Chairman's Desk

Team Trudeau seems confident in their election call, but remember — campaigns matter

Finally, the wait is over.

After months of will-he-or-won’t-he speculation, the prime minister is expected to walk across the lawn today and knock on the door of Rideau Hall.

There he will ask its new occupant, Governor General Mary Simon, to take a few moments away from unpacking moving boxes to sign the writ dissolving Parliament and calling a federal election.

Trudeau will do so confident that now is the right time to dispense with the pesky restrictions of a minority government and secure a majority.

But not so fast.

Party strategists have a habit of getting ahead of their skis and in doing so forget one of the most important axioms of politics: campaigns matter. The road of political dreams is littered with the failed results of those who did not understand that their reach would exceed their grasp.

Now, to be sure, as the candidates come out of the gate Trudeau looks to be in an enviable position. Canadians are generally satisfied with how his government has handled the pandemic, and believe that they are not worse off than they were four years ago. There is not the kind of palpable anger across the land which has seized our southern neighbours. Add to that a rookie opponent on the right and the prospect of a serious public health threat in the coming winter months, and now certainly looks like a good time — or at least the most opportune time — to go.

Who can blame the Liberals for their optimism? Listening to pundits and dinner table conversations, you would think the outcome was preordained — that Trudeau and the Liberals had already tied the whole thing up and stolen away with the 15 additional seats they’ll need to push on undeterred with their spending plans.

But campaigns do matter, and the way things look as the campaign buses take to the roads may be very different when the party faithful gather in hotel rooms to await the results 36 days later.

Think of David Peterson’s snap election in 1990 that cost him his majority government. Driven by an astonishingly positive top-line public opinion environment, Peterson’s Liberals allowed themselves to believe that no campaign could damage their lead.

More recently, think of Stephen Harper’s decision to suspend Parliament for the longest writ period in modern history. Harper no doubt believed the more Canadians could see of Justin Trudeau’s inexperience, the more secure they would feel with Harper’s stern seriousness. Ultimately, it was the latter they grew tired of, while their yearning for the former catapulted the number three party into government.

So, as we find ourselves on the doorstep of yet another campaign, remember the election period will bring with it risk and opportunity for each of the players.

Especially now, when so much else seems uncertain, the campaign could change everything.

What if the fourth wave worsens and Canadians become furious over the gamble Trudeau has taken with their health? What if growing frustration with COVID restrictions boils over into all-out rage? What if Jagmeet Singh and other progressive personalities prove far more magnetic than our time-hardened and world-weary prime minister?

Above all, what if the political state of play is much more complicated than we want to admit? A few important data points from new polling by our firm Navigator suggest a seriously divided electorate.

Canadians were asked, assuming an election is called, whether they want stability in the form of a Liberal majority or the change promised by electing a new government. Over half — 58 per cent — preferred change, while the remaining 42 per cent wanted a Liberal majority. Asked whether they feel the country is on the right track or the wrong one, the split is even tighter at 51 to 49 per cent, respectively.

This data indicates a serious appetite for change, but it also suggests a country very closely divided on how to achieve it.

Anyone who says this campaign is a done deal, is simply dead wrong. While we may not want to admit it, the division in our country runs deep, and the impact of the past two years on our politics remains unclear.

As a result, the outcome of this election may surprise even the closest observer — including those sitting in the PMO, who called it in the first place.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on August 15, 2021.

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