Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday March 2, 2021
Partisan chess games in times of the pandemic
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he doesn’t want a pandemic election. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has shown signs he wants any election call to be later rather than sooner. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said he will not help to topple the government until the vast majority of Canadians are immunized against COVID-19.
So why are there more signs nearly every day that we are heading for the polls late this spring or at latest next fall?
The short answer is because we cannot believe any of the main party leaders. They all know Canadians, by and large, are too preoccupied with the pandemic to be distracted by an election campaign. They know, too, that a campaign and national vote during the pandemic is bound to carry more risks than in normal times. None of them wants to wear that, so they are all saying the right thing.
But they are politicians, after all. They have watched while voters went to the polls in New Brunswick on Sept. 14 and rewarded Premier Blaine Higgs for rolling the dice. B.C. Premier John Horgan did the same and it paid off on Oct. 24 when he was soundly re-elected. Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe did it and voters ultimately rewarded his Saskatchewan Party with a fourth majority mandate. So it turns out there may well be partisan benefits for political leaders who gamble on pandemic elections.
Not always, though. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey called an election for Feb. 13, but COVID-19 had other plans. After variants caused several outbreaks, in-person voting was cancelled and the election was delayed for more than half the province. The results are still unknown.
The Newfoundland and Labrador election mess should serve as a reminder to federal party leaders that if the country goes into a COVID crisis during the campaign, their partisan gamesmanship could turn into a political nightmare. In that respect, only the NDP’s Singh as actually saying the right thing: No election until Canada has achieved herd immunity.
It would be a pleasant change if both Trudeau and O’Toole came out publicly sharing Singh’s position. They could then legitimately say they were putting the interests and welfare of Canadians ahead of partisanship. It would also be nice if COVID-19 mysteriously disappeared around the world. The two things are about equally likely.
But if they know that an election is riskier than usual — consider what would happen to the leader who forced an election if a Newfoundland and Labrador scenario unfolded nationally — what are the two leaders and their inner circles thinking?
O’Toole and his brain trust are probably not in a hurry, but they will play an election and play it hard if it happens. Their fundraising has been strong so their war chest will be full. They know Trudeau’s brand has been battered somewhat by the slower than promised acquisition of COVID vaccines. What they also know but would be unwilling to acknowledge is that O’Toole is struggling to establish a leadership brand Canadians find appealing, especially in Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and to a lesser extent in B.C. And they are stuck at about 30 per cent support in opinion polls, which is the same as when Andrew Scheer led the party.
As for Trudeau, he has seen his popularity slide, but he also sees support for his party remaining strong, especially in central and eastern Canada, which means they would win an election if it was held today. But could they eke out a majority? And if they don’t, why force an election at all?
History has shown that minority governments can work. Trudeau and O’Toole might want to consider that as they play high-stakes partisan chess. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)