Despite concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called an election on 20 September. The government’s response to the pandemic, political scandals, and social and economic policies are major issues.
Reneging on previous promises not to call an election while Canada is still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the newly appointed governor general of Canada on 15 August and received royal assent to hold an election on 20 September 2021. The election campaign falls during the summer holidays of many Canadians, who will likely focus on the campaign once the Labor Day holiday in early September comes and goes. Compared to other federal campaigns, this one will be relatively short and groundbreaking in the sense that it will be conducted during a health emergency, which imposes strict limits on social distancing and public gatherings.
At dissolution, the center-left Liberal Party had 155 seats, the center-right Conservative Party 119, the Bloc Québécois (BQ) nationalist pro-independence party 32, the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) 24, and the Greens two with five independents.
There are those who criticise the timing of the election call during a health crisis in which the Delta variant of COVID-19 is making its presence felt. The possibility of a fourth wave occurring while some provinces are still battling with past waves has infuriated some. According to Trudeau, the election was called due to a dysfunctional minority parliament. Yet, there has been little to stop the passage of legislation given the continued support of the NDP. The rationale for an election at this time has been a sore spot for the majority party so far.
Out of the gate, the Liberals have a five-percentage point lead in the popular vote. The new leader of the major opposition Conservatives, Erin O’Toole, is not well known in the country. It will be a challenge for him to overcome this weakness given the short time left and pandemic limits to social distancing in public spaces.
The major campaign issue is the management of the COVID-19 pandemic since its arrival here in March 2020. Like many countries, Canada was woefully unprepared for what was to come. The early months revealed that the country had little or no personal protective equipment (PPE) for its medical personnel. When forced to buy vaccines from abroad, significant delays occurred. Although Trudeau’s Liberals picked up the pace later in the day, their legacy on this issue is by no means without fault.
Ironically, in early campaigning, the Liberals are being blasted for imposing vaccinations on the civil service and other key sectors of the economy. Those who oppose big government and criticise Trudeau’s leadership of the pandemic appear to be more vociferous in English Canada than expected.
In policy terms, there are some clear differences between the parties. The Liberals are finally ready to finance affordable childcare after years of delays, but not all provinces have signed on to this “made in Québec” version. Most of the provinces, including a new Conservative government in the Province of Nova Scotia, are now led by non-Liberal premiers. This fact greatly increases the complex framework of any federal interventionist proposal and federal-provincial cooperation generally. The Conservatives have as their focus the post-pandemic economy and how to lift Canada out of the deepening debt crisis mainly caused by the high financial cost of the pandemic.
As for the BQ, its objective is to secure 40 or more seats in the Province of Québec, where all of its candidates are on the ballot. Their main opponent is the Liberals, whose hopes for a majority government may well be dashed by a strong BQ performance. The BQ argument is that Québec has a stronger voice in Ottawa with more Bloc deputies. They can also promote another one of their objectives – the independence of Québec from the rest of Canada.
Regarding the NDP, the Liberals need to enhance the perception that an NDP vote is better represented by the left wing of the Liberal Party. Indeed, many of the Trudeau social policies have been lifted directly from the NDP program. The NDP will need to move further to the left in order to carve out a solid base to differentiate itself from the Liberals.
The Conservative challenge will be to get their leader better known and overcome a five-percentage point deficit in the polls vis-à-vis the Liberals by a strengthened performance in Central Canada (Ontario and Québec). The Western provinces are usually good Conservative territory, but O’Toole will have to maintain a delicate balance in his party between social conservatives, some of whom are questioning mandatory anti-COVID-19 vaccinations, and the progressive wing of the party interested in putting the abortion issue behind them. The appearance of new Libertarian and Western independent alternative parties could also threaten some Tory seats in the West and British Columbia.
Since 2019 when the present Liberal minority government took power, much has changed. It is difficult to tell whether Trudeau’s recent political scandals have taken a toll on the public’s faith in his leadership. The “We” scandal, in which he and his family were being paid by an organisation which was single-sourced contracted by the government, was particularly unsavoury. The finance minister had to take the arrow and leave Cabinet over the situation. The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated a poorly prepared administration unable to secure PPE or vaccines in a timely way. Throughout the country, regionalism has continued to flourish, especially in French-speaking Québec where a nationalist provincial government is now supported by a significant number of Bloc deputies in the federal parliament in Ottawa. Elsewhere, most provincial governments have moved out of the Liberal Party giron and now represent more robust political elements with little interest in taking direction on policy matters from the central government in Ottawa.
Although the date of the election call coincided with the rapid return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan undoing much of the progress of the US-led coalition of which Canada was a participant, it is unlikely this development or other foreign policy questions will be widely discussed during the campaign. Since the 2019 election, the Trudeau minority government foreign policy has undergone considerable drift while living in the shadow of the Donald Trump presidency, undergoing failures such as another unsuccessful campaign to secure a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, worsening relations with China, and having to empower its allies to promote its own interests abroad.
Having an election during a pandemic without a clear rationale as to why constitutes a significant risk. As the fourth COVID-19 wave led by the Delta variant progresses, it could magnify the crisis management errors of the current administration and the timing of the election. Add scandals and mounting regionalism to the mix and political volatility is the likely result. The outcome is highly unpredictable.
Dr Bruce Mabley is the author of more than 50 published articles on international political and security issues since 2016. He is presently Director of the Mackenzie-Papineau Group, a grouping of international specialists, diplomats, journalists, researchers, and activists. Dr Mabley is a retired Canadian Foreign Service Officer, university administrator/professor, and international education specialist. Dr Mabley resides in Montréal, Québec.
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