One of the first elections I covered as a junior radio producer came with some great advice from a senior journalism colleague. He urged me not to get too distracted by the show of the main campaign. He said that of course the major party leaders’ tours, the televised debates, the issues of the day dominating media attention were all a significant influence on the end result, but that I should not lose sight of the local campaigns in each riding, and the regional issues that can dramatically shape the ultimate outcome.
Fast forward nearly twenty years to Federal Election 2019 and that colleague’s advice seems particularly relevant. Unlike 2015 when much of the country seemed unified around one overriding issue — a hunger for a change from Stephen Harper and the Conservatives – the outset of this election feels less like a single national campaign and much more like dozens of distinctive regional races getting ready to kick off. Each of these regional races with its own unique issues and dynamics often bearing no resemblance to how the same issue might influence voters in the neighbouring province or even the neighbouring community.
Here’s a great example from where I sit in Western Canada – the Trans Mountain Pipeline. It has been a flashpoint for protests and political strife in both British Columbia and Alberta. The Federal Government purchased (read: you and I purchased) the pipeline from Kinder Morgan as a last-ditch effort by the Trudeau Liberals to salvage the project after years of court battles and political wrangling.
So here’s where those regional differences kick in. In B.C., specifically parts of Metro Vancouver and Southern Vancouver Island, that decision will very likely cost the Liberal Party at the polls as people opposed to seeing more oil piped through their communities and then shipped through coastal waterways send a message to Justin Trudeau. Head across the Rockies and the same issue will likely also cost the Liberals precious seats in Alberta including Trudeau’s Natural Resources Minister – not because they approved the project, but because they didn’t act decisively enough or soon enough to be seen as protecting jobs and Alberta’s oil economy.
The SNC-Lavalin affair is another example – you know that the Prime Minister is going to be spending the next month and a half (at least when he’s in Quebec) talking about how he was standing up for Quebec families and jobs. That was abundantly clear as he set the stage with his non-apology, sort of apology, sort of explanation when the Ethics Commissioner’s report came out. So there’s an issue that could, emphasis on could, help the Liberals in Quebec while at the same time providing the Conservatives a strong political hammer with which to hit them over the head with around credibility and ethics everywhere else.
How about immigration and the differing way that issue lands in different parts of the country or even different parts of a province? The carbon tax, which is viewed as an economy-killer by some while in other places (like British Columbia, where we’ve had a carbon tax in place for a decade) it’s not such a big deal or in some cases, even a vote-getter.
And the list goes on with no shortage of local issues, national issues resonating differently in different regions, and unique circumstances that could influence the election outcome on a riding-by-riding basis across the country.
But there are always local issues or regional differences, you say? Yes, absolutely there are, and they usually have some sort of impact. But if we use the 2015 election as an example, those local issues were eclipsed by the national change narrative mentioned earlier. In 2011 an overriding concern for jobs and the economy following the financial crisis of 2008 combined with other opposition party dynamics paved the way for Stephen Harper and the Conservatives to take a decisive victory.
We have seen the same thing with provincial elections as well. In British Columbia, in 2013 Christy Clark’s jobs and economy message eclipsed everything else while in 2017, voters were instead drawn to John Horgan and the BC NDP’s more sympathetic narrative around affordability. Same thing in recent Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta provincial elections where the draw of a populist message outshone other issues.
Again, national campaigns matter, how the leaders come across to an electorate that often doesn’t pay attention to politics outside of a campaign (or even the last week of a campaign) matters. But given the lack of an obvious, overriding national issue, those trying to read the tea leaves of how October’s vote is going to turn out would be well advised to look at the situation province-by-province or in even more depth before making their prediction. It’s going to be a fascinating race and result to watch.