A Defining Battle on the Horizon


Since the beginning of this election year, the incumbent prime minister has been in a pre-campaign spiral of negative headlines. From the Jody Wilson-Raybould-SNC Lavalin affair’s implications for Indigenous and Quebec voter intention in October to a spate of international challenges from Trump to China, Justin Trudeau’s pre-election narrative is fraught with game-changing land mines. Jason Kenney’s election has not helped.  


Robin V. Sears

Forty years ago, Joe Clark took office after a long and often nasty federal election. The Pierre Trudeau government was on its back foot, fighting an angry war of words with the Conservatives on their vision for the country. Pierre Trudeau had dubbed the future prime minister “a waiter for the premiers.” Apart from enraging Conservatives, it struck many Tory insiders as ironic since they were fighting an internal battle over energy with several of their own premiers. 

With the United Conservative Party’s victory in Alberta, the starter’s pistol was fired on what is likely to be one of the most bitter federal elections since that time, one that will be fought on some of the same issues as 1979. The underlying, enduring battle is over who is primus inter pares on issues that cut across provincial boundaries. Back then the flashpoint was the price of, and taxes on, oil; today it is taxes on the oil’s carbon emissions. Beneath that sits a deeply divisive ongoing difference on the separation of powers. And then there is the cyclical Western Canadian anger at Ottawa, more easily pumped to a fever pitch when oil prices have tanked and the Alberta economy is in peril.

More recent and surprising has been the sudden rise of the Greens. Though they did less well in PEI than some pollsters predicted, they won a large victory in a federal bye election in Nanaimo. Polling nationally in the low double digits for the first time, they pose a new strategic threat to both Liberals and New Democrats.

For Justin Trudeau, the political landscape has been irretrievably altered. He has lost allied governments in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta, leaving only one big province close to his position on climate change. But John Horgan promises to be a considerable asset, campaigning hard for the NDP in B.C. as one of Canada’s most popular premiers. Trudeau begins the campaign with Quebec still furious at his handling of SNC-Lavalin. Then there are Trump, China, India and the Saudis casting their own shadows on this government’s handling of international files. 

New Alberta Premier Jason Kenney hurled his first insults at Ottawa on election night and will keep up a steady drumbeat for the next six months. With the Alberta Speech from the Throne will come the opening artillery rounds against the equalization formulae, against any form of general carbon tax, and against British Columbia, in defense of what he will claim are Alberta’s economic interests. It promises to get ugly. Kenney is a street-fighting politician by inclination, one who has built his career on conflict. A career politician, he has never before led a government. One may hope that his first trial as a governing leader may grind off some of his tough-guy excesses.

His bellicose campaign style, which he will no doubt stump the Prairies displaying, along with his populist soul brother in Ontario, Doug Ford, bellowing in harmony. The contrast with the “smiling nice guy,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, may not be helpful. 

For the NDP federally, as painful was the loss of the Notley government, electoral positioning and strategy are now considerably less complex. Their message will be to flog the Ford/Scheer/Kenney climate change fantasies, their flirtation with white nationalists and Islamophobes, and their attacks on health, education and transit funding. Now they can stand opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline without having to navigate the differences between premiers Horgan and Notley. They might even say, “Many of you voted last time for the ‘real change’ promised by Justin Trudeau. If you are angry at how they failed you, there is only one party that you can count on to really deliver fair change for you and your family — change that reflects your Canadian values.”

Each party will be fighting a war on two fronts in different parts of the country. The key battlegrounds again will be the Lower Mainland of B.C., the Greater Toronto megalopolis, and urban Quebec, with the island of Montreal as ground zero there. The Trudeau team acknowledge they will lose seats on both coasts, but hope to make it up at the expense of the NDP in Quebec. The new anti-religious symbols law in Quebec, Bill 21, is deeply divisive among young urban voters in the province. But both Trudeau and Singh will need to step carefully on the issue. 

Singh may have an advantage, since, as his allies say, “When he walks in a room, you know what side of the issue he will be on. He can take the high road about inclusiveness.” Trudeau on the other hand has been angry, aggressive, on the verge of insulting, on the issue, as he sees how well it plays with his English Canadian urban base. He will need to be more respectful in Quebec if his attacks are not to be seen as condescending in his native province.

The main election issues have been framed already: pharmacare, climate policy, housing, taxation, etc. The tone has not. It will be the tone adopted by the three leaders that will be the most telling, and set the stage for the next Parliament. If they each descend into a spiralling vortex of political venom, Canada could be on the road to the type of permanent polarization that has pushed American democracy so close to the edge. Each of the national party leaders has ankle-biters seeking to push them away from the centre into harder-edged rhetoric. 

For Andrew Scheer, it is Maxime Bernier. So far, he seems inordinately threatened by the right-wing populist. He and his staff have already been lured into some dangerous traps on refugees, guns and Islamophobia by their fear of Bernier outflanking them on the right. His young and mostly inexperienced staff should chat with their tribal elders about how Tories win in Canada. It is always by bleeding blue grits from the Liberals and Quebec soft nationalists from the NDP and the Bloc. There are not enough voters on the hard right in Canada to win.

For Trudeau and Singh, it is the challenge of the Greens, especially in Ontario and B.C, and perhaps Atlantic Canada, particularly following the Green showing there in the provincial election on April 23. The Greens will attempt to shame the Liberals and the NDP into taking much harder climate change positions: anti-oil, anti-pipeline and anti-resource extraction. The New Democrats will probably not be so tempted, in part out of deference to two strong provincial leaders whose campaign apparat they will desperately need: John Horgan and Andrea Horwath. Trudeau may unwisely feel that it is a good way of outflanking the NDP on the left, as he so successfully did in 2015. 

If, after such a campaign, the outcome is a minority government, the next Parliament risks being angry and short-lived. If Scheer sees victory snatched from him after a bad campaign, he would be wise to hang up his spurs. His caucus would be rebellious and disloyal from day one. If Trudeau is defeated narrowly he will probably stay on for one more round unless the defeat is seen to have been a result of his own weak performance. 

One may only hope that the leaders and their advisers turn on American cable news from time to time to witness the cracks in the very institutional foundations of the republic shaken by vicious, hyper-partisan politics. Its courts are increasingly politicized, its legislatures are paralyzed by angry partisan cliques and its executive branch behaves with an authoritarian swagger that would have appalled the founding fathers. That is not Canada. 

We hope.


Contributing writer Robin V. Sears, a principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group, is a former national director of the NDP during the Broadbent years.