It was one of those moments in news and politics where you just knew something was going to be a big deal from the get-go. I’m talking about the original September 18th tweet from Time Magazine revealing that they had a photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface at a 2001 “Arabian Nights” themed party at the Vancouver private school where he was at the time, a teacher. Within hours of that post, Canadian media outlets were singularly focused on the story, campaign schedules were scrapped, pundits and pollsters went into overtime, and Mr. Trudeau was forced to convene a news conference in the back of the Liberal Party campaign plane to apologize. His first of several apology focused days where the party was forced onto the defensive.
It was a bad fall for a Liberal Party leader and campaign that has stumbled out of the starting gate of this election and even now, two-weeks into the race, still has not fully found its footing. Although the blackface revelation is the highest profile and most damning of these self-inflicted campaign stumbles, it is far from the only issue that has even some of the staunchest party supporters questioning what is going on.
From a tour bus driver clipping the wing of the Liberal Party campaign plane, to a series of un-costed, short on detail campaign promises, to the decision not to allow questions from the media for days on end, to a gun ban that doesn’t ban handguns, to a general feeling of unpreparedness, it has definitely not been the initial campaign that Liberals were hoping for.
Of course, in isolation, none of these issues (other than the blackface revelations, of course) would be a big deal. There are almost always issues with a campaign bus at some point in a race – you just usually hope the media doesn’t notice. Going quiet for a day or two and avoiding media questions is not exactly conveying an image of openness and transparency, but on its own, it would be overlooked. But it is the cumulative effect of one stumble after another that risks setting a narrative of an unprepared, uninspired campaign.
Of course the fascinating dynamic to all of this is that these stumbles, including the global blackface headlines, don’t seem to have moved the needle at all in terms of voting intentions. At least not when you look at the polling released publicly by firms like Nanos or Ipsos in association with major media outlets. This definitely demonstrates a stark gulf between what the media and pundits are focused on and what everyday voters care about. Or, if we are leaving all options open — that the polls are wrong. We have definitely seen that movie before.
Another saving grace here for the Liberals is that Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives haven’t exactly lit things up themselves. Scheer’s response to Trudeau’s blackface revelations was cringe-worthy in its unabashed political opportunism. Particularly given his own party’s challenges with questionable candidate history and conduct. Scheer himself has had to answer for his own past positions such as video that emerged from a 2005 speech in the House of Commons where Scheer suggested that same-sex marriage could not be considered marriage because same-sex couples could not have children.
There is also the fact that the Conservatives aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel on the policy front. They have focused on a tried and tested playbook of issues and promises that have worked for them in previous elections, but don’t exactly seem to be galvanizing the electorate behind their leader this time around – at least not those outside of their traditional voting base. A recent CBC News piece documented how many pieces of the 2019 Conservative Platform are blasts from the past rolled out by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in elections past.
Then there is Elizabeth May and the Green Party. Aside from some candidate vetting issues and lingering ambiguity amongst many voters, the Greens do seem to be making some gains, particularly here in British Columbia where they could be poised to pick up a handful more seats. Perhaps in other parts of the country as well. Ignoring, of course, some questionable decisions around the campaign and selective use of photoshop.
But out of all the major party leaders who have stumbled their way out of the campaign starting gate, the notable exception is the leader who many thought wouldn’t even make it to the election with his job intact – the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh. A rash of MP resignations and an overall inability to meaningfully connect with Canadians had Singh looking like he was not going to be long for the job. But, his heartfelt, genuine reaction to Trudeau’s blackface scandal appears to have a number of political watchers and voters giving him a second look. Singh put on what can only be described as a masterclass in taking a tough issue and cutting through the politics of it to simply speak to voters about his values and his own experience with racism. Even if the NDP loses seats as many observers expect will happen, Singh himself will likely have made a significant impact on the race and gained a good dose of personal respect from Canadians across the political spectrum. A lone early leadership triumph in a campaign that has seen more than its fair share of early stumbles.