The Globe and Mail with Melanee Thomas, Anna Esselment 1 September 2019
By law, Justin Trudeau has until Sept. 15 to visit the Governor-General and ask her to issue the writ for the Oct. 21 general election, but that hardly matters.
The end of the Labour Day long weekend – when people reluctantly bid farewell to summer and turn their attention to the coming fall agenda – signals the real beginning of the campaign, which is marked by an unpleasant reality: Most Canadians don’t want either Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau or Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as prime minister. Both of them are unpopular.
This election is shaping up as a negative referendum. If the question is: Do you want four more years of Mr. Trudeau, then Mr. Scheer is likely to win. If the question is: Do you want Mr. Scheer to become prime minister, then Mr. Trudeau could win a second term.
“We have seen an erosion of trust and confidence in all public institutions, ranging from politics through to the church and corporations,” says Nik Nanos of Nanos Research, which conducts polling for The Globe and Mail.
“Perhaps the new paradigm is which party or leader do people mistrust least. There are no tribes, only circles of mistrust and cynicism.”
An Angus Reid poll released Thursday shows that 63 per cent of Canadians hold an unfavourable view of the Liberal Leader, twice the 31 per cent whose view is favourable. (The remainder are not sure.)
But Mr. Scheer is hardly more popular; 52 per cent have an unfavourable view, 38 per cent, a favourable one.
(The online survey was conducted among a representative randomized sample of 1,534 Canadians. A comparable probability sample would have a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
That perception of unpopularity is buttressed by an August poll from Ipsos that showed only three in 10 Canadians believe that Mr. Scheer (32 per cent) or Mr. Trudeau (30 per cent) would make the best prime minister.
At this stage in the campaign, both parties are focusing on tearing down their opponent as much as possible. The Conservatives have latched onto the Ethics Commissioner’s report, released in August, which concluded Mr. Trudeau repeatedly broke the Conflict of Interest Act when he sought to persuade then-attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the prosecution of the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. Mr. Trudeau does not agree with the report.
The Liberals, in turn, accuse Mr. Scheer of having a hidden agenda to limit abortion and LGBTQ rights, which the Conservative Leader strongly denies.
Such negative campaigning is likely to increase voter apathy and lower turnout, which surged from 61 per cent in the 2011 campaign to 69 per cent in 2015.
For Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, the strong dislike for both leaders suggests that the phenomenon known as partisan sorting, or cleavage politics – in which voters sort themselves into one values-based camp or another along such lines as age, gender, education and geography, and then demonize those in the other camp – is accelerating.
This cleavage has been deepening in the United States for decades, she noted in an interview. Now, in Canada, “We have, very quickly, in the last decade, started to move in this direction as well.
“It becomes ‘us versus them’ and it becomes really quite charged.”
But not everyone is so filled with partisan passion. In Southern Ontario and B.C.’s Lower Mainland, suburban voters tend to swing back and forth, in one election coalescing with downtown progressives; in another lining up with rural conservatives.
And in Quebec, having embraced and abandoned first the Bloc Québécois and then the New Democrats, voters appear to be splitting their vote several ways, at the NDP’s expense.
Issues matter as well, of course. How economically secure do middle-class, car-commuting suburban voters feel? How worried are they by the floods and forest fires associated with global warming?
Howard Ramos, a political sociologist at Dalhousie University, sees the election shaping up as a choice “based on green energy and technology or one that shores up the traditional resource sector and is a laggard on the climate front.”
If so, then those who put the fight against global warming front and centre will support the carbon tax that the Liberals have imposed in provinces whose governments lack one of their own.
But those who feel that Canada’s marginal contribution to climate change doesn’t warrant major economic sacrifice will gravitate to the Conservatives.
Anna Esselment, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo, believes that undecided voters will be looking at the question of leadership. In an era of growing economic uncertainty, catastrophic fires in the Amazon and increasing tensions between Canada and China, “our anxiety this time around may lead us to be less concerned about personalities and leaders, and more about leadership,” she said.