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Early election call risks angering Canadian voters: pundits

Parties are developing platforms but have yet to enunciate clear distinctions on policies.
Federal party leaders Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh. Pundits say the federal Liberals are calling an election because party insiders believe they can win a majority government.

Canada will have an election on September 20 thanks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visiting Gov. Gen. Mary Simon earlier today, and asking for one. 

His governing Liberal Party has had no problem passing legislation, and opponents say there is no need for an election. 

Trudeau found support from the New Democratic Party (NDP) after he won a minority government in October 2019, and he has governed without much vocal opposition while implementing unprecedented measures to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

What pundits say has prompted the election call is that the Liberals are aiming to win a majority government. The party won 157 seats in the 2019 election – 13 short of that elusive majority.

Trudeau never specified how long he intended to make the minority Parliament last.

This is unlike BC NDP Premier John Horgan, who in 2017 won a minority government and signed an agreement with the BC Green Party to govern for four years. Horgan then abruptly called an election in 2020 and was criticized for saying one thing and doing another. 

No accusations of hypocrisy are likely to be aimed in Trudeau’s direction, but constituents and media will nonetheless pummel him with questions about why he has asked for an election now, when COVID-19 infections are rising, and the more easily transmissible Delta variant is spreading.

"As a government, we chose to make sure that federal public servants, and everyone boarding a train or a plane, be vaccinated," Trudeau told media this morning. "Not everyone agrees. Not every political party agrees. Well, Canadians should be able to weigh in on that."

That rationale is insufficient for Metcalfe and Associations government-relations consultant, and past Conservative Party strategist, Colin Metcalfe.

“There’s no issue of confidence with the government coming from the opposition,” he said.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t understand why Canadians need to be going to the polls at a time when we should be worrying about the fourth wave of COVID-19.”

He told Glacier Media that he believes Trudeau runs the risk that COVID-19 infections could spike and the government will not be in session to address Canadians’ needs.

B.C.'s number of COVID-19 infections has already been soaring.

The province recorded 717 new COVID-19 infections on August 13, as well as 4,277 active cases. Each of those metrics are the highest that they have been since May.

There is reason to think that elections will cause COVID-19 case counts to jump. 

In the week following the October B.C. election, health officials detected 1,862 new infections – 127% more than the 822 infections they discovered in the week before the election was called. Infections in B.C. then continued to rise for months afterward.

“We truly do not need the distraction of an election right now,” said Metcalfe, adding that calling one risks angering voters.

Former NDP strategist, and West Star Communications president, Bill Tieleman agreed. He called Trudeau’s likely election call “primarily political opportunism.”

Tieleman said that the flip of this perspective is that with new strains of COVID-19 spreading and pivotal decisions to be made to keep Canadians safe, it is reasonable for a minority government prime minister to ask voters for a renewed mandate. 

“The election is not needed, but if it’s going to happen, let’s get to the issues and move on,” Tieleman said. 

Each breath used to castigate Trudeau for calling an election is one not used to critique specific policy differences, he added.

Parties are developing platforms but have yet to enunciate clear distinctions on policies. By mid-campaign, however, some may articulate bold initiatives that change course on which international visitors should be allowed into Canada, how a national registry of vaccination records could come together and how long financial support should flow to businesses and individuals hit hard financially by the pandemic. 

“This is not the free trade election,” Tieleman said, referring to the 1988 contest, in which Canada's free trade agreement with the U.S. was overwhelmingly the dominant issue.

“There is no single issue that has seriously divided political parties.”

Indeed, a Research Co. survey for Glacier Media, conducted August 7 through 9, asked 800 British Columbians what they believe is the “most important issue facing Canada today.”

The top answer was housing, homelessness and poverty, but it garnered only 26% of those surveyed. Next in line came the economy and jobs (20%) and health care (19%).

Strategies 360’s vice-president for B.C., Raj Sihota, said she believes that, given the work being done in Ottawa recently, key issues in the campaign are likely to be housing, transit and child care.

“British Columbians have made it very clear that these are priorities,” said Sihota, a former BC NDP executive director.

The Liberals and NDP may raise climate change as a wedge issue, she added. 

Delegates to a May Conservative convention voted down a resolution that leader Erin O’Toole supported – one that would have included the phrase “climate change is real” in the party’s official policy document.

The 54%-46% result exposed a division within the party on the issue. 

“It’s hard to imagine that the kind of summer we’ve had in British Columbia won’t be an issue in the federal election,” Sihota said, referring to the heat dome in June and raging wildfires ever since.

Kirk & Co. Consulting Ltd. partner Mike McDonald suggested that debate in the election could centre on what the parties intend to do about people who are reluctant to get vaccinated. 

“Federal Liberal supporters tend to be the ones who have the highest levels of vaccination because they tend to be more urban,” said McDonald, who was chief-of-staff under former Premier Christy Clark. 

“For the Conservatives, if you look at Alberta, there are different attitudes about COVID-19, and vaccination. On the far right of the Conservative Party, there’s something that they have to contend with internally. If they’re blasting Trudeau for calling the election, and he’s responding back saying we need a mandate to deal with the unvaccinated, what the Conservatives’ response to that will be, I don’t know.”

Like the others, McDonald said he believes Trudeau is calling the election for the opportunistic reason that internal party polling indicates that the Liberal Party could win a majority government.

Key to that potential win, McDonald said, is for the party to win suburban seats that the party won in 2015 but lost in 2019. Examples of that include Pitt Meadows–Maple Ridge, South Surrey–White Rock and Steveston–Richmond East.

“There’s a definitely a juicy opportunity for them to win back seats in the [Metro Vancouver] suburbs, possibly one or two more seats in the Interior and maybe a seat on the island,” McDonald said.

“If they can win seven or eight new seats in B.C., that’s taking a major step forward to reclaiming their majority.” •

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