The Liberals won the federal election of 2015 for two main reasons.
The first reason: Justin Trudeau was not Stephen Harper. After nine-plus years of Conservative government – the last four with a majority – the country was weary of Harper and his party and it embraced Trudeau as the agent of change.
The second reason: the New Democrats made a catastrophic strategic error. Having won 103 seats in the 2011 election, establishing themselves as the official opposition, they thought they could grab the brass ring in 2015 by challenging the Conservatives on their own ground. As the NDP moved to the right, the Liberals had a clear run in the left and centre-left where most Canadians voters reside.
This October 2019 election is very different. There is a sourness in the electorate, a sense of disillusion or distrust with politicians, their parties and the political process. The Liberals bear the brunt of this disillusion – for failing to live up to the lofty expectations they created four years ago and for not honoring the principles of integrity and transparency that they espoused.
Disappointment with the Liberals has not – or, at least, not yet – manifested itself as a widespread desire for change. The opinion polls have been frozen in place for the last two or three months. The needle isn’t moving. While the Liberals appear to have bottomed out at about 30 per cent, the Conservatives, having lost whatever momentum they had, seem to have plateaued at 34-35 per cent. That is just two or three points higher than the 32 per cent they received while suffering a decisive defeat four years ago.
There is no agent of change this time. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has been content to criticize Trudeau and the performance of the Liberal government, while fending off Liberal efforts to portray him either as Harper redux or as an ugly federal incarnation of Ontario Premier Doug Ford – or both.
In his series of light-on-detail policy speeches, Scheer has presented himself as a safe choice, promising a Conservative government that would be more effective and fiscally prudent than the Liberals’ but would not be fundamentally different on most policy fronts.
He comes across more as a defender of the status quo than as an agent for change.
His climate change policy betrays the strain of trying the bridge the gap between party supporters who do not believe global warming is for real and those who concede it is an urgent problem, even if they don’t think Canada can do much about it. The policy avoids the dreaded words “carbon tax” while leaning instead on regulation and tax credits.
Anyone watching the House of Commons last week could have come away with the impression that see-no-issue Conservatives have isolated the party on the wrong side of history. Conservative MPs voted en masse against a Liberal motion to declare climate change a national emergency. Of course, the motion was designed to embarrass the Conservatives, and it worked; all other MPs voted for it.
The weakened NDP is not looking to make any inroads. Under its new leader, Jagmeet Singh, the party has returned to its traditional place on the left of the Liberals. But its priority is to salvage as many of its 41 seats as it possibly can, especially the 15 it still holds in Quebec.
For the Liberals, the challenge is to beat off the Conservatives while trying to convince voters they are still the party of change and reform.
Their best shots will be with the national single-payer pharmacare plan they are developing and some form of gun control. The chastened Liberals won’t be as bold as they were four years ago. Pharmacare would be carefully phased in over five years and gun control would go only as far as a ban on assault weapons. It would stop well short of where it needs to go – to the prohibition of private ownership of all handguns.
Change, if it happens, will come by baby steps in 2019.