Weakened by a 2019 election that gave them a minority mandate, the Liberals were supposed to find commonalities with progressive opposition parties to advance their agenda, while making concerted efforts to win back the trust of Canadians. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 changed all plans, forcing the government to focus on a single mission: ensuring the health, safety and financial well-being of Canadians.
The politics of the incumbent government’s mission is well-understood: try and win a majority so that it can continue to roll out a progressive agenda, unencumbered by opposition obstruction. And subsequently continue to shape Canada the way it sees fit. As the party is heavily favoured by most polls, and nothing is guaranteed, this election is unquestionably the Liberal Party’s to lose, particularly given what national polls are showing about its current standing.
The road to a majority government will likely depend on Justin Trudeau’s ability to accomplish three things:
Successfully tout his management of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the timely rollout of enough vaccine doses
By all accounts, the government performed well. Despite early stumbles, Canada now has a larger percentage of its population fully vaccinated than any other G7 country. The government hopes that its willingness to keep Canadians financially afloat throughout the fight against COVID-19, via billions in financial relief measures, will be remembered by voters.
Keep left-leaning voters in the fold
Much of the Liberals’ success has been attributed to their ability to court and retain voters with NDP or Green leanings, Canadians that put affordability, workers’ rights and the fight against climate change at the top of their priority lists. While the Liberals’ centrist orientations have at times forced them to support big business and endorse non-renewable energy projects (like the Trans Mountain Expansion Project), the party has largely collaborated with unions and rolled out an ambitious strategy to tackle climate change.
Label the Conservatives as out of touch
Only the CPC can truly challenge the incumbent government. And the Conservatives’ at times unproductive criticism of the government since the start of the pandemic is likely to play a role in the strategy of the Liberals. Conservatives initially opposed, then stalled, the rollout of major financial relief measures and wrongly claimed that most Canadians would not be vaccinated until the year 2023.
Liberal Party's strengths
- Pandemic management: The government steered the ship and spared no effort to protect Canadians. Nearly every incumbent provincial government that went through an election during the pandemic emerged with a majority mandate (Yukon being the exception).
- Relative weakness of opponents: Countries “rally around the flag” during hard times. While the LPC was the focus of media attention, opposition parties were decidedly in the background and struggled to make their voices heard.
- The fight against climate change: The LPC brought forward a bold, comprehensive plan that generally satisfied more progressive voters.
- Affordability: The LPC’s pre-electoral tour has focused on housing and childcare, two files that resonate with Canadians.
Liberal Party's challenges
- Voter apathy: Most Canadians don’t want an election. They could be prompted to stay home, especially if the Delta variant or other COVID-19 variants continue to become more prevalent.
- Reconciliation: The horrific discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children on former residential school sites highlights the struggles of the Trudeau administration to find answers and solutions to the pressing issues of Indigenous Canadians.
- Ethics: While Justin Trudeau was ultimately exonerated for his role in the rollout of the Canada Student Service Grant, this episode—which triggered the departure of his long-time finance minister, Bill Morneau—is largely seen as the latest in a long line of ethical missteps that have hurt his brand.
- COVID-19: Will the campaign go without a hitch? Or will the Delta variant be a looming X-factor given numbers across Canada are inching back up? Could a resurgent virus impact the campaign and voting participation, especially in major Liberal targets like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal? If so, it poses a major political risk to the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party.
——— Tiéoulé Traoré is a former Director, Government Relations at NATIONAL Public Relations