Only three short weeks ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked off this federal election campaign with a familiar theme: Trust. Trust in who best can manage Canada’s employment and economy; trust in who can ensure that taxes are kept low; and trust in who can keep Canadians and their families safe. That theme of trust was tested this week, as former Harper Chief of Staff Nigel Wright’s testimony at Senator Mike Duffy’s trial concluded after six days with Wright in the witness box.
Across the country, however, it doesn’t appear as though Wright’s testimony has greatly impacted local campaigns or changed their narrative. Canadians as a whole appear to be focused on the real issues, such as droughts, pensions, forest fires and the end of summer vacations. A new poll by Abacus Data shows that only 22 per cent of Canadians are following the Duffy trial, although it should be noted that 20 per cent were identified as “persuadable voters.”
That is not to say that the testimony went unnoted on the campaign trail. The Prime Minister was repeatedly pressed on his own involvement in the Duffy affair and that of his current staff. Harper has remained consistent in his messaging, declining to comment on evidence or the involvement of his current Chief of Staff Ray Novak. While some commentators have begun to question the wisdom of the early election call because of the Duffy trial, the Conservatives knew that the trial was coming and that it would be a difficult time, but counted on the fact that the trial would take place in August when Canadians aren’t paying attention to the campaign or politics in Ottawa. The polling data suggests their calculations were correct and the Duffy trial has not impacted the Conservative campaign in a significant way. That said, it is difficult to determine what impact the trial will have in the long-term. It will be up to the leaders of the opposition parties to keep the spotlight on this issue moving forward. Between now and the election, Canadians are sure to see ads focusing on the Duffy-Wright scandal.
The trial itself will go into hiatus at the end of next week, and the Conservatives will have seven weeks to re-focus Canadians on their platform and re-establish themselves as the party of choice. Given the length of this campaign, Harper should have time to regain some message discipline and begin to roll out more detailed policy.
Striking parallels to previous campaigns
It is interesting to note the striking parallels between this election campaign and the election campaign of 2005-06. Both campaigns are unusually long, both divided by major holidays (Labour Day in this campaign, Christmas in 2005-06) and have been focused on the issue of child care, but it is the emergence of a scandal involving the potential for RCMP investigations which is perhaps most troubling.
Just before the 2005-2006 campaign, the NDP wrote to the RCMP asking them to investigate the Liberal government for a leak around Ralph Goodale’s income trust decision. The RCMP’s controversial response to the NDP shook the campaign. In the current election campaign, the NDP has again written to the RCMP, this time to investigate the conduct of Prime Minister Harper’s staff. Once again, allegations of criminal wrongdoing by the incumbent government has surfaced in the middle of an election.
No clear winner in the polls
National polls compiled this week vary across the board. Polling aggregator shows the NDP leading with 33.5 per cent, Conservatives at 29.4 per cent and the Liberals at 26.7 per cent. A Leger poll conducted at the beginning of the week shows the Conservatives for the first time are in third place nationally, where a Nanos Research poll has all three parties in a virtual tie of 31 per cent (Conservative), 29 per cent (NDP) and 28 per cent (Liberal).
Polls demonstrating real re-direction are those focused on the economy. For the first time since 2013, an Abacus Data poll (August 20) shows the Canadian electorate is pessimistic about the economy. Only 33 per cent consider the economy to be growing, while 64 per cent believe it to be shrinking. When asked if the country is on the right track, only 33 per cent say yes—the lowest number recorded by Abacus since 2014. Further to this, a Forum Research poll asked respondents “Which of the three main party leaders would handle the economy best?” and voters believe that NDP leader Mulcair is as skilled at managing the economy as the Prime Minister. This is an important shift of perception and may have implications for both parties at the polls in October.
Emphasis on family, safety and business
Relatively small announcements were the norm in the past week. Federal party leaders targeted their announcements to demonstrate policy positioning to their base supporters. All three main party leaders concentrated on families: the Conservatives announced tax relief for families adopting children and new regulations on car seats; the Liberals vowed to care for Canadians with seriously ill family members and to increase parental leave for families with a new baby from 12 to 18 months; and the NDP promoted its universal child care plan and their goal of guaranteeing a child care spot for every Canadian child.
The Liberals made several announcements that affect Canadian employment. A Liberal government would allow Canadians in federally regulated industries to ask employers for more flexible works hours or the ability to work from home.
The Conservatives also focused on business, announcing plans to save small business owners time and money by further cutting red tape. Harper will expand the “red tape baseline” to account for requirements on businesses stemming from legislation and policy rules. Harper pledged to achieve a net reduction in red tape of 20 per cent and launch a new round of cross-country red tape consultations.
The NDP followed the Conservatives lead and focused on policing and public safety. Mulcair has vowed that the NDP would dedicate $250 million to police recruitment with an additional $100 million in annual funding. The Canadian Police Association and Federation of Canadian Municipalities commended the NDP.
Long campaign and its effects
Neither the NDP nor the Liberals appear to be hampered at all by a lack of dedicated transportation for their campaigns. Presently, the Prime Minister is the only leader with a private plane secured, but the NDP and Liberals have actively travelled the country. The NDP and Liberal planes are scheduled to be ready post-Labour Day when the opposition feels Canadians may be more election focused. Thus far campaign spending all around has been minimal. With two months remaining, both opposition parties will be carefully managing their expenditures to ensure they have sufficient funds for the entirety of the campaign.
The federal leaders have crossed the country with British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec seeing the bulk of the activity. Minimal visits have been to the Prairies or the North.  A full overview of where the leaders have been can be viewed here.
The NDP thus far has led a more vigorous campaign than in past years, even campaigning in ridings held by Conservative cabinet ministers—clearly raising its profile and demonstrating great maturity as a strong federal contender. Its strength is felt most strongly in Quebec where even a CROP survey conducted for La Presse suggested that the NDP ‘orange wave’ of 2011 is growing into a tsunami. The poll suggests that the NDP sit at 47 per cent in Quebec—a full 27 points ahead of the Liberals. The Conservatives are last, behind the Bloc, at 13 per cent.
The premier factor
Across the country, many provincial premiers are weighing in with their two cents on the federal election. Historically, premiers typically choose instead to stay quiet on the sidelines. This election, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is particularly vocal, even recently stating that Canada needs a new federal government to work with the provinces and territories. At the start of the election, Wynne and Harper battled it out over the proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. Many feel that Wynne has nothing to lose because of her poor working relationship with Prime Minister Harper, which may explain her involvement.
New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is taking shots at each federal leader, primarily for their positions on the Energy East pipeline project. Otherwise he has pledged to not get involved. Gallant was particularly harsh towards Mulcair given that he has yet to clarify his position on the pipeline.
Canada’s newest premier—Alberta’s Rachel Notley—is one of the quietest premiers. Notley stated that she has her hands full with issues affecting Alberta and that she doesn’t want to burn any bridges with non-NDP federal leaders. Harper has attacked Notley for raising taxes and Notley has replied only with tepid remarks.
It isn’t clear whether the involvement of the premiers in campaigns helps or hinders federal leaders. Presently, Justin Trudeau has a much stronger popularity rating than Wynne. The reverse is true in Alberta where Notley is far more popular than Mulcair. The impact of the premiers on this campaign remains to be seen.
One premier to follow in this campaign is Brad Wall, Saskatchewan. Wall is known as the “most popular premier in the country” with an approval rating of over 61 per cent. Harper and his government poll at 38 per cent and therefore could use Wall’s assistance, particularly with new riding boundaries set in Saskatchewan.
Social media: past and present
The campaigns themselves have remained fairly tame in comparison to those of previous years. It is only recently that a rally was disturbed by a supporter who began to yell profanity at journalists. Social media users are having their fun creating a hashtag—labelling him #AngryCon—and producing fake campaign posters. As rallies continue, we are likely to see more angst particularly at Conservative events, which is not uncommon for incumbent governments to face. The Conservative campaign bus is being followed by Canadian Postal Union members and by veterans who started the “Anything But Conservative” campaign.
In other social media news, past offensive tweets have dogged all three main parties. A Liberal candidate in Calgary was forced to resign over tweets she made four years ago, an NDP candidate from Nova Scotia resigned over comments he made more than a year ago regarding Israel, and a Conservative candidate in Montreal has resigned over sexist comments he posted online. In all likelihood, more candidates will see past posts come back to haunt them. Federal parties may need to evaluate in the future how they vet the current generation who has grown up in the social media world and who comment about every aspect of their lives. The internet does not forget.