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At a moment when all politics are green, Canada’s Greens have driven themselves to the brink of irrelevance

After less than one year leading the Green Party of Canada, Annamie Paul has fallen on her sword. Her departure is the culmination of months of turmoil and backbiting by the party, at a time when it already faces the threat of extinction.

While as of Friday Paul’s resignation is technically still pending, her speech this week made it clear she can no longer lead a party whose members have attacked her, challenged her and undercut her at every turn.

Who can blame her?

Since last year, Paul’s leadership has been menaced by a party apparatus entirely unwilling to support her. Now, after betting everything on a seat in Toronto Centre and placing fourth, it is hard to see how Paul could remain as a legitimate leader.

While I’m only an observer, from my vantage point, the fault lies more with the party than with the leader.

And remember, it did not need to be this way.

When Annamie Paul first came on the scene, she injected some vigour into a party increasingly lacking in purpose. As a seriously credentialed, relatively moderate and compelling woman leader, Paul brought a vibrancy that was sorely lacking from Canadian politics. She spoke frankly about the challenges of being the first Black woman and first Jewish woman to lead a federal party.

What’s more, she seemed to understand that the party needed to change to overcome its turmoil at the time.

The resignation of Elizabeth May in 2019 meant the familiar, friendly face of Green politics in Canada would no longer insulate the party from the creeping doubts of voters. It also meant there was no figurehead to keep the party’s worst divisions under wraps.

A vacuum of power, it seems, did not help things. Far from it: when Annamie Paul took the reins, infighting among members, MPs and party officials seemed rampant. Although really, that was nothing new — the Greens in Canada are a notoriously large tent, and the party is defined by an aversion to orthodoxy.

Fine, intraparty squabbles are no big deal. But for this infighting to overshadow what should have been the honeymoon period for their new leader, something had gone very wrong. And at a time when Canadians care more than ever about climate action, the Greens slowly lost their seat at the table for a new era in our politics. They may never reclaim it.

The reason for that sorry assessment is that a unique paradox has defined the rise of Canada’s Greens. For years, the Green party had to fight for serious mention of climate change and environmental policies to be included in political discourse. In those days, very few mainstream politicians discussed climate change, and even fewer raised serious solutions to address it.

So the Greens got to work. Under successive leaders, the party attempted to convince Canadians that climate change was not just a fundamental issue — it was in fact the fundamental issue. And at the same time, they worked to make themselves more palatable and electable.

The problem is, as Canadians grew more comfortable with climate action and green policies, these things became table stakes for every political party. Along the way, the Greens successfully fought their way toward irrelevance. That is the challenge the party faces today.

At the same time, we must remember that the reason green policies are commonplace today is because climate action is wildly popular with Canadian voters. The question is whether the Greens can meaningfully tap into that sentiment. In recent elections, they have failed.

Now, with Paul stepping down, the party’s worst demons seemed poised to consume it. And based on her personal experience, there are far more insidious currents — of racism, anti-Semitism and more — in the party that must be addressed head on.

Annamie Paul was never given a chance to succeed. But on that day in October 2020 when she took the stage for the first time, she appeared to have the stuff to lead her party out of the political wilderness. On reflection, her tenure has driven the Greens deeper into the woods.

After what the party has done to her — so publicly and viciously — there may now be no turning back.

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.

The pandemic has emboldened supporters of the People’s Party of Canada. Whoever forms government will need to contend with them for years to come

One of the most unfortunate stories from this campaign is that of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC). Once an annoying, perhaps even amusing, splinter group, the collective has now firmly found its place, alone, along on the extremist fringe.

Two years ago, the PPC was a quaint curiosity for journalists to cover on a slow week. In the context of the pandemic, it has festered into something much worse, something that will pose a serious challenge for either a new or returning government to address.

Many commentators are fixated on the idea that the Conservative Party of Canada is bleeding support to Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party at such levels that crucial ridings will be lost. In 2019, that was certainly the case — and to some extent polling for this election tells a similar story.

As I see it, there is a more important political phenomena — one that will be a lasting legacy of this election — at play: the rise of “pandemic libertarians.” Coined by me, pandemic libertarians is a term that describes those politic zealots who have emerged during this campaign, intent on raising hell.

Nearly impossible to address in standard political terms, this group has a number of unique characteristics.

As many pundits have noted, they are incredibly slippery to capture in polling or research, largely because of their anti-establishment attitude.

What’s more, large numbers of them have never been politically engaged in their lives. But now, furious about lockdowns and feeling isolated from the mainstream of Canadian politics, they have entered the fray comforted by parties like the PPC which encourage their conspiracy-minded disruption and seek to legitimize their behaviour.

To be clear, Maxime Bernier is no Donald Trump, but like Trump, he understands that this demographic is powerful precisely because they feel voiceless. Now, having found a megaphone, they are motivated like mad to get involved in this election.

Unfortunately for the rest of Canadians, that involvement extends well beyond the polling booth to hospitals and campaign events.

It is, needless to say, unforgivable that anyone would choose to mob a location where people are receiving urgent medical care. But it speaks volumes about the state of our politics that such behaviour has been normalized.

At the same time, there is no reason for elected officials to be subject to the kind of vitriol we have seen in this campaign. Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole, Jagmeet Singh and others have all dealt gracefully with repulsive behaviour that would be utterly staggering were it not so commonplace.

For years, politicians like Michelle Rempel Garner and Catherine McKenna have warned of the violent rhetoric permeating our politics. Even before COVID, our politicians — and particularly the women among them — have been targeted by the worst of our country.

But today the issue is bigger. These malcontents have reached a critical mass that is angrier, louder and less encumbered by the bounds of logic or decency than any political presence in our country since the mid-twentieth century.

And much like the followers of Donald Trump in the U.S., they are not going away anytime soon. The sense of victimization and exceptionalism bred by the notion that they alone understand reality, while all of us are blind sheep, is intoxicating. So, like zealots of the worst sort, they will evangelize their warped view of the world the only way they know how: by making lots of noise and attacking anyone with a podium.

Along the way, civil discourse — so central to who we are as a nation — will be hopelessly corroded, while decent people across Canada grow warier of entering politics or engaging in public debate.

Mr. Bernier’s party may fizzle out this week, but its most problematic followers are not going away anytime soon. Whoever forms government this week would be well advised not to ignore them or simply label them nutjobs. Sadly, they are now a part of this country.

While they may not have any role to play in our government, left unchecked, they will no doubt shift our politics. And that may end up being much more dangerous than it appears right now.

Winning trust, not debates, will prove decisive in this election

As their respective war rooms gear up for the final week of the election campaign, Conservatives and Liberals alike will be working overtime to launch one final knock-out blow.

Those hoping such a blow might have come during the leaders’ debates this week are no doubt disappointed. Although these debates do not usually have a meaningful impact on election results, with the Tories and Grits stuck at a dead heat in the polls, there was some hope this round might be different.

Stifled by format and unbearably repetitive rhetoric, I think we can agree this week’s debates did more to frustrate than inspire.

However, while the barbs traded in Gatineau will not determine the outcome of this election, they do serve as a litmus test for the strategies each campaign will deploy over the course of this crucial week ahead.

If the debates confirmed anything, it’s that this campaign is boiling down to one thing: trust. This issue emerged at the get-go of the campaign, and has been perpetuated by continuing attacks on the prime minister with questions about why the election was called.

For Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, this week was always going to be his chance to rectify the damage from his anticlimactic campaign launch. It’s his last chance to try and convince voters wondering if this election was even worth having — a question he must be asking himself at this stage.

Polling by Discover, our research firm, shows that the number of Canadians who had “a lot or some trust” in the prime minister dropped drastically from 43 per cent prior to the election call to only 31 per cent this week. On the other hand, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has managed to make small gains in this area, with 29 per cent now saying they have “a lot or some trust” in him, up from 26 per cent.

This has the Liberals panicked.

Their strategy over the past week has looked to buck this trend and portray O’Toole as a Trojan horse, misleading the progressives and centrists now supportive of his campaign.

The Conservatives’ gun, climate and child-care policies will remain areas of focus for the Liberals. Expect more proclamations that the Conservatives will take Canada “backwards,” from those seeking to damage O’Toole’s trustworthiness among these voters.

While going on the offensive, the Liberals must carefully try to claw back some of the trust that has been lost in Trudeau, particularly in his sincerity and leadership. I’m not convinced this week’s debates did much to convince Canadians now is the time for election, or to tune in for longer than five minutes of the painful two hours.

For the Conservatives, the challenge lies in how they can mitigate Liberal attacks, while continuing to build confidence in their own plan to govern with transparency and accountability.

Releasing the breakdown of their platform costing this week was a shrewd move; while it opened O’Toole up to criticism, particularly on the daycare issue, it was another demonstration that he and the Conservatives are looking to win votes through clarity. Expect their campaign to continue juxtaposing this openness with suspicions about Trudeau’s objectives.

I warned two weeks ago that the biggest threat to O’Toole might be that he peaks too early. In the coming week the Conservatives must continue to find ways to convince voters that they can be trusted by drawing contrasts with the Liberals and exploiting Trudeau’s weakened ability to appear honest.

O’Toole received an unexpected assist in this regard from François Legault. In a surprising move — but not an unusual one for a Quebec premier — he declared his support for a potential Conservative minority government, arguing Trudeau’s intentions could not be trusted.

In one of the most important election battlegrounds, the influential Legault also stated that O’Toole’s approach was good for Quebec’s autonomy and praised the decision to clearly breakdown his platform costing.

So, for all the furor around the leader’s faceoff this week, it will change very little, and leaves everything to play for.

Debate performances don’t get parties into government, strategies do. Playing on mistrust towards Trudeau has been effective thus far; the question now is whether the Conservatives can amplify that theme to bring the campaign home.

Justin Trudeau’s political style swept him into office. It may now see him out

In the early days of this campaign, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole proudly introduced his party’s platform. In doing so, he managed, for a few days at least, to have a conversation with Canadians about — wait for it — policy.

This week, as the Conservatives overtook them in the polls, the Liberals thought they’d give the same trick a try. Attempting to turn the proverbial channel, they launched their own platform with what they spun as a twist: theirs was the only one to be fully costed.

At first glance, aside from a contentious tax on insurers and banks, the Liberal platform appears to be consistent with what Canadians now expect from team Trudeau: more big deficits and significant expansions of social spending. A contrast, to be sure, with the fiscally minded and long-term approach to recovery of O’Toole, but nothing so controversial as to spark a new national divide.

And so, if we are not about to have a big ol’ debate about policy in this election, then a debate on style it will be.

And for Justin Trudeau, the man who mastered modern political performance in this country, the ultimate irony may be that style spells the end of his political career.

Back in 2015, Justin Trudeau excelled at both building and selling his brand. A brand based as much on style as it was on substance, it was perfectly set to drive his promise of “Real Change.”

Back in 2015, as the upstart leader of a third-ranked party, Trudeau succeeded in the monumental task he had before him. He did so in large part due to his ability to strike an astonishingly correct tone, convincing Canadians of his competence but also his humanity, highlighting a capacity for empathy that his opponents lacked.

In that campaign, Trudeau was the warm and compelling candidate, cutting a stark contrast to incumbent Stephen Harper’s snide and dismissive persona. Harper, to be fair, was initially more concerned with former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair than Trudeau. But as the Liberals caught up, Harper’s attempts to paint Trudeau as inexperienced or foolish largely reinforced his own reputation for being cold and out of touch.

The most striking memory of this strategy was that godawful advertisement mocking Trudeau’s “nice hair,” but there were other memorable examples. Throughout the leaders’ debates, Harper belittled Trudeau and scoffed at his policies. To Canadians, Harper seemed petty, while Trudeau’s quiet refusal to get down in the mud came across as dignified and prime ministerial.

Oh, how times have changed.

Over the course of the campaign thus far, O’Toole has managed to flip the script, striking an even tone and an earnest approach to politicking. The Liberals, on the other hand, have committed unforced errors again and again, by attacking the Conservatives in a tone that seems bizarrely insecure for a party that has been in power for six years.

The approach took a turn for the worse when Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland was slapped with a “manipulated media” warning by Twitter for spreading a misleading video of O’Toole. And there was more. The Liberal campaign machine also waded into the swamp, releasing a video that assigned the Tory leader the Trumpian nickname of “Two-Tier O’Toole,” among other things.

To make matters worse, a recent spate of violent rhetoric and inflammatory protests has derailed some of Trudeau’s campaign stops, and the Liberals have in turn attempted to tie the Conservatives to crowds of whackjob protestors.

But on the whole, it is Justin Trudeau and his acolytes who are turning up the temperature on this campaign. And the more their attacks on Erin O’Toole fall flat, the more bizarre it feels to watching a governing party writhe around for a convincing argument that their opponent is too untrustworthy to succeed them.

Ultimately, it may be that a Conservative candidate speaks out of turn or Trudeau is able to rile up his opponents on the debate stage. For now at least, it’s the opposition party that seems serious about forming government, while the incumbents seems intent on partisan hack jobs.

Even if Trudeau can sell his platform to Canadians, it will take more than substance to turn things around. He will need to rethink the entire style of his campaign — and fast.