Chairman's Desk

An election ‘about nothing’? Far from it — the last six weeks fundamentally changed the political dynamic and our expectations

The dust is quickly settling on an acrimonious and confusing election campaign. And with post-mortems well underway, parliamentarians find themselves returning to a House of Commons that, at first glance, looks much like it did at dissolution.

Throughout the country, there is a pervasive sense that this was the election that nobody wanted, that it was a waste of time. It has been dubbed the “Seinfeld election” so many times as to be tiresome.

But this was not an election about nothing. Far from it.

Sure, the seat count has barely changed. However, the last six weeks have dramatically changed the political dynamic in this country, and fundamentally changed the expectations Canadians have of their new government.

Intentionally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been permitted an extension to operate on a restricted mandate, with the clear expectation that he will now focus on delivering for voters in a way that is concrete and personal.

If the 2015 election was about the “Liberals’ grand plan,” the 2021 was all about the “personal” plan.

Since voting day, our firm has listened to Canadians across the country to better understand this political climate.

We’ve gone directly to voters, but not to ask how they voted — we obviously know that. Rather, we have sought to understand their expectations of the new government. Their answers speak volumes about where we are headed.

In short, COVID has not only changed all of our lives — it has changed the voter relationship with government.

Many who voted Liberal felt the government had done a good job of protecting them when they couldn’t protect themselves. Many took advantage of government programmes for the first time in years, or even generations.

And, consequently, they now look to big government with more favour than they have for many years.

So expect to see the Liberals make Job #1 a focus on social policies and investments that have a measurable impact on people and their daily lives.

Watch for the Liberals to move quickly on their child-care pledge, along with their plan to impose a tax on banks and insurance companies. Watch also for them to tie the use of the proceeds of that tax to a new housing affordability program.

The unanswered question, of course, is whether these two plans — which neatly align with the interests of a broad swath of the electorate — are enough to renew excitement about Trudeau’s leadership.

Which in turn leads to the question of the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Leader Erin O’Toole is already under attack, a result of what even he has admitted was a disappointing result. These critics have leapt to the tired old argument that his centrist shift was a tactical error. They are incorrect.

Our research shows that at a time of heightened uncertainty, Canadians went with what they knew. Far from an error, O’Toole’s campaign laid the groundwork for the Conservatives to serve as an effective Opposition — and more importantly, to fight an agile, competitive campaign in the next election.

It takes years to build a political brand, and O’Toole’s gains in Atlantic Canada show that progress is being made.

What’s more, the supposed People’s Party surge did not translate to a single seat in the Commons. And without the pandemic as a crutch, it is hard to see leader Maxime Bernier doing any better in the next election.

Another leadership race would scupper that success. The last thing Canadians want to see is another contentious political circus.

Rather, if the Conservatives want to win, they should do what they’ve been told: go back to Ottawa and get back to work.

I hope the party will use this period to meet Canadians’ expectations in opposition, hold government to account, clearly present viable conservative policy alternatives for the issues that matter most to Canadians, and show themselves to be a government-in-waiting.

And Erin O’Toole is best positioned to do just that.

If he can stay the course and continue his project of introducing Canadians to a modern and bold conservatism, the Liberals will find themselves in serious trouble. And when the moment comes, it will be O’Toole’s for the taking.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on September 26, 2021.

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