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Canadians turn on Justin Trudeau over early election

When Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election last month, the question most observers asked was would his Liberal party win enough seats to become a majority in parliament, or simply increase the size of his minority. His government was lauded for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, injecting billions of dollars into the economy and acquiring enough vaccine doses to inoculate the entire population a few times over. Canada’s per capita vaccination rate is now one of the highest in the world.

But two weeks into the campaign, his Conservative rivals are ahead in the polls, buoyed by a detailed policy platform that eschews fiscal frugality for billions of dollars in new stimulus spending. Trudeau faces a likeable opponent in Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, competition from the left, and dismay among voters over what many see as an unnecessary election during a fourth wave of the pandemic, just as their children head back to school. “I think that the government called an election that very few people want, and people are expressing their opinion of the election call more than the election outcome right now,” said Gerald Butts, the vice-chair of the Eurasia Group and a former top aide to Trudeau.

“The government had a two-goal lead. It’s now a tied hockey game,” he added. “There’s a lot of hockey left to play.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s poll tracker on the day the election was announced showed the Liberals with an insurmountable lead, with a 54 per cent probability of forming a majority.

Now the CBC’s poll tracker shows the Conservatives leading by 2.5 percentage points, with the Liberals just slightly ahead in seat projections because of their leads in Ontario and Quebec, two provinces with a higher number of electoral districts.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has released a detailed spending plan that has eschewed austerity (C) AFP via Getty Images

Many of the gains appear to be driven by growing enthusiasm among the traditional Conservative base for O’Toole, who has largely remained unknown to Canadians since his election to the party leadership a year ago, with older voters increasingly signalling their support for the party. “That has really shifted the dynamics of this campaign, which was looking like one that was going to be just about whether the liberals would get a majority, and now it’s questionable whether they can win the election,” said Eric Grenier, who runs the CBC’s poll tracker and writes The Writ, a newsletter about Canadian elections. “The Conservatives have been successful in getting their base back . . . and they’re making pretty significant gains in important battlegrounds.”

Most pollsters and analysts say poll results are unreliable before Labour Day, after which most Canadians start paying closer attention to the election campaigns. The first French-language debate between the leaders was scheduled for Thursday evening with two more next week, and voter sentiment is likely to shift significantly before the vote on September 20. But Conservative momentum has nevertheless changed the narrative of the election.

Trudeau launched his campaign with a pledge to “finish the fight” against Covid while touting his government’s pandemic record. But he also outlined key priorities in climate change, making buying homes more affordable for younger Canadians, reforming public healthcare and childcare, and reconciling with indigenous communities. He said that he called an election because such sweeping change during the recovery necessitated a new mandate.

Canadians turn on Justin Trudeau over early electionA protester holds a sign during Justin Trudeau’s campaign tour of Bolton, Ontario on August 27 (C) REUTERS

But the campaign has been overshadowed in its first weeks by the crisis in Afghanistan and criticism of the western alliance’s efforts in rescuing Afghans who worked with their forces there.

In addition, rather than release grand policy plans, the Liberals have focused on attacking Conservatives over the alleged excesses of the party’s rightwing, including climate change denialism and opposition to Covid vaccine mandates. While the Conservatives released a detailed policy platform in the campaign’s early days, the Liberals only released theirs on Wednesday. The 53-page document includes £78bn of spending, with significant investments on an array of programmes including subsidies for businesses hiring new workers and climate change initiatives.

Trudeau also pledged to increase corporate tax rates on banks and insurance companies from 15 to 18 per cent on earnings over C£1bn (US£796.7m). He has floated a minimum tax on the very wealthy as a way to plug tax loopholes, while condemning the Conservatives for courting anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. Now that the Conservatives are seen as a serious contender in the race, they will face tougher questioning and attacks aimed at highlighting the more radical elements of the party.

But so far, they have portrayed an air of competence, aided by an economic recovery plan that has no hint of austerity. “I think the conservatives made a decision to come out with an early, full-blown and detailed plan, and they refer to it repeatedly,” said Shuvaloy Majumdar, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think-tank, and a former senior Conservative aide during Stephen Harper’s government. “I think that was a real advantage to them to show that they had a serious, well thought out plan to govern the country, and they weren’t approaching the election frivolously.”

Trudeau’s change of fortune, at least in the short term, has left many wondering why he called an election in the first place, and what it might take for him to win it. The Liberal leader was able to govern effectively with support from the socialist New Democrats on the left, and occasionally from the Conservatives across the aisle, and few want to weigh which leader to vote for while worrying about Covid outbreaks in schools. Assailed on both sides of the political spectrum, he may have little choice but to refocus his message on the issue that has underpinned his approval ratings in the past year and a half — his response to the pandemic.

“Everybody always asks: ‘What’s the ballot question?’ and in many elections, there isn’t one valid question.

But I think this is one where for the overwhelming number of people, especially as case counts start to come up again, the valid question is who can get us out of this nightmare and give me some semblance of a normal life back?” said Butts, Trudeau’s former top aide.

“The way back to a more solid footing with the electorate is to focus on that core question.”