Earnscliffe Election Insights 2019

Earnscliffe Election Insights 2019


Welcome to Election Insights, Earnscliffe’s analysis on the 2019 federal campaign, which will be delivered to your inbox every Tuesday morning. Earnscliffe will summarize the week’s key campaign developments, strategies that motivate the parties, and the major issues that arise on the campaign trail.

Across Earnscliffe, our multi-partisan advisors have decades of campaign experience. Election Insights will draw on that knowledge running campaigns, setting strategies, managing crises and working in war-rooms. You will hear directly from them as we work to get behind the day-to-day headlines to focus on policy, party and specific strategic issues and their impacts.

And, they’re off…

Canada’s 43rd general election kicked off yesterday as the Prime Minister visited the Governor-General who signed the writ making it official.  Canadians will go to the polls on October 21 at the end of a 40-day campaign.

All the party leaders put their preferred campaign themes in the window as the campaign began:

  • Justin Trudeau said that voters have a clear choice to make: “keep moving forward and build on the progress we’ve made, or go back to the politics of the Harper years.” This was only one of a half-dozen references Mr. Trudeau made to the former Conservative Prime Minister; Andrew Scheer was not mentioned once.
  • Speaking in Trois Rivieres, Andrew Scheer played off the SNC-Lavalin issue and also took the political route in his campaign kick-off: “The Liberals are only interested in power. Conservatives are interested in you and your family.”
  • Jagmeet Singh stuck to NDP policy in London, focussing on pharmacare, affordable housing and the creation of clean tech jobs. Media observers credited him with a successful campaign launch but unfortunately, the NDP lost two candidates yesterday, one in British Columbia due to past social media comments and one in Quebec after allegations of spousal abuse.
  • Declaring that the world is facing a climate crisis, Elizabeth May said that “This is the most important election in Canadian history.”
  • People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Berner was called a climate criminal and a racist by a heckler at a riding office opening in London, and said the key issues of the campaign would be immigration and taxation.

Four of the six leaders were violently in agreement yesterday on one issue—Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans the wearing of any religious symbols for a wide range of public servants and officials.  Trudeau, Scheer, Singh and May all oppose it, but none is prepared to take federal action to intervene against it.  This prompted both Premier Legault and Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet to warn federal leaders to “butt out.”  Given that Bill 21 is hugely popular among Québécois, this issue will have staying power throughout the campaign.

 #elxn43 and the media 

Campaign launches are rarely the most memorable moments in federal elections, and yesterday’s kick-off was no exception. Despite all the political stagecraft, with good photo-ops, colourful podium art, and seemingly ubiquitous “people as props” backdrops, it was the agenda-setting ability of the media that arguably had the biggest impact the first day of the 2019 federal election.

To the media, political campaigns are unfortunately treated more like sports events, where the focus is placed on the score and who wins. Prominence is placed on breathless reporting of horserace numbers, and coverage that searches for news that will affect the game and the outcome.  That media approach was evident on the first day of the campaign.

The Globe and Mail’s front-page news story on the RCMP looking into the potential obstruction of justice in the SNC Lavalin case managed to set the agenda for the day, with Conservatives pouncing on the storyline with rhetorical passion and Liberals forced to react. The ink spilled in the Globe was more notable for its ability to disrupt the election call than for its news. Sure, call it a marketing coup for the newspaper—the Globe won the predictable struggle for the day’s agenda between the politicians and media—but how does this help inform voters?

This is where we take a moment to wryly sympathize with all the backroom party tour planners and speech writers who have worked for weeks, if not months, trying to craft the perfect campaign launch event.

The start of the campaign should be a moment when Canadian voters hear what is on offer from the parties: the speeches of political leaders designed to set out the party’s frame for the election, define the ideal ballot-box question for voters, and motivate voters to choose their party banner.

These are lesser priorities for the media.  Welcome to Election 2019. This pattern will persist throughout the campaign.


READ: Earnscliffe’s Elly Alboim, veteran CBC producer and former senior advisor to the Martin government, presents 13 variables that could influence the direction of the campaign and shape the ultimate outcome. 




WATCH: Earnscliffe’s Kathleen Monk, NDP strategist, joins Vassey Kapelos from CBC’s Power and Politics to explain the tactics and tools used in creating political photo-ops.

The leaders and parties at the starting gate

In 2015, Justin Trudeau led his Liberals to take a come-from-behind election victory with a comfortable 11-seat majority.  Buoyed by an election platform that detailed 289 separate promises, Trudeau overcame his “just not ready” critics and successfully tapped into the widespread view that it was time for a change.

In 2019, Mr. Trudeau is no longer a newcomer seeking to define and prove himself, but an incumbent with a record to celebrate…and to defend.  While the government’s Mandate Tracker can rightfully report completion or progress on many of those promises, that will not forestall serious criticism of the government’s record.  Prominently cited will be the abandonment of electoral reform, numerous failures on the Indigenous reconciliation file, delays on pipeline construction and the promise of “a modest short-term deficit” for each of the first three years followed by a balanced budget by the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Mr. Trudeau will also face criticism on a series of ethical and judgement issues: the Aga Khan vacation, the embarrassing India trip and the SNC Lavalin case which paralysed the government for weeks earlier this year.

Andrew Scheer is contesting his first national election as leader.  Like most first-timers, he is still learning the position and introducing himself to the Canadian people.  He has been described as “Stephen Harper with a smile,” but while his predecessor could indeed be prickly and dour, Mr. Scheer has yet to prove he has Mr. Harper’s intellect and tactical capabilities.  His recent attempt to push back against the Liberals’ baiting on social conservative issues was underwhelming and did not put the issue to bed.

The Conservative Caucus is capable and includes several former ministers from the previous government.  Their collective focus in the campaign will be economic, specifically affordability.  For their true believers, they will attack the Liberals on deficits and the debt, but they will also go directly at Mr. Trudeau’s strong suit—the middle class—targeting those Canadians who are anxious and fearful about their economic future.

Since 2015, Conservative governments have been elected in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  While this will be helpful to Scheer in most provinces, it could be a liability in Ontario, because the Liberals are hard at work linking Scheer to the widely unpopular government of Doug Ford.


READ: Courtesy of Policy Magazine, Conservative advisor Yaroslav Baran explores the options Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has for fighting the charisma battle to claim the mantle of Canada’s “soccer dad”.


The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh has had a rough transition from provincial MPP in Ontario to national leader.  He lost valuable time by choosing not to contest a by-election shortly after his leadership victory in October 2017.  He has had an uneasy learning curve as leader and had difficulty connecting with the capable and experienced national caucus: 15 NDP MPs elected in 2015 have chosen not to run this time.  The leader and caucus’ decision to remove Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir after a sexual harassment investigation was another bad moment badly managed, that caused anger among older New Democrats in his home province.

The NDP’s challenges run even deeper. The party closed out 2018 with assets worth $4.7 million and liabilities totalling $9.2 million, leaving the party $4.5 million in the hole.  In 2019, the party’s fundraising has been surpassed by the Greens. With the election now underway, the NDP is still looking for candidates in 104 of the 338 constituencies.  Taken together, these challenges are daunting, but long-time NDP insiders have seen the party written off for dead before only to survive to fight again.  We will see.


READ: Veteran NDP strategist Robin Sears looks back at the challenges faced by the NDP over the past decade and how bold and risky policy proposals could secure the party’s future.


The Greens

In the past 12-18 months, Elizabeth May and the Greens have seen their support grow significantly across the country.  The CBC Poll Tracker now has the party at 11 per cent nationally, compared with 13.8 per cent for the NDP.  Several Greens have been recently elected in provincial legislatures and Ms. May was joined in the House by Paul Manly after a May 2019 B.C. by-election.

Green votes tend to be concentrated sub-regionally, which suggests they will likely score a limited number of seats on October 21, but if their current support holds or expands, their influence on final electoral outcomes elsewhere could be substantial.  In seats where two or three parties are closely competitive, the votes the Greens take from others could be decisive in deciding who ultimately wins.  It remains to be seen whether the Greens have the organizational ground game necessary to convert support into seats, but one thing is certain: the growing strength of the Greens means they will face an increased level of policy and candidate scrutiny they have not experienced in the past.

The Bloc

After their support plummeted following the last election, the Bloc has gotten itself back on track with a new and capable leader, Yves-François Blanchet.  Polling at around the 20 per cent mark in Quebec, the Bloc looks set to hold most of its seats or perhaps do even better depending on how it fares in closely-fought races.  They will face some competition from the Conservatives as Andrew Scheer seeks to attract sovereigntist votes who might otherwise be attracted to the Bloc.  In rural Québec, Scheer’s rock-solid support for supply management is a strong base from which to build.

The People’s Party of Canada

In the Conservative leadership race that elected Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier led the balloting until the final round, when he was narrowly defeated by Andrew Scheer.  Bernier subsequently bolted from the Conservatives to establish a new party, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC).  Reflecting Mr. Bernier’s libertarian roots, the party is hard-right, and stands for limited government, sharply reduced immigration, ending multiculturalism and supporting traditional Canadian values, rejecting the alarmism of global warming proponents and ending supply management.

There was initial speculation that the PPC might eat into the Conservative voter base, but these concerns have abated as Mr. Bernier’s and his candidates’ public comments have displayed the extremism of their views.  His recent Twitter rant attacking 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in highly personal terms was over-the-top, and he was forced to back down.

The polls: potential for new highs and new lows

New highs: In 2015, four parties (the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and the BQ) took 95.8% of the vote and Greens (3.4%) captured almost all of the remaining 4.2%.  Polling suggests the four major parties now only account for 86% of the vote, with the Greens around 11% and the PPC earning about 2%.  The Greens are poised to set a new high and sap significant votes, mostly from the NDP.

New lows: In 1997, the Liberals became the first party to win a majority with only 38.5% of the national vote, largely because four other parties each took 11% – 19% of the vote.  Currently, the Liberals and Conservatives are both in the mid-30s and if these numbers hold, conventional wisdom suggests a minority government result, but we may also see a party break the 1997 record and gain a majority with less than 38.5% of the vote.

In a nutshell, the race launches with the Liberals and Conservatives roughly tied nationally and the NDP a distant third, but each party has regions of reliable support and regions where they need to campaign hard. And lest we forget how much campaigning matters, on September 11th, 2015, the polls showed these three parties all neck and neck around 30%.  In just a matter of weeks, the Liberals would sap NDP support, secure 39.5% of the vote and a majority of seats; while the Conservatives would become the official opposition despite receiving almost as many votes as they had when they received 39.6% and captured their majority in 2011.

So, who’s in charge?

With the formal kick-off of the election and the dissolution of parliament, significant changes are triggered across the government through what is known as the Caretaker Convention.  The idea is essentially to restrain the actions of government in order to limit how the levers of power may be used to influence the opinions of voters. Government work is now limited to matters that are routine, non-controversial, urgent and in the public interest, taken with the agreement of opposition parties, or easily reversible by a new government.

Originally published by the Privy Council Office (PCO) in 2015 to limit negotiating powers for a trade deal that continued through that election, a new version was published yesterday that notably now provides guidance on the continuity of regulatory initiatives. This new guidance gives the civil service express permission to push ahead with implementing regulatory proposals that had received final approval. This is significant because it includes the government’s recent regulatory changes to environmental assessment, the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) and pharmaceutical pricing.

Inside government, the Caretaker Convention means big changes. Ministers and the few political staff left behind (most are out on the campaign trail across the country) are severely limited in their ability to give direction and virtually all communications with their department must be carefully filtered by their Deputy Ministers’ office. The public service takes up the slack, operating largely independent of their political overseers, but mindful of the need to operate with restraint. It is also during this time that the public service turns in earnest to preparing transition books that evaluate policies under different scenarios, platform commitments and electoral outcomes.

Election 2019 key dates

  • September 11, 2019 – Writ Period Begins
  • September 12, 2019 – Maclean’s/CityTV National Leaders Debate
  • September 26, 2019, 2:00 p.m. local time: Candidate Nomination deadline
  • October 1, 2019 – Munk Foreign Policy Debate
  • 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