OTTAWA — Canada’s 2019 federal election could wind up looking a lot like the 1972 cliffhanger — the last time a Trudeau asked Canadians for a second mandate after the first blush of Trudeaumania had dissipated.
But if Liberals play their cards right, party strategists are hoping it will end up more like a replay of 2015, with Canadians choosing to continue moving forward with Justin Trudeau’s progressive agenda rather than going back to the bad old days of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Never mind that Harper is no longer Conservative leader. His successor, Andrew Scheer, is, by his own admission, “Stephen Harper with a smile” and his agenda, by the Liberals’ telling, is Harper’s agenda: tax breaks for the wealthy, cuts in services for everyone else, no action on climate change, the politics of fear and division.
They’ll reinforce that message by tying Scheer wherever possible to someone else who isn’t running: Ontario’s unpopular Progressive Conservative premier, Doug Ford. And they’ll no doubt throw in, at least obliquely, references to mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump.
Here’s how Trudeau himself framed the choice in a recent interview:
“We are on a very good path and we need to continue it because we see what happens elsewhere in the world when people make poor choices. Hell, we’re seeing in Ontario what happens with cuts to services and tax breaks for the rich,” he said.
“I mean, it doesn’t work and that’s the big thing that we turned around (in 2015). We said no, you don’t grow an economy through trickle-down, you grow it through investing in people, investing in their communities. That was the big disagreement we had with the Conservatives in 2015 and it remains the big disagreement we have with them in 2019.”
At the moment, however, polls suggest the Liberals are essentially tied with the Conservatives, with neither in a position to capture a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Should that hold, the outcome could be very similar to 1972, when the Liberals under Trudeau’s father Pierre wound up with the barest of minorities, just two seats ahead of the Progressive Conservatives.
There are, says historian and former Liberal MP John English, some “really striking parallels” between Trudeau senior’s bid for a second term and that of his eldest son. Both swept to power on a wave of adulation rarely seen in Canadian politics, creating unrealistic expectations that crashed against the hard rock of reality during four years of governing.
But whereas the cerebral Pierre Trudeau hated the back-slapping, baby-kissing, retail side of politics, English says his son seems to feed off the energy he derives from engaging directly with people. Liberal strategists are counting on him out-perform his rivals on the hustings.
The latest Liberal slogan — “Choose Forward” — appeals to Canadians to continue supporting the party’s general direction, implicitly acknowledging that not everyone is entirely satisfied with some of the particulars. It attempts to frame the election as a choice between going forward or backward, not as a referendum on Trudeau’s first four years.
As Trudeau put it in the interview: “I think people get that there is a choice in this election, that it’s not about judging me on everything you’d hoped I’d do and where I might not have fulfilled all everyone’s individual hopes for what this could be.”
According to strategists, the key to victory is framing the election as a binary choice between the Liberals and Conservatives. In other words, forget about those New Democrats and Greens, whom Liberals intend to mention as little as possible even while emphasizing the values and policies they share.
At the same time, Liberals need to motivate progressive voters to back Trudeau again. They can’t afford to let disappointed progressives — turned off by Trudeau buying a petroleum pipeline or scrapping his promise to end Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system or the SNC-Lavalin ethics imbroglio, for instance — to drift over to the NDP or Greens, or just stay home. Robust turnout will be crucial, as it was in 2015 when young voters turned out in droves to support the Liberals.
Liberals are under no illusions they’ll be able to replicate the enthusiasm that attended Trudeau’s debut election. But they’ll emphasize what they say is at stake if the Conservatives win, reversing all the progress that’s been made on everything from climate change to gender equality and gay rights — a tactic evident in the interview with Trudeau.
“Just across the country, seeing conservative premiers elected from the Rockies to the Bay of Fundy, who are trying to turn back the clock on the fight against climate change. I mean people are like, whoa, there is a lot at stake,” he said.
While national poll numbers suggest a dead heat with the Conservatives, regional results tend to favour the Liberals in areas with lots of seats, such as Ontario and Quebec. They expect to lose MPs in the Prairies and know they’re unlikely to sweep all 32 seats in the Atlantic provinces as they did in 2015, although they hope to hang onto most. What will happen in British Columbia, where a four-way fight among Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Greens is playing out, is unpredictable.
But Liberals are still hoping to offset some of those losses with gains in Central Canada, which accounts for almost 60 per cent of the 338 seats up for grabs, capitalizing on Ford’s unpopularity in Ontario and the collapse of the NDP in Quebec.
KEYS TO VICTORY:
— Frame the election as a binary choice between forward-looking Liberals and backward-looking Conservatives.
— Paint Scheer as a clone of Stephen Harper and a yes-man to conservative premiers, particularly Ontario’s unpopular Doug Ford.
— Motivate disappointed progressive voters to back Trudeau once again by emphasizing that all the progress made, however imperfect, would be reversed if the Conservatives win.
— Pick up seats in Ontario and Quebec to offset inevitable losses elsewhere.
— Ensure Justin Trudeau is at the top of his game.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press