibility of a minority government outcome on October 21.
Earnscliffe advisor and political veteran Geoff Norquay looks at Canada’s experience with minorities over the last six decades, explores how they are formed and highlights some of the myths and realities surrounding them. Click here to read.
The continuing fight for the “affordability” vote
After being forced off the campaign trail last Thursday to deal with the blackface crisis, the Liberals were first out of the gate on Friday with commitments on gun control. They propose to ban all military assault rifles, including the AR-15 and “work with provinces and municipalities to give municipalities the ability to further restrict—or ban—handguns.” They followed up with a thus far un-costed promise to raise the basic personal income tax deduction from $12,069 to $15,000 for people earning under $147,000. The increase would be phased in, reaching $15,000 by 2023. On Sunday, the Liberals also committed to a series of measures to reduce cell phone costs for consumers by 25 per cent. Mr. Trudeau kicked off the new week with the outline of a $6 billion health care package including pharmacare and more access to prescription drugs, front-line family doctors and mental health services. Details will be forthcoming.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, whose party in office had a rocky relationship with Canadian veterans, pledged a “military covenant,” a legislative commitment to respect veterans and ensure that their services are provided in a timely manner, and to create a fairer pension system. In a move that is sure to prompt criticism from some financial analysts fearful of personal over-indebtedness, Mr. Scheer promised to review the government’s financial stress test that mortgage-seekers must pass, and work to eliminate it altogether from mortgage renewals. In a direct appeal to young first-time house buyers, Scheer also promised to allow 30-year mortgages, an increase from the current 25-year limit.
In an announcement in west Quebec, which has been hard hit by spring floods and tornadoes in the past three years, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh pledged to add $2.5 billion to the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, and to remove the Fund’s existing requirement for provincial and municipal contributions. On Sunday night, Mr. Singh put in a solid appearance on Quebec’s flagship TV talk show Tout le monde en parle. Saying that he shares Québécois values on abortion and same-sex marriage, he also ruled out joining challenges of Québec’s hugely popular Bill 21, which prohibits public servants from wearing religious symbols.
Speaking in Winnipeg on the weekend, Green Party leader Elizabeth May said a Green Party government would decriminalize all illicit drug possession as a first step in dealing with the opioid crisis. She would also declare a national health emergency over opioids and increase funding for mental health, addictions programs and community organizations dealing with the problem.
A leadership moment for Singh
The mood of the NDP campaign was upbeat heading into week two. Riding high from a series of positive reviews of Jagmeet Singh’s performance in the leaders’ debate and a (so far) error free campaign, the NDP team was hoping move beyond the pre-writ perceptions of not being prepared to compete this time around.
While polls had yet to move in their direction, but some daylight beginning to show between the Orange and Green teams, the NDP campaign set its sights on Québec; a key province where they hold 14 seats, and a significant puzzle piece in changing the national narrative about the NDP’s electoral prospects. After a whirlwind two days and with Mr. Singh receiving plaudits for his skills as a “fearless campaigner,” the NDP then headed back to Ontario to announce a number of significant policy planks, focused squarely on the affordability crisis, including universal dental care for households making less than $70,000.
Then, the Trudeau blackface photo dropped, and it effectively gobbled up the previous eight days of the campaign whole. The “new” campaign began as each leader considered how to respond to the startling image now rocketing its way across screens around the globe.
Some say there’s a huge chasm between “reacting” to events and “responding” to them, both in life and on a campaign. The former is usually driven by short-term gain and knee-jerk considerations, the latter is driven by values, and is an opportunity to step squarely into the leadership spotlight and speak directly to Canadians.
For Jagmeet Singh, this was a moment for response. This was deeply personal and his words spoke volumes:
In that one moment Singh effectively reached beyond the political to connect directly with Canadians. It was a true moment of leadership for a candidate who many had written off as not ready to compete coming into this campaign.
While the political cynics may want to unpack the strategy behind Singh’s response and why he and his team chose this particular course, what’s more interesting and even more astounding is how devoid of political considerations this was. For Singh, this wasn’t about politics, rather an authentic drawing from his personal experience to comfort those who have faced discrimination, to let them know that they are seen and loved.
This was a rare moment of earnestness when every comma in every sentence, spoken by every candidate, is scrutinized for its political benefit. Leaving the political aside, it’s safe to say that Singh’s words in a difficult situation had a deep impact with those who needed to hear it. How all of this will manifest over the coming weeks is still to be seen, but this incident could set up a rather interesting dynamic in the upcoming leaders debate where Singh and Trudeau will be seeing each other, face to face for the very first time.
Will this first confrontation after “the photo” serve to dredge up this issue again for Mr. Trudeau, making it an active topic during the debate? How will Singh handle this meeting? Keen political watchers will no doubt be looking for signs of how each leader handles this situation. But in the end, that’s all politics, some things are bigger than polls.
READ: “Don’t underestimate rural rage in Canada”. Earnscliffe’s Robin Sears, NDP strategist, discusses the economic challenges faced by rural Ontarians and how it will impact their vote this October.
Canada-US Trade: A Wedge Issue?
While international trade issues have frequently flared into political firestorms in past Canadian elections, opposition parties now trying to stoke up a raging blaze of controversy over the Trudeau government’s handling of the tentative new NAFTA deal are so far producing a lot more smoke than fire.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer recently attacked Liberal leader Justin Trudeau for having sold out Canada in the new NAFTA deal, known as the Canada-US Mexico Agreement, or ”CUSMA”. Liberals were quick to counterattack, pointing out that Scheer had supported implementation of the deal, as did other prominent Conservatives.
While the Liberals might be open to criticism on some aspects of their trade policy while in office, Canada-U.S. relations is not likely to be one of them.
First, it is difficult to argue against something that you have been part of. The Trudeau Government’s approach to the CUSMA negotiations was multi-partisan from the start. Seeking counsel of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former Canadian heavyweights ranging from Rona Ambrose to Derek Burney largely inoculated the Liberals from attacks on the right. Bringing labour leaders closely into the fold similarly built a shield against attacks on the left.
Second, the comprehensive diplomatic effort to involve all levels of government – underpinned by the business community across the country – coalesced support for a Team Canada approach in dealing with the slings and arrows of President Donald Trump. This effort mobilized individual key Members of Parliament and Senators, as well as provincial and territorial leaders of all political stripes to press their case with allies in the United States.
To be sure, there were partisan attacks during the CUSMA negotiations, leveraged by opposition MPs representing sensitive sectors such as autos, steel, softwood lumber and agriculture. But when the final deal was inked by all three leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico, draft implementation legislation moved easily through Parliament. While opposition parties argued they ”could have done better,” the key achievements around market access, dispute settlement mechanism and other core issues were ”wins.”
Third, the Trudeau Government showed that it was prepared to retaliate against its closest trading partner in the context of the U.S. national security-based tariffs on Canadian exports of steel and aluminum. These tariffs were not lifted when Canada initially agreed to the CUSMA, but persistent negotiations paid off in the end and the tariffs were withdrawn.
Of course, this will not stop opposition parties on all sides from trying to exploit trade issues in this election. For example, expect Conservative and NDP candidates – particularly in British Columbia – to criticize the Liberals for not getting a deal on softwood lumber with the U.S.
So, an effective ”NAFTA wedge” is unlikely in the current election. This is true of trade more generally to the extent that the debate is no longer whether to have free trade, but whether how and with whom. Cases in point are the Trudeau Government’s success on trade agreements concluded with not only Europe, but also with a host of Asia-Pacific countries.
The one exception, of course, is China, with Canada caught in the middle of a Sino-American trade war, and potentially, a new cold war. The pre-election appointment of Dominic Barton as Canada’s ambassador to China, and tough talk by Foreign Affairs Minister and Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland, will help defend the Liberals against partisan attack. But negotiating the release of the detained Canadians, getting relations back on track, and security – especially cyber security – may well emerge as a foreign policy wedge issue that could eclipse trade in the days and weeks to come.
Shock and outrage can sometimes cause huge transformations in public support. The outrage can also sometimes be shockingly restricted to the bubble of partisans and the media. In December 2009, Prime Minister Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid a near-certain defeat of his government. Some suggested a populist revolt may be on the horizon, and the media filled their spaces with editorials, commentary and quotes that overwhelmingly criticized the move. The fact that 200,000 people had joined a Facebook group called “Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament” was rather quickly taken as evidence that the outrage was widespread.
As evidenced by the polls that our team undertook at the time, the outrage was not nearly as widespread as assumed and had little to no impact on vote intentions.
With the intense coverage of the blackface photos and videos of Prime Minister Trudeau, we have a similar level of hyper-focus and criticism. The default assumption by many is that this will go down as the “TSN turning point” of the election. It may, but it also may not…and the early evidence is suggesting that after a rather brief and small shift in support, numbers are quickly returning almost back to where they were a week ago. It’s possible this is an issue that is still festering, but it also may be that it is not changing many minds.
A week ago, we said the latest polls had the Liberals and Conservatives neck-and-neck with neither appearing to have more than 35% of the vote. In the wake of the photos, most polls released over the past few days show basically the same thing, although one poll stands out as finding a 5% Conservative lead.
READ: ‘Best response is an unqualified apology’: How politicians survive political scandals. Earnscliffe’s Charles Bird, Liberal strategist, shares his tips on how to effectively manage a political scandal, an unqualified apology being the key to survival, in this piece by Mark Gollom for CBC News.
Election 2019 Key Dates
- September 26, 2019, 2:00 p.m. local time – Candidate Nomination deadline
- October 2, 2019 – TVA French-Language Leaders Debate
- October 7, 2019 – Advance Polls Open
- October 7, 2019 – English-Language Leaders Debate
- October 10, 2019 – French-Language Leaders Debate
- October 21, 2019 – Election Day