With the election campaign nearing the end of its second week, here’s a look at how former party insiders and experts think the campaign is going for different parties, particularly the two frontrunners: the Liberals and Conservatives.
The text of the interviews has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Joe Oliver: Conservatives Have the Momentum
Former Conservative MP and minister of finance
The polls have narrowed quite significantly. The Liberals, who were somewhere between a strong minority and maybe in majority territory depending on which poll you look at, are no longer there. They’re still, according to the polls, somewhat ahead, but it’s really fairly narrow. They’re certainly not in majority territory.
So clearly the Conservatives have momentum, and the Liberals do not.
So the question is, why might that be the case? The first point is that election campaigns do matter, and things can change dramatically.
When Paul Martin ran against Stephen Harper, it looked like he was definitely going to win initially, and then he didn’t. And on the other side, there was a time when Kim Campbell was actually ahead in the polls, and then she ended up suffering the biggest defeat in Canadian parliamentary history. So things can change.
Some people feel this is an unnecessary election in that the Liberals were able to pass their legislative agenda because they’ve had NDP support, and so they really didn’t need it. And people are saying, well, this is just a vanity project of the prime minister, he wants to increase his power and reduce his accountability.
Another factor is that it’s very hard for the leader of the Opposition to get public attention, and it’s particularly hard if the mainstream media tend to favour the governing party. So one of the criticisms that one heard is that Erin O’Toole wasn’t out there. Well, of course, he was out there, but [the media] weren’t really reporting it. Now, of course, during the election, you have to report it, so he’s getting a lot more coverage. Plus, he’s doing ads, so people are starting to get to know him.
Another factor is the disaster in Kabul and whether we are handling it well and whether we are getting the people out the way we should. It seems, we’re not doing as much as other countries.
Another factor is the Conservative platform. It came out the second day, so they were ready. The Liberals haven’t done that, and there’s talk that they don’t have a major policy idea.
Another factor is that the economy has always been a Conservative strength. People perceive the Conservatives to be stronger on economic issues than the Liberals, and people are concerned about the economy now, and with what’s going to happen when all the handouts stop and we have to pay off the debt, and interest rates are rising and inflation is rising.
I’m not making a prediction at this point, but clearly the momentum is on the Conservative side for the moment. It’s still early days, but it has become a horse race, and a lot of people didn’t think it was going to be.
The NDP Factor
The NDP is starting to get more support. I think their leader Jagmeet Singh has become more popular. His problem has been in part that the Liberals have moved so much to the left that they have eaten his lunch, but you can always promise more, and he is.
But clearly, a stronger NDP is better for the Conservatives, because even if they don’t win the seats, the Liberals would lose more.
That’s always the dilemma for the Liberal Party: If they move too far to the left, then they’re leaving part of the centre to the Conservatives, and clearly Erin O’Toole is trying to move to the centre. And the NDP are on the left. In a sense, you can say the Liberals are being squeezed, but in another sense, they have a broad swath of support. So that’s how the election is playing out, which is sort of typical.
Dan McTeague: Early Election Call Hurting Liberals
Former Liberal MP
Let’s be clear, the winners were the Conservatives last week, and the Liberals will have to be worried by next week if they can’t pull a rabbit out of the hat and have gone one-third of the campaign without scoring on the rival Conservatives. This is an existential moment for Justin Trudeau both as prime minister and leader of the party.
The whole point of having an election, devoid of a platform, leaves the Liberals vulnerable—the idea that they’re making it up on the fly, they didn’t have a mandate. And I think any goodwill that the government developed over the past couple of months on the fight on COVID has now been lost.
Many people are saying, look, this is just a craven, crass political move. It reminds me of [former Ontario premier] David Peterson in the 1980s and 1990s. I was working then for the minister of housing, Alvin Curling, and I had to run the campaign for Mr. Curling in ’87. I refused to do anything from the 1990s—it was just that I didn’t see any upside momentum.
I think the advantage for the Conservatives is that they’ve performed very skillfully from the outset. And they’re going to build on the fact that people are saying, “Hey, you know what, we’re heading for some tough times, unprecedented times.” The Liberals have called the election at a time when pandemic numbers—at least in Eastern Ontario, which counts for votes—are going through the roof.
So in a sense maybe Mr. Trudeau should have taken the advice of [former advisor] Gerald Butts and played this as long as he could and then moved on, or called an election at a point in which it became clear that the Parliament wasn’t working.
As we enter the second phase of the campaign and close to the leaders’ debate, Mr. Trudeau’s better hope is that his performance [compared] to any leader in that debate is unparalleled.
I’ve heard and seen that the under-30 crowd is voting NDP. Young people are voting NDP and using NDP as a hedge, and the NDP is consolidating. And if the Liberals expect to win, they can’t do so without the NDP collapsing, so if I was the Liberal Party I’d be counting my lucky stars and hoping that things turn around.
But after the debacle where the Liberals attempted to try to smear O’Toole with a false, manipulated video segment on health care, it’s pretty clear that the Liberals have run out of ideas.
Very few people [in the election campaign] are taking a responsible position of recognizing that the cost of living has gone up dramatically.
[The parties] think of consumer issues as trivial, unimportant, and think people are more interested in things like climate, housing, and health. I think those are all important, but they do not make up for what I think most Canadians are feeling, and that’s a financial angst as to how they’re going to pay their bills, especially as the colder months are coming, when they have limited prospects for job growth, and there is every likelihood that the cost of eating, heating, and transportation are going to become even more unbearable.
So it’s a golden opportunity for fringe parties to increase their popular vote. Here, I’m thinking—of course, besides the Bloc, which probably doesn’t have a care in all this—the PPC and the Maverick Party stand to gain, where other parties have decided that it’s not important to be concerned about pocketbook issues.
Nelson Wiseman: Liberals Are Doing Well in Quebec, and That’s What Counts
Emeritus professor of politics, University of Toronto
I’m not surprised that the polls have narrowed [in the Conservatives’ favour], but I am surprised that they narrowed so quickly. I expected that to happen much, much later in the campaign.
I was surprised because the Liberals intentionally announced on the Friday before they had the Parliament dissolved that they were going to make vaccinations mandatory for their own employees and for travellers. So the Liberals had obviously tested that in focus groups and in polling, and the polling and the focus groups told them that the majority of Canadians favour the mandates. And the Liberals knew it would put the Conservatives in a difficult position, because although the majority of Conservative supporters also support mandates, there is a core group in the Conservative Party that doesn’t. So it puts the Conservative leader in this position where he doesn’t want to lose any votes. That’s why I expected [support for] Liberals would go up.
So why didn’t they go up? I compare this to what happened in 2008, when Stephen Harper called an election [and ended with Conservatives having another minority government]. He had the Parliament dissolved even though the fixed election date law was in place. The reason [for the Liberals’ loss in the polls] I believe is that there’s continuing resentment that we’re having an election, that a lot of people feel, “Hey, why are we having an election? It’s the summer, this government was elected less than two years ago, and they haven’t been defeated. What’s the problem here?” And that has surprised me.
And the danger to the Liberals is that that’s the attitude of some Liberals, and these supporters might just sit on their hands and not go to vote. In contrast, the Conservatives are motivated. They want to change the government.
Still a Good Week for Liberals
Now, having said all of this, I still think the first week—and this is an odd comment to make—has been good for the Liberals, and I’ll tell you why.
In most of the country, the results are fairly predictable. We know how Alberta is going to vote. We know how downtown Toronto is going to vote. We know how rural Ontario is going to vote. We know how Atlantic Canada is going to vote. But Quebec is the wild card. And national polls don’t count, what counts is Quebec.
And in Quebec, Liberals have been picking up and the Bloc has been dropping.
The path for the Liberals to win a majority is in Quebec. That’s why they called the election, because their numbers showed them that their numbers were going up in Quebec. And ironically, or paradoxically, that was the same logic behind Harper calling an election in 2008. But during the campaign, things changed. Now, what will happen this time I don’t know, we’ll see. But the national numbers aren’t nearly as important, and even if we accept the national numbers, let’s remember that in the last election the Conservatives won more votes than the Liberals; they had 34 percent, Liberals only had 33 percent.
As of today, the Liberals are going to win the most seats. What’s up in the air is whether it would be a majority.
What will be critical is the leaders’ debate, because for a lot of people, that will be the first time they get to see Trudeau and [the other leaders] interacting with each other.
Most [of the time], leaders’ debates don’t have much effect on the vote. But the greatest potential for an effect on the vote is when you get a new leader. That helped Trudeau in 2015.
So this time, people know what Trudeau sounds like and what he’s going to say. But people don’t know what O’Toole sounds like in a debate.
David Leis: Use of Wedge Issues Hasn’t Gone Well
Vice president, Frontier Centre for Public Policy
On the balance, the first two to three weeks of any campaign are very significant, especially because it is such a short electoral period. I would say the Liberals have yet to find their message. And for the Conservatives, I think it’s somewhat surprising that the response on balance has been positive to a more substantive policy.
If you’d asked me two months ago what a likely electoral outcome was going to be, it would have been a good shot at a Liberal majority government, but I think that’s in question now.
On the NDP side, their strength has been the perceived likability of their leader Jagmeet Singh. He’s been around longer and so I think that the NDP is much stronger this time than last time. Last time, they lost a lot of electoral support. So I think that’s a factor.
Further to that, the persona of Trudeau, the image of being a progressive, feminist prime minister, in terms of public surveys, appears to be wearing thin. I think that when a government faces not just some, but many ethical challenges and stylistic issues, then that’s going to erode the core base of the supporters of the party.
There’s a lot of dynamic things that are happening here, because it’s near the end of the summer, and people have not entirely tuned in yet.
‘Our Political Culture’
The use of wedge issues tells a lot about our political culture right now in Canada—that some issues can’t even be rationally talked about.
But wedge issues have been used in the past to systematically siphon off one-issue voters. And so rightly or wrongly, the Conservatives have made their strategy apparent that they’re not going to fall for those traps.
And I think there’s some evidence—I can’t know for sure—that voters are figuring out this cynical type of tactic, and not falling for it. But we’ll see how this unfolds.
It’s always in some party’s interest to create fear and division rather than to cast a forward-looking vision of what their country is going to look like.
It remains to be seen what the Liberal platform is, as they haven’t yet revealed theirs, whereas both the NDP and the Conservatives have.
One of the things that’s quite interesting is the issue of affordability when it comes to living, including housing, and who really has a viable plan to actually deal with this issue.
The real question is, is anyone going to plan to really open up the supply of more land and to get rid of red tape to enable people to have a home? I think that’s a big concern for millennials, and I think that’s where millennials have often been the most enthusiastic supporters of the Trudeau government, and that’s a significant issue for winning that support.
The other thing is Afghanistan, that’s such a wild card. The situation is going from bad to worse, and I think it begs a lot of serious questions about how Canadians are being cared for in that difficult situation. I think that has the potential to undermine a particular demographic that has been very important to the Trudeau government. This is a really challenging humanitarian issue. And I think that that’s been shown time and time again, that on the gender scale, women are particularly moved by these kinds of situations, as we all are.