Liberals still have time to pivot

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A close race could help push left-leaning voters toward the favoured Liberals, especially if the NDP doesn’t get its act together.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 30, 2021.

The first weeks do not an election make. But they do get volunteers fired up or worried, depending upon the momentum of each political party.

Conservatives and New Democrats are buoyed by an uptick in their support, while Liberals are understandably concerned about an unexpectedly slow start.

Between Afghanistan and the surprise Tory win in Nova Scotia, there was no good news coming the Liberal way during a launch that should have been seamless. After all, the prime minister had control over the date and timing of the election.

No one could have predicted the speedy fall of Kabul to the Taliban, and with American President Joe Biden digging his heels in on a quick departure, the Afghanistan exodus is beyond Canada’s control. While fingers will be pointed at Justin Trudeau, the reality is that no other party can point to anything that they would have done differently.

Some commentators are comparing the Afghanistan situation to a turning point in the demise of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. But this time around, no one is promising a snitch line to report on barbaric practices. In that election, foreign policy positions of the two main parties offered real choices. Tories said it would take years to bring Syrian refugees to Canada, reinforcing the impression that refugee resettlement was not a priority. Liberals offered, and acted upon, a speedy resettlement.

This time around, all parties are on the same page when it comes to Afghanistan. The election will not turn on that issue. Instead, Canadians will be voting on pocketbook priorities.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole crafted a platform document designed to move his party closer to the critical political centre. Some claims need to be challenged. His support for universal healthcare is questionable because he refuses to cut transfers to provinces that allow queue-jumping for people who can come up with cash payments. Saskatchewan currently allows preferential treatment for some patients requiring an MRI. If you pay up to $1,000, you can jump the line and get your diagnosis dealt with quicker than those who cannot afford personal payment.

His position on daycare is equally problematic because O’Toole plans to tear up the new provincial/territorial childcare agreements signed across the country.

O’Toole has come up with some high-profile promises to reach out beyond his usual right-wing support base. His plan to put a workers’ representative on the board of every major corporation was designed to let Canadians know that he is union-friendly, a far cry from his predecessors’ perspectives.

The tightening of the race so early in the campaign may actually play in the Liberals’ favour.

New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh has made multiple billion dollar, uncosted promises, like his vow to nationalize private retirement homes and his proposal to build 500,000 affordable Canadian homes. In previous campaigns the NDP’s third-party status meant there were very few tough questions during most of the campaign. But this time, the big-ticket promises are being put under early scrutiny.

Singh needs to make a breakthrough in places like Hamilton, where his party has only one returning federal Member of Parliament but four provincial representatives. Singh’s pledge to cancel all pipelines directly hits the steel industry and hurts Hamilton. Perhaps that is why he has not been able to find a Hamiltonian to run in either of the two seats where the party has the best chance.

In Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, a riding held by the party provincially, their candidate lives and works in Ottawa. On Hamilton Mountain, where the outgoing Member of Parliament was a New Democrat, their candidate is a 67-year-old defeated Member of Parliament from Welland, approximately 75 kilometres away. He lost in that riding twice, beaten by Liberal Vance Badawey in 2015 and 2019.

Instead of trying to win in his own home, Malcolm Allen was parachuted into a Hamilton seat following the retirement of NDP MP Scott Duvall. Why would the party choose someone who cannot win in his own riding?

The quality of candidates will also be weighed by voters. If Hamilton is any indication, the New Democrats may have a lot more work than simply costing their promises.

The Liberals still have time to pivot. This tight race means the leaders’ debate will be even more crucial than previous elections, as voters square up behind the Conservatives or the Liberals. That may once again put the New Democrats in the unenviable position of trying to convince Canadians that a vote for them will not elect the Tories.

Campaigns matter.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.