The theme of inconsistency was always going to be a feature of this campaign. The obvious distance between the Liberal promises of 2015 and their performance once in office meant that Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives were going to attack the Liberal record.
Many saw additional inconsistencies in the Prime Minister’s efforts to square continued energy development with the need to address global warming, which led to the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline while the government was putting in place a carbon pricing regime across the country.
In advance of the campaign, the Conservatives were thinking about a similar critique of Mr. Trudeau. When they unveiled their paid media advertising last May, its message frame went harder and more directly after the prime minister: “Justin Trudeau, he’s not as advertised.”
With the campaign underway, the media christened the theme of inconsistency “hypocrisy,” and the race was off. The theme gathered momentum with the publication of pictures and videos of the prime minister in blackface. In contrast to Mr. Trudeau’s oft-stated dedication to inclusion and respect for minorities, the offending pictures were startling and seriously contradicted his brand.
Since the pictures of Mr. Trudeau emerged, it’s been all downhill, with everyone’s glass houses sustaining damage. Despite having a poor showing in the TVA French-language debate last Monday, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer scored a “gotcha” with the disclosure that the prime minister’s campaign has two planes, one for his staff and the media and another for equipment. But if a pollution-spewing second plane played badly against Liberal stated concerns about global warming, why hadn’t the Conservatives thought to insulate themselves by purchasing carbon credits to offset their own emissions?
Mr. Scheer then suffered a damaging “own goal” when it emerged that he has U.S. citizenship though his father. The problem was that in the past, Scheer had been sharply critical of the dual citizenships of Stéphane Dion, Tom Mulcair and former Governor General Michaëlle Jean.
Observers instantly saw a double standard, and they also considered Mr. Scheer’s explanations as to why he had hidden his American citizenship from Canadians (nobody ever asked) and why he only got around to starting to revoke his American citizenship this past August (too busy) as weak and unconvincing. Mr. Scheer achieved partial redemption on the broader hypocrisy front with his Friday night firing of Burnaby-North Seymour Conservative candidate Heather Leung for her egregious comments on sexual orientation.
Last Friday, Mr. Trudeau added to his inconsistency credentials with his decision to launch a federal court challenge against the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s (CHRC) ruling that Indigenous children and families be compensated for federal under-funding of the on-reserve child welfare system.
The CHRC finding places the government on the hook for billions of dollars in pay-outs and also requires the compensation plan to be in place by December 10, which is an impossible deadline given the necessary consultations with affected parties that would need to occur. Despite the government’s claim that it acknowledges the finding of systemic discrimination and does not oppose the principle of compensation, critics of the court appeal argue that it flies in the face of Mr. Trudeau’s pledges to repair federal relationships with Indigenous Canadians and pursue reconciliation on all fronts. While the government’s justifications for the appeal are reasonable and Andrew Scheer has promised to launch a similar appeal, the campaign’s now-dominant hypocrisy frame inevitably casts the government’s actions in a negative light.
Aided and abetted by the media, the Liberals and Conservatives have successfully weaponized hypocrisy against each other in this campaign. The results have been petty, unedifying and self-defeating. The parties should not be surprised if their reward on election day is Canadians staying away from the polls in droves.
Canadians are not terribly surprised when they find their politicians are fallible and are generally prepared to give them a pass if they own up to mistakes and promise to do better. But when politicians try to pretend they are perfect while smearing each other, they only add to the distance between the individual voter and political engagement.