Chairman's Desk

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.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on September 12, 2021.

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