On the day the election was called five weeks ago we noted that “non-answers and vacuity” were the order of that first day of campaigning. It seemed things couldn’t get much worse, but actually it has. There has never been an election that was called ahead of its scheduled date, that didn’t result in finger-pointing over an “unnecessary election.” But usually the blame-for-calling-the-election phase lasted only a few days. This time it has dogged Justin Trudeau to the very end of the campaign. He has simply been unable to articulate a reason for pulling the pin other than the fact that he was 13 points ahead of Erin O’Toole on August 1, and with the pandemic hopefully nearing the end, it was a great time to return the Liberal party to its God-given rightful role as a majority government. Within a week of the election call, O’Toole had narrowed the Liberal lead to a couple of points, as the pandemic suddenly got worse and that is more or less the way it has been since.
Underestimating his opponent, Trudeau tried to quickly dispose of O’Toole by making him the issue in the campaign—harbourer of radical anti-vaxxers, can’t be trusted on abortion, he will turn back the clock on climate change—the list goes on. The polls suggest none of this has registered significantly with voters, who, if the polls are to be believed, are frankly not crazy about either of these men. The other thing that Trudeau may have not expected, is that Jagmeet Singh, who kept Trudeau in power for the last two years and would have happily done so for the next two years, turned on him with devastating critiques about Trudeau’s Achilles heel—chronic inauthenticity. Even the most diehard Trudeau supporter has to admit that there is a yawning gap between what Trudeau says he is and the truth. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and for that matter, the young female reporter who said Trudeau groped her when he was 29 would take issue with his claims to feminism. People of colour might look at pictures of Trudeau in blackface, a practice that, even before Al Jolson died in 1950, was already considered taboo, and might question his bona fides on race sensitivity.
Jody Wilson-Raybould is not the only indigenous person who is disappointed with Trudeau. He has not “been there,” as he likes to say, for the 51 First Nations still dealing with boil water orders, nor the dozens of elderly, largely female indigenous persons who are having Old Age pension cheques garnisheed in a dispute with Revenue Canada, something that he has been made aware of, but about which, he has done nothing. Not even his contrived photo opportunity, kneeling in a residential school graveyard with a teddy bear—a stroke of cringeworthy PR dreamt up by him or somebody in his entourage– could offset his failure to move the needle on truth and reconciliation.
For his part, Erin O’Toole ends the campaign as he started it, by simply not answering any of the awkward questions put to him by reporters. Why won’t he force all of his candidates to be vaccinated? Why is he wishy-washy on the assault weapons issue? Why is he tinkering with carbon pricing? He can’t answer the question, at least not in public, is because the answer is that he needs to keep the fringes of his party onside if he has any hope of winning. Once elected, he will most likely freeze them out of policy-making as Harper and Mulroney did, but he needs them now to win. When he says the Conservative Party is a “big tent,” it is a metaphor for an unruly faction-riven loose coalition of people whose only commonality is some form of fiscal conservativism—but on social and economic issues splinter off into all different directions. The big tent is more like a bag of cats.
Keeping the lid the Conservative Party takes extraordinary skills—maybe O’Toole can succeed where Andrew Scheer could not, we might find out as early as next week. It was instructive to watch O’Toole campaigning in Dundas Saturday not even bothering to acknowledge the questions from exasperated reporters—deflecting the substance of their queries and in each non-response essentially calling on Canadians to vote Conservative on Monday and depose the “selfish” Trudeau. In a more sophisticated communications era- say any election prior to this one, politicians would at least make some effort to follow the time-honored PR techniques—acknowledge the question ever so briefly and then pivot to your talking points. Now it’s just ignore the question and go directly to, well, they are not even talking points—just slogans.
Its not as if we have never had consequential elections with real issues. The 1988 election was fought over free trade—something that scared the hell out of Canadian industries that felt they could not compete. Some of them, as it turned out couldn’t; but they were replaced by many more who thrived. Most of the successful manufacturing companies today in Hamilton and Burlington rely on the US and other export markets for the bulk of their sales. A year after the 1988 election Brian Mulroney introduced GST. People may not like paying it, but it is fairer and more efficient than the patchwork of sales taxes that preceded it.
The sheen is off the Trudeau brand. O’Toole is hoping he can somehow tiptoe around the minefields created by his own party. And Jagmeet Singh is just hoping nothing changes too much so he can continue to hold the balance of power. So here we are at the end of the Seinfeld Election—it’s truly about nothing, but somehow, so disappointing nontheless.