BY IAN PATTISON
This column first appeared in the print edition Sept. 18. It has been updated on Sept 20.
An election few people wanted has, in the space of one month, turned into one of the most hotly contested federal elections in recent memory. The only thing that seems certain two days before voting begins is that the quest for a majority government, which stands as the only logical reason Justin Trudeau called an early election, will be denied.
Trudeau’s Liberals were five points up on the Conservative party when the prime minister called the election on Aug. 15. It was the same day that the Taliban completed their stunning takeover of Afghanistan.
In the following days, tens of thousands of terrified Afghans and foreigners rushed to Kabul airport to escape Taliban rule, including many Afghans who had worked to help Canadian soldiers during the long, grim war.
As it became increasingly apparent that many of these helpless helpers would not get out in time, as Canada had promised, Liberal fortunes began to falter here at home. On Aug. 28, polling showed the Conservatives passing the Liberals in voting projections.
Since then Trudeau has successfully exploited Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s inability to square his own changing positions on issues like gun control, climate change, vaccine passports and abortion with those of his hard core base. And so, on Sept. 12, three days after the federal leaders’ English debate, the Liberals regained the lead in polling analysis conducted by 338Canada.com. But only just.
This week, tiny movements up and down on both party fronts have confirmed that the election is too close to call. At the moment voter preference is 31.9 per cent for the Liberals and 31.6 for the Conservatives.
Liberal incumbents appear in control of local ridings. Patty Hajdu is said to be 99-per-cent certain to win Thunder Bay-Superior North while, in a “tossup,” Marcus Powlowski has pulled well ahead of New Democrat Yuk-Sem Won and is given a 60-per-cent chance of winning Thunder Bay-Rainy River to Won’s 31 per cent. One week ago 338Canada had Conservative Adelina Pecchia ahead of Powlowski and even with Won but her odds of winning have since sunk to 10 per cent.
In the meantime, Canadians’ long frustration with COVID-19 has hardened a lot of hearts, especially around vaccines. An election that should have charted a new course for the country has morphed into a snarling slug fest. Political polarization is going to be a problem for the next government.
Leaders themselves are setting the tone with nasty accusations designed to sow doubt about opponents’ abilities to lead the country out of the pandemic. Sadly, this tactic is shown to work.
"I do not want an election, I don’t think Canadians want an election," Trudeau said almost exactly one year ago. He must really not want one now since, by all indications, he will be right back where he started with a minority government dependent on the NDP to get legislation through the House and with the Conservatives more determined than ever to stymie their every move. A waste of five weeks of our time, in other words.
338Canada projects the Liberals winning 146 seats to the Conservatives’ 127 and 31 for the NDP whose leader, Jagmeet Singh, has tried with all his might to charm Canadians into taking a chance on him. Current standings are Liberal: 155, Conservative: 119, NDP: 32.
Ironically, fewer and fewer Canadians remain enamoured with Trudeau with some positively loathing him for reasons that don’t reflect his two difficult years managing a pandemic that many other governments have bungled.
O’Toole hasn’t been able to give voters much of a reason to support his Conservatives, lately preferring to tell them why not to vote Liberal. Conservative-led provinces have seen the worst Covid case management as Tory premiers opted for personal freedom over public health. O’Toole used to praise Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s atrocious handling of the pandemic. Now, with Covid again raging in the province, he won’t even utter Kenney’s name.
As for Singh’s NDP, most Canadians are in no mood to experiment with a third-party government during a health and economic crisis and so must choose between who they least dislike when they vote on Monday.
Exploiting their every bad instinct is Maxime Bernier who lost the Conservative leadership to O’Toole by a whisker and went way right to form the People’s Party of Canada.
Mad Max speaks for every conspiracy theorist who doubts the science on Covid and climate change. His vision is one of personal freedom and liberty and to hell with the overall public good.
Bernier has attracted almost two million fearful, frustrated and misguided supporters or 7 per cent of the voting population. That’s more than the Bloc Québécois or Green Party command.
The mood of the PPC lunatic fringe can be seen in their deplorable demonstrations outside hospitals, harassing health care personnel and patients to denounce Covid vaccines and mask mandates, and in wildly confrontational protests at Trudeau campaign events.
Bernier gives his supporters license to ignore the all-too visible onslaught of climate change with his cruel mocking of climate activist Greta Thunberg -- a child trying desperately to galvanize world attention to the looming climate catastrophe.
Bernier is fond of saying this: “When tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty.” He might as well have been speaking at Donald Trump’s Capitol riot rally.
There are those easily influenced who eagerly lap up this stuff and then there are those genuinely worried about vaccine side effects who think that maybe Bernier knows what he’s talking about. In either case he gives them an excuse to delay or avoid getting vaccinated, stalling Canada’s pandemic recovery in the process.
Bernier will rob O’Toole of Conservative voters who think their leader has drifted too far left since the election began and, if polls are accurate, ensure that Trudeau gets his job back. If that happens, Conservative attack dog Pierre Poilievre is reportedly lurking around the party, eager to take O’Toole’s place.
For an election that only a third of the country wanted when it was called, advance and mail-in voting numbers have signalled an intense interest in the outcome.
According to Elections Canada, an estimated 5.78 million Canadians have already voted, an increase of 18.5 per cent compared to the 2019 election and a 57-per-cent increase from the 2015 election.
The agency sent out 1.2 million voting kits — some to Canadians living abroad but most requested by those at home whose ballots must be verified to ensure that a voter didn’t vote both by mail and in-person in their riding. That process can take up to 24 hours.
The result, political junkies and mildly interested Canadians alike will be sorry to learn, is that the outcome of Monday’s oh-so-close election likely will not be known until sometime on Tuesday. It’s doubtful that Trudeau and O’Toole will get much sleep that night. The loser will surely be out of a job.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.