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The calm before the storm: A preview of the upcoming federal election

June 20, 2019 marked the end of the last parliamentary session of the 42nd legislature in Ottawa. What started as a continuation of a 3-year honeymoon period for the Trudeau-led Liberal Party, eventually gave way to a series of events that have profoundly altered the political landscape, giving opposition parties a much-needed shot in the arm.

Indeed, the certainty of a second majority mandate for current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has never been more in doubt. A series of largely self-inflicted political wounds finally brought a chink to the Prime Minister’s armour. The aftermath of a particular crisis earlier in 2019 brought the departure of two respected Cabinet Ministers (Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott), the loss of his most trusted advisor (Gerry Butts), the resignation of the Clerk of the Privy Council (Michael Wernick), and, most importantly, weeks of negative coverage that led to a sudden loss of popularity among Canadians.

For the first time since 2015, the Liberals are trailing in the polls, a situation that seems to have brought a sense of urgency reminiscent of their climb to power four years ago. They have already started to roll out elements of their upcoming platform (a ban on single-use plastic and the exploration of a national pharmacare regime, for example). They also continue to tiptoe between being pro-resource development (approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline) and pro-environmental protection (more stringent environmental assessment standards via Bill C-69), as well as committing to more infrastructure funding (Budget 2019 carried a fourth-consecutive deficit).

Despite their recent misfortunes, however, the Liberal brand is still strong enough in most provinces and retain one key intangible: Justin Trudeau remains the best campaigner of all current federal leaders.

No political party has benefited more from the Liberals’ current misfortunes than the Conservative Party. Over the past few months, their leader, Andrew Scheer, has spent considerable time positioning himself as Prime Minister-in-waiting. By largely avoiding controversies and effectively hounding the government on ethical, fiscal and immigration issues, the CPC has entered majority territory in most current polls, with a platform so far centred on fiscal balance, a return to asymmetrical federalism and better control of Canadian borders.

Two major obstacles remain in its way: the remaining apprehension voters have toward the Party, only four years out from the end of the mandate of a relatively polarizing former Conservative Government from 2006-2015; and their struggle to combine its pro-oil bona fides with a clear path to tackle climate change. Its environmental platform, released on June 19, is the most ambitious in the party’s history; yet, most experts pointed out the lack of tangible metrics attached to it. In an election where environmental concerns are prime to take centre stage, the Conservatives will have to convince Canadians that they can step up to the challenge.

The session was also eventful for third parties, albeit for different reasons.

  • The NDP continues to bleed voter support and to struggle financially. A year into the leadership of Jagmeet Singh, the party is still searching for an identity, having lost the key components of the coalition that led to their breakthrough performance in 2011: soft sovereigntists have gone home to the Bloc Québécois, environmentalists finally see the Green Party as a viable option and left-of-centre voters have benefited from four years of rather progressive policies from the Liberal Party. In dire need of momentum, the NDP released its entire platform on June 16. It constitutes a stark departure from the fiscally prudent Mulcair years and a return to its more traditional political offer: universal pharmacare, dental care, mental health care, hearing and vision care and billions in new spending on climate change and housing. The New Democrats appear to be fighting for relevance.

  • Thought to have virtually imploded in 2018, the Bloc Québécois is back to being a key actor on the federal scene, and a potential factor vis-à-vis vote-rich Quebec in the election. This resurgence is due in part to the immediate impact of its new leader, former Quebec Cabinet Minister Yves-François Blanchet. Boosted by the rise of the nationalist sentiment in Quebec, the sovereigntist party could play spoiler in key rural ridings, influencing the split between Liberals and Conservatives, and return to official party status in the House of Commons.

  • The slow but steady climb of the Green Party appears to be finally translating into meaningful political gains. Recent electoral successes at the provincial level in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were followed last month by a breakthrough victory in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith, B.C. federal by-election. Not only did the Green Party score a second seat in Ottawa, they also boosted their level of support across the country, to the point where they could leapfrog the NDP in popular support. They will now be looking to bolster support outside of their traditional B.C. stomping grounds.

In terms of the coming weeks, it is important to note that incumbent MPs will likely take a short break from their respective campaigns to reconvene in Ottawa to vote for key legislation still on deck. Chief among them is Bill C-100, which aims to ratify the new free trade agreement between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

Ballot box issues have started to take shape. But ultimately, the result in October will likely be decided by what appears to be the de facto “bottom line” ballot question: does Canada already want change, and if so, in which direction? A return to fiscal conservatism? A radical shift towards a fundamentally “greener” economy? Or does Canada essentially stay the course and re-embrace Prime Minister Trudeau’s earlier “sunny ways” approach?

Starting this summer, NATIONAL will bring you extensive coverage and analysis of the 43rd federal election, tapping into its formidable network of market-leading public affairs experts from across the country, from east to west. Stay tuned.