The Top Line
This morning, Prime Minister Trudeau kicked off the 44th Federal Election by visiting the Governor General to request the dissolution of the 43rd Parliament. The Prime Minister subsequently announced a 36-day campaign – the legislated minimum campaign length – ending in an Election Day on Monday, September 20.
The prospect of a summer Federal Election has been clearly telegraphed for months, particularly since the Prime Minister marked the end of the most recent Parliamentary session by claiming that “obstructionism” by the Opposition parties and “toxicity” in the House of Commons had reached concerning levels.
In his comments to media after visiting the Governor General, the Prime Minister attempted to frame the Election as necessary in order for his Government to receive a mandate to “finish the fight” in terms of managing the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably the Prime Minister emphasized his plan, just announced Friday, to require federal civil servants, employees in the airline and rail industry and passengers on commercial aircraft to be vaccinated, and Erin O’Toole’s opposition to that policy. Look for this issue to dominate the early days of the campaign.
The coming campaign will be an unusual one, particularly given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but the Liberal Party is convinced that now is the best possible time to run for re-election and attempt to return to a majority government. Current public opinion polling shows the Liberals with a lead on the other parties, though individual polls disagree on the size of that lead and whether it would translate into a majority of minority government.
Campaigns matter, so it is impossible to predict with any confidence the ultimate outcome on September 20th. With that said, more than any recent Election at this stage, their does not appear to be a clear set of ballot box issues. If the 4th wave of COVID-19 sets in during the campaign the Election will likely be about the Government’s handling of the pandemic and their proposal to require proof of vaccination in order to fly on a commercial aircraft and work in the Federal Government. If the 4th wave subsides, or fails to fully materialize, then other traditional issues can come to the fore. Either way the result on September 20th will come down to a battle for votes in a few key demographics and regions across the country.
If the Liberals can convince enough voters in these key demographics and regions that the direction of the current Government is the right one, then they will secure their much sought-after majority. If the Opposition, both on the right and left, successfully argue that a change of approach in Government is required, then the result will likely be the status quo, minority Parliament. However, given the unusual circumstances of the Election – particularly that campaigning will be conducted in the shadow of a pandemic – a change in Government, although unexpected at this point, is still very much a real possibility, particularly if Erin O’Toole has a strong campaign and can tap into significant voter concern about key issues such as the cost of living and a sense that the Government has lost touch with the kitchen table concerns of some Canadians.
An Unusual Election
Summer Elections are rare in Canada, so a likely challenge for the Parties will be connecting with voters who may not tune into – or want – the general campaign during their summer holidays. With social distancing restrictions just recently relaxed most Canadians will be tuned out even more. Group interactions with voters will look different this year than they usually do.
The Liberals believe most voters are feeling very positive about the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 16 months, and are counting on Canadians rewarding that with re-election. Notably, the Government recently extended the remaining active COVID-19 support programs until October 23rd. These financial supports have helped cushion the financial blow of COVID-19 for many Canadians. Meanwhile, Canada’s vaccination rate for both single-dosed and fully-dosed individuals is the best of the G7 nations and is amongst the highest in the world, and that fact will doubtlessly be a key message for the Liberals during the campaign. The Liberals will also be campaigning on their commitment from this past Friday to require vaccines for federal civil servants, many federally regulated industries and notably individuals flying on commercial airplanes. Look for the Liberals to attempt to make this a significant wedge issue between themselves and Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives as long as the Conservatives continue to oppose this proposal.
Throughout the campaign, the parties and Elections Canada will closely monitor the number of active COVID-19 cases across Canada and in key jurisdictions. At this point it is likely that much of the Election campaign will be during a 4th wave of COVID-19 cases in Canada. This more than any other issue holds the potential to be the ‘wild card’ of this Election. Perhaps counterintuitively, a 4th wave may actually solidify support for the Liberals, with voters seeing the Liberals now familiar approach to addressing the impacts of the pandemic as a safer option. However, a serious 4th wave would also give other parties a significant opening to attract voter support by proposing alternate approaches to dealing with the pandemic.
On a practical level, the national campaigns will have to operate tours that are reduced in scope and account for varying public health protocols in different locations. Local campaigns will also face challenges in bringing volunteers together safely and mobilizing supporters. And, already, Elections Canada is flagging that reporting the results of the Election could take a few days due to an increase in mail-in ballots.
Based on the Prime Minister’s comments today, the Liberals are eager to position their ongoing response to COVID-19 including their vaccine proposal as the ballot box question, at least early in the campaign. While a ballot box question other than the Federal response to COVID-19 has yet to emerge, a number of issues could break through the COVID-19 context to take on outsized importance during the campaign.
Cost of Living
As the economy begins to recover from the initial onset of the global pandemic, Canadians have seen significant price increases for many goods and services. For most Canadians the increase in prices has been most noticed in the cost of gas and particularly the cost of housing. For many Canadians under 40, owning their own home looks to be increasingly something that is prohibitively costly. The Conservatives from time to time in the past year have effectively positioned the Liberal Government as out of touch with Canadians’ concerns with the cost of living, including the cost of home ownership (a separate issue from affordable rental housing for lower income Canadians). If the Conservatives can convince Canadians they have a credible plan to address these issues they could attract significant support in a voting demographic where they traditionally trail the other parties.
Taxes and the Middle Class
In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s promise to lower taxes for the middle class and increase them for the rich helped vault him from third place at the beginning of the Election to a majority Government on Election night. While tax policy has largely been ignored since then, this campaign could prove different.
Already the NDP has proposed a wealth tax, an increase in the personal income tax rate for the top income bracket, an increase in the capital gains tax, an increase in corporate tax rates as well as a temporary COVID-19 excess profit tax. These proposals are a clear attempt by Jagmeet Singh to tap into a feeling that the Government’s policies have tended to let the rich get richer while middle class Canadians struggle with day-to-day costs.
Conversely, will Erin O’Toole propose reducing taxes for the middle class and small business as part of his effort to tap into a perception that Justin Trudeau is out of touch with the middle class and could this work to make taxation a significant ballot box question in 2021, whereas it was not in 2019?
Record heat waves and out of control wildfires this summer mean that climate change and the environment, a key concern even before this summer, will be a central issue during this Election Campaign. The Liberal Government sees their record on climate change, including the introduction of a price on carbon, as a key wedge issue between themselves and the Conservatives. Conversely look for the NDP, Bloc and Green Party to all argue that the Liberal Government has not gone far enough on climate change, with the forest fires and record heat in the West as a clear example of their lack of progress. In expectation that climate change would be a key ballot box issue, Erin O’Toole released a comprehensive climate change plan earlier this Spring. His challenge during the campaign will be to convince voters who are concerned about the environment that the plan is a priority for him and the Party. If he cannot do this, significant sections of the voting public will likely be out of reach.
The Liberal’s pledge in the 2021 Budget to establish a universal $10 a day child care system will be front and centre in many of the Liberal campaign speeches. The child care pledge will be central to the Liberals in wooing progressive voters under 40. Will these voters see the promise as achievable or can the NDP and Bloc successfully convince these voters that like pharmacare, the Liberals have difficulty following up on establishing these types of national programs.
Between 1995 and 2015 Canadians widely support balanced budget policies at the federal level. This reality changed in 2015 and as a result no party will be proposing to balance the budget in the next four years. The majority of Canadians, even before COVID-19, accepted and even supported running deficits in order to fund new government programming. While annual deficits are now widely accepted, the size and sustainability of government debt is something any future Government will have to address. If Canada is in the midst of a 4th wave it is clear government long term debt and how to reduce it will not be an issue, but if we appear to be emerging from a pandemic it could provide an opportunity for Erin O’Toole to insert the issue of the Government debt and its burden on younger generations into the political debate.
Starting now, stakeholders should watch for the unveiling of the Parties’ Election platforms and major policy planks. The NDP unveiled its policy platform last week, and it focused on strengthening public healthcare, affordability issues, and the environment. The Conservative Party has so far been revealing major planks of its platform one at a time, including an innovation plan that featured proposals to halve the income tax rate on new patented technologies developed in Canada and connect every Canadian with high-speed internet by 2025. The Opposition Leaders and their policies are poised to enjoy sustained media coverage for the first time in over a year, after the COVID-19 pandemic dominated political media coverage during that time, so there is potential for a strong performance by one of Erin O’Toole or Jagmeet Singh to disrupt the Election.