Tom Parkin, federal politics columnist
Overwhelmingly, Canadian don’t want elections this spring, according to polls. But odds are good they’re going to get one – because an early election is good for Liberals.
Of course it’s totally unnecessary. Canadians voted only 18 months ago. The resulting minority Liberal government needs the support of only one opposition party to survive confidence votes, and both the Conservative and NDP leaders have pledged their support, at least while this pandemic continues.
Yet the election rumour mill persists, driven by one person alone – Prime Minister Trudeau, who refuses to rule out calling an election this spring.
And the reasons for a call are so self-interested and cynical you’ve got to think the Liberals will do it.
First, the polls. While the Liberals are up a few points since the 2019 election – somewhere in the 35 to 37 per cent range, according to most polls – they’re not a majority levels, though with a good campaign that’s possible.
No, the real news in the polls isn’t the Liberals, it’s the Conservatives. Inside the Prime Minister’s Office there must be a palpable temptation to strike a historic blow against the Conservatives, who’ve slumped from 34 per cent last election to somewhere between 27 and 30 per cent now, depending on the poll.
And at those levels, Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives would get hit hard, losing maybe 20 seats, maybe more. A tumultuous party would be thrown into further turmoil. It could mark the end of O’Toole’s leadership and the start of another leadership campaign, one even more uninteresting, uninspiring, unattractive and divisive than the last one – or the one before that.
Conservatives are down now, but that could change – who knows. So striking now is good for Liberals.
Second, an election now preserves the pandemic effect. All political leaders received huge boosts in support as Canadians rallied around their leaders, an instinct in uncertain times. Some leaders have kept that boost, others have let it bleed away through incompetence – or malevolence.
While much of Trudeau’s pandemic boost has drained away, it’s not all gone. But if the pandemic recedes this summer, so does the remaining pandemic effect – and that’s bad for Liberals.
Post-pandemic, Justin Trudeau is no longer the leader of a nation under siege. Once again he is just Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – but worse. Worse, because when this pandemic is over, some people are going to want to add up the pandemic aftermath.
And the Prime Minister’s pandemic response will deserve some strong criticism. Our early warning system was shut down. Warehouses of personal protective equipment were closed and PPE stocks destroyed. And for 10 months, despite telling Canadians our borders were closed, they remained open – not to be shut until this February, well after more virulent strains were brought into Canada. Who made the decisions? Why?
And across Canada, long-term care homes have been a tragic and epic disaster, particularly those run by private and politically-connected companies. The immediate task right now has been to stabilize them. But poll after poll shows Canadians want long-term care to be integrated into our public health system. Post-pandemic, the opposition NDP’s push for publicly-owned long-term care will be more apparent, putting the Trudeau Liberals in the awkward position of defending a delivery model that highly correlates to death.
If there’s an election before pandemic is over, the time for those debates won’t have started in earnest yet. That’s good for Liberals.
But the pandemic effect doesn’t just submerge the aftermath analysis and policy reform debates. There are three scandals simmering in Ottawa. The billion dollar WE Charity scandal is back at one Commons committee and another committee is looking into the government’s handling of allegations of sexual misconduct by former Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Vance.
At both committees, Liberals are refusing to show up to testify. In ordinary times that would be called contempt of Parliament, but in COVID times it barely makes the news.
And finally, there is the MindGeek-Pornhub scandal. Victims are testifying the Montreal-based company was allowing revenge porn, rape porn and child porn to be uploaded to their sites without consent – and it appears the RCMP did nothing. It’s more evidence something is very wrong with the RCMP. And when this pandemic is over, Trudeau’s foot-dragging on RCMP reform will be harder to justify.
Without the cover of a pandemic, these scandals would be more prominent in daily news coverage.
Some may argue an election call is inconceivable because Canadians would be so outraged by its cynicism. But calling an election isn't up to voters, just the Prime Minister. When it’s time for Canadians to make their decision, they’ll already be in the ballot box – and cancelling the election won’t be on the ballot, only the candidates’ names.
And that too is good for Liberals.
The odds are good that the April 19 budget, delayed from it’s usual late-March schedule, will be followed by a couple weeks of the PMO gaming the opposition and watching the polls. And if present trends continue, in the top of May, Liberals will do what’s good for Liberals and call an election while Conservatives a low and Liberal cover is high.