So what was this election about, anyway?

We will soon find out whether we went through this $600 million exercise only to end up pretty much exactly where we started
By Steve Paikin - Published on Sep 20, 2021
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (Justin Tang/CP); Conservative leader Erin O’Toole (Fred Chartrand/CP); NDP leader Jagmeet Singh (Tijana Martin); and Green Party leader Annamie Paul (Chris Young/CP).

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Congratulations, Ontario. You made it to voting day. 

But are you any clearer in your mind as to what this election was really all about? 

The campaign started with a question the prime minister was unable to answer. Why exactly were we having an election, in the middle of the fourth wave with a particularly virulent Delta variant, when it was obvious the Liberals were able to pass anything they wanted to anyway? 

The answer was obvious. But Justin Trudeau couldn’t say it, because doing so would have revealed that this early, unnecessary election had been called to benefit the Liberal party rather than the public. He wanted a majority government. 

In 2011, at the end of five years of minority government, then-prime minister Stephen Harper — who'd been defeated in the House — called an election and explicitly stated what he wanted: “A strong, stable, Conservative majority government.” He was honest and up-front about his desire and felt Canadians knew him well enough after five years in a hung parliament to give him a try. Harper picked up only an additional two percentage points of the total vote. But it was enough to give him what he wanted. 

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So this election started for the Liberals with a question that couldn’t be answered and a goal that couldn’t be articulated — which is not a great way to start a campaign. 

The albatross for the Conservatives was their identity crisis. Erin O’Toole had won the leadership of his party running against cancel culture, promising to privatize CBC television, and hitting most of the populist hot buttons that represented the reddest of red meat for a small-C conservative audience. 

But then O’Toole unveiled a platform containing the most pro-labour policy planks of any Tory leader since John A. Macdonald, who legalized unions a century and a half ago. He embraced putting a price on carbon. He seemed to get caught in an inexplicable policy reversal on assault weapons that required him to repudiate that section of his own platform. And then he brought Brian Mulroney out of the wings to give a stump speech for him in Quebec. 

Now, for some Tories, Mulroney is a reminder of the glory days of back-to-back majority governments. If you haven’t seen the speech, go find it. The 82-year-old former PM can still dazzle. But for most of today’s Conservatives, who came up through the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance efforts, Mulroney’s presence was akin to waving a red flag at a bull. It further estranged them from their leader. 

The New Democrats have run a very un-NDP-like campaign. Normally, Canada’s traditional third party loves to drown people in enough policy prescriptions to sink a ship. Not this time. With their TikTok-star leader Jagmeet Singh at the helm, the NDP has offered up a platform that’s weak on specifics. And to watch Singh answer reporters’ questions is to watch a master class on obfuscation and issue-avoidance. Regardless of the question, every answer out of Singh’s mouth has included the word “fight” (as in, for you), and involved why everything in the world, including bad weather, is Trudeau’s fault. 

The non-responsiveness and vapidness of his answers is just not in the tradition of Tommy Douglas, Ed Broadbent, or Jack Layton. None of them became prime minister or starred on TikTok, but no one ever called them empty suits either. 

Has the new approach worked for the NDP? Well, at the beginning of the campaign, they clocked in at 20 per cent in most polls. Today, they’re at … wait for it … 20 per cent. 

We’re only a day away from finding out whether Green Party leader Annamie Paul’s beau risque of running in Toronto Centre, one of the Liberals’ safest seats, was a bold and daring move that paid off or a one-way ticket to a very short tenure as leader. 

In fact, the only party that may benefit from this early election call is the People’s Party of Canada, which garnered barely 1 per cent of the votes in the 2019 election but is poised to do maybe seven times better than that this time. Leader Maxime Bernier became the champion of those who are disgusted with government, angry about something else in their lives, or anxious to push back against what they see as the increasing incursions of the state — for example, vaccine passports or other such COVID-related regulations. 

Bernier may not win many (or any?) seats, but he will surely take hundreds of thousands away from the Conservatives, who simply can’t afford to lose them. His efforts, in fact, make a Liberal re-election more likely, and the disreputable mobs that affixed themselves to Bernier’s boat gave Trudeau a voice and lift he likely hadn’t counted on when he called the election. 

So, 37 days later, here we are. Two years ago, the Conservatives took 34 per cent of the total vote and the Liberals, 33 per cent. Multiple polls suggest exactly the same thing could happen Monday. True, the vote splits will be different. Some new MPs will be elected; others will lose their jobs. 

But if we go through this $600 million exercise only to return essentially the same standings in the House of Commons, can you think of a more useless and unnecessary way of spending that much money over a five-week period? 

Happy E-Day. Now bring on the count. 

Clarification: This article has been updated to provide additional details about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2011 election call.

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