Campaign 2019: Lady and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

Column/L. Ian MacDonald

Sept. 6, 2019


There are three main performance benchmarks to watch going into any election campaign: polls, fundraising and the number of nominated candidates. The fourth, which is a more subjective variable, is the general standing of the party leaders and the quality of their retail game.

The first three are what get a party noticed. The fourth gets it elected. Or not.

As Dalhousie University’s Lori Turnbull lays out in our Campaign 2019 issue, it takes 170 seats to form a majority in the 338-seat House, and going into the campaign, neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are there yet.

Which brings us to the leaders, as the deal-makers with the voters.

This is where Liberal leader Justin Trudeau begins with a comparative advantage. He’s easily the best retail campaigner in the group; where Conservative Andrew Scheer remains an unknown commodity, not in terms of what he stands for but of what he can deliver. The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh needs to put some numbers on the board, and quickly, while the Greens’ Elizabeth May has moved her party to double-digit territory as voters concerns about climate change and the environment have caught up with her platform.

But Trudeau’s attributes, as natural as they are on the one hand, have also offered a sketchbook of Liberal entitlement on the other.

Four years on, Trudeau and the Liberals are still running against Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. The other day, he accused Harper of being “cold”. This just in, it isn’t 2015 anymore, and Harper is not on the ballot.

The Liberal narrative is decidedly a mixed one, a blend of achievement and broken promises. The booming economy recalls the Liberal slogan of the 1972 campaign—“The land is strong.” Job creation is the highest, with unemployment the lowest numbers, we’ve seen for decades.

On foreign policy, Trudeau and his team have done a good job managing the most important file on his desk — the NAFTA 2.0 trade talks with the Americans and the Mexicans, and particularly Trudeau’s U.S. interlocutor, the temperamentally dysfunctional Donald Trump.

On the other hand, Trudeau has been in denial on his role in the ethics file of SNC-Lavalin, in which scathing is not too strong a word for the report of the ethics commissioner. But whether it’s a ballot question is the voters’ call.

So is their response to Trudeau’s playing the abortion and LGBTQ cards against Scheer. The Conservative leader may have brought this one on himself, and it clearly plays to the advantage of the Liberals in drawing a line with the Tories on once-wedge issues that have been notably mainstreamed. But whether it’s a ballot question is quite another matter. It may also be that for Scheer, as for Bill Davis decades ago: Boring is good, boring works. As longtime Conservative strategist Yaroslav Baran writes in The Scheer Strength: Relatability, he can be the barbecue dad to Trudeau’s sexy celebrity.

As for the NDP, the party brand and the leader’s own have both been tested this week. And it has to be said that Singh has answered the call.  The NDP moved up its campaign launch, and designed it around the leader.

His campaign slogan, “In it for you,” has a certain resonance to that will remind NDP voters of their progressive origins. The French version: “On se bat pour vous,” works equally well.

He also did well in taking on Québec’s Bill 21 and its interdictions against working professionals wearing religious head gear such as, in his case, turbans. His first campaign ad opens with a video clip of him putting on his turban in the morning. Singh declares: “Like you, I’m proud of my identity.”

He re-cast a provincial issue that has played negatively into a positive talking point. It was very smart, and very well produced.

Elizabeth May, now in her fourth campaign, has built her own brand as Green leader, one of personal decency. It’s the sort of attribute that can take a politician a long way. Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party are already staking out the Trumpian lane, while the Bloc Québécois and Jean-François Blanchet are still on the on-ramp.

Lady and gentlemen, start your engines.

L. Ian MacDonald is editor and publisher of Policy Magazine.