Jordan: Elections have a way of sneaking up on you. There’s always one off in the distance of course, your party just lost, start planning for next time. Your guys just won, start padding the resume. If you want to know how quickly voters can start planning their next ballot, take a look at the polls in Ontario today. All of that is to say we have been talking about this October’s federal election for so long now that it has perpetually seemed imminent, but it’s never actually been close enough that the numbers mattered. This weekend, however, we passed the 100 day mark as in there are less than that many sleeps remaining until we all get to vote and half the country goes to bed sad. The narrative around this election has changed so many times, it’s been difficult to keep track of exactly where the battleground stands at any moment. So today we thought we’d try a refresh for you. Sunny Ways Justin Trudeau, most popular Canadian prime minister, that’s gone. Jagmeet Singh, fresh face poised to lead the NDP to serious gains, not so much. Remember when Maxime Bernier was a stone’s throw away from the conservative leadership, instead of pulling between 1 and 2% and tweeting all right slogans? Just last year. All that was before SNC Lavalin, before Andrew Sheer’s victory, a whole whack of provinces going blue, the rise of the Green Party, climate change vote, and the Ontario Government’s patronage scandal. That is like six elections worth of narratives, and we’ve only got one, but it is at long last within sight. So how do things stand? What happens next?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. John Geddes is the Ottawa bureau chief for Maclean’s. We figured if anybody could set the scene, he could. Hey, John.
John: Hi. How you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing really well, thanks, and we are finally less than 100 days from this critical election. The last time we checked in on federal politics with the bird’s eye view as we kind of do, the liberals were in real trouble. How does that stand now?
John: Well they’re not in real trouble anymore. I don’t think anybody looking at the numbers, the various polls, and not just the polls but also the body language of liberals around town, which looks a lot more relaxed than it did a month ago. I still think that the liberals are in terrible trouble, they’re by no means in the clear, but they’re back in a very tight neck and neck horse race with the Conservatives, and that’s a relief for them given where they were back in the winter or spring.
Jordan: How many times has the kind of narrative of this election changed even over the past couple of years? I kind of mentioned in the intro that it seems like 1,000,000 years ago that Andrew Sheer was taking leadership of the Conservative Party. It wasn’t that long ago!
John: it really wasn’t, and when you talk about the narratives changing, yeah, and the narratives change both in terms of the policies that are in play, and also the personalities who are; Or how we see them, you know what’s the little mini narrative around the leader that we’re telling ourselves? Or that the party’s are trying to tell us? So we’ve seen those change, you know, quite dramatically. In the case of Prime Minister Trudeau, obviously the old narrative of him being this sort of fresh, bright force in Canadian politics, that’s gone and it was pretty obvious he wasn’t going to be able to run on that particular message a second time around. But what we’re seeing now is a sort of shift in the liberals to presenting him as a guy who gets the big things right. I think their message right now is don’t worry about the little stuff, think about the big things. Is he getting the big things right? Is the economy more or less on track? Is our relationship with the United States being managed about as well as can be hoped with Donald Trump in the White House? Are you okay with the climate change plan the way it’s unfolding? Those kinds of big things, they want it to be….. they want the narrative about him to be not are you worrying about how you feel about him? Does he make you feel good? Do you agree with everything he’s done? Do you think he has run perfectly? No, they want it to be do you think he’s getting the big stuff right? So that’s how I think the narrative on Trudeau is changing, and you could go through the same exercise for obviously, for Andrew Sheer or Jagmeet Singh as well.
Jordan: Well, it’s funny cause we talked to David Moscrop kind of right in the middle of the SNC Lavalin Scandal, and he said, you know their only option now is to be steady as she goes party, and don’t change horses in midstream, and everything’s going fine. And I mean, he kind of called that a few weeks in advance.
John: I think he’s right. I think he was; He was right. You know obviously there’s sort of nuance there, but that’s the thrust. When the Liberals were hit by SNC Lavalin, Jody Wilson Raybould, and Jane Philpott leaving, what they were facing was a barrage of negative, and unsettling news stories day after day, week after week, it must have seemed like an eternity to them. But the saving grace for the liberals in all that was that was one complicated, massive situation to get your head around. So even if Canadian voters as they watch that story unfold, we’re thinking, oh boy, is this…. what’s going on here? Is this prime minister losing his grip on things? Is he is corrupt in some way? Is he just incompetent in some way? All those thoughts had to be swirling around the heads of people who were abandoning coordinate pollster, supporting liberals at that time. But the saving grace was, did very many of those people really get a clear story in their own heads about what had happened there? I suspect not. It was an uncommonly complex and nuanced story about the conflict between administration of justice and management of the economy, jobs versus appointments, that sort of thing, and that’s not the kind of thing that most people keep in their heads for long. They may have been unsettled by it for a while, but as it fades in the rear view mirror, I think it fades in general, it isn’t something that’s had… it hasn’t stayed with people and it’ll be a real challenge for Andrew Sheer, and Jagmeet Singh to revive a sense of unease among voters because how do you explain that story? I mean those who tried to write it, or you guys trying to talk about it? That’s a hard story to get straight, to explain all the moving parts of, and that’s really not the way election campaigns are fought. They’re not fought around complicated messages, they’re bought around simple messages.
Jordan: So what kind of simple messages have the Conservatives been using recently, and what do we expect to see from them now that we’re really getting up to it?
John: I think there are two messages that they would like to hammer home, and one is about Andrew Sheer, and the other is about their party, they kind of go together of course. The message they want to transmit about Andrew Sheer is that he’s an ordinary guy who understands ordinary people. He has a middle class upbringing, they even like to talk; He likes talk as though he had really more of a struggle than we know normally associate with middle class. A family didn’t have a car, you know, and met around the kitchen table to worry about whether they could make the mortgage payments, that sort of thing, so the personal narrative about Sheer is he’s an ordinary guy who understands you, and by contrast the prime minister is a guy who inherited some wealth and doesn’t understand you, so that’s the leader narrative. And then the policy narrative is going to be something like, we worry about Canadians who are worrying about getting ahead. You know, he continuously talks about how people are kind of staying afloat in economy but they’re not getting head, they’re not saving, they feel like cost of living pressures are catching up with them, and they’re worried about those sort of pocketbook issues. So far, I don’t think we’ve seen very bracing policy solutions to those problems. Little hints of things the Tory’s might propose, like expanding tax free savings accounts again, maybe allowing 30 year mortgages, something that the federal regulator basically put a stop to in 2012 if memory serves. Little things about affordability, but basically the message being yeah, maybe you’re not worried about losing your job, but are you saving for a rainy day, are you getting ahead? Do you feel like your kids can afford to have the kind of lifestyle that you were hoping they would have? Those kinds of basic family; Sense of financial well being, personal financial well being, that’s the kind of thing that the conservatives would like to propose, that they understand that the liberals don’t understand. So that’s the; I think that’s the narrative they’re trying to put across.
Jordan: You’ve covered a whole bunch of these things, how far out do we have to be to have a real sense of what we’re going to see going into the last days of the campaign? A lot of people this weekend were saying 100 days was kind of a good benchmark, I feel like we’ve been talking about it for 500 days. When does it start to; When do we start plan for real?
John: Right. If I was being, I mean if people are being honest, we usually get this stuff wrong. I mean, it’s just we get it wrong. Most elections the prognostications this far out just don’t turn out to be worth anything. Think about the last campaign…. the NDP was ahead, you know going into the campaign. I mean, think about 100 days out it was the spring of 2015, the NDP had two big bumps in their popularity, Tom Mulcair looked strong. Did anyone predict the NDP would sink the way they did? That the liberals would surge the way they did? I don’t think anyone was predicting that at all. The real turning points in the 2015 campaign didn’t come until several weeks into the campaign. It wasn’t until when the campaign started in late August in 15, Trudeau didn’t surge into the lead until late September. It was well into the campaign, halfway point roughly before we saw the turn that ended up being definitive. So you know, and I could go back. Did any win in 2011 predict the so called Orange Wave Jack Layton surge? You can just go down the line, we were very poor at predicting elections, but we’re not so bad at predicting is the kind of themes end up being important. You know, people could see that Trudeau was going to run on an income inequality theme, and he did that fairly well. People could see that Tom Mulcair was going to run on a… the NDP is a trustworthy, not crazy party and that didn’t work out so well for him. You could see that Stephen Harper was going to run kind of applicable of what you were saying earlier about this election on a kind of steady as she goes campaign the idea that he had pulled us through the 2008-09 recession of financial crisis quite well, and that was good enough to hold his core vote but not good enough to fend off a big surge from the liberals, so we could see the themes people are gonna hit. We can see how they might bounce off one another, but guessing how the electorate is gonna respond to that, that’s another matter.
Jordan: Do we have an idea at this point what the electorate really cares about going into this? Because we’ve talked about a whole bunch of issues on this podcast over the last few months trying to get a sense of which issues will really move people’s votes and what do people in Ottawa think?
John: Well, I think the latest rounds of polling have shown a couple of things that are interesting. One is that there is a big segment of the population now, probably between 1/4 and 1/3, I would guess for whom climate change is…. they would say it’s their top issue, that’s what they worry about the most.
Jordan: That’s really impressive.
John: It is, and here’s the thing, and it is really impressive but here’s the thing. If you think about sort of a 1/3 of people saying that’s their big issue, well, those people are already in the camp of I would guess the Liberals or perhaps the greens, maybe the Democrats. Those aren’t voters who are swinging as a result of that, those are voters who might be… at least they’re not swinging between the liberals and conservatives, the front parties. They’ve already settled on that issue as being something important to them, and they’re with a party where they’re comfortable with their stance on climate change. So I’m not sure that it’s; Even though it’s a big issue for you, but I’m not sure it’s an issue that changes votes. Similarly there’s a large share, pretty good share of the electorate who are worried about the cost of living issues. That’s what they’ll say is their biggest preoccupation, but the cost of living in Canada in many cases, that’s what the people really need, at least in places like Vancouver and Toronto. If they mean housing presses to a large degree they might mean things, there has been a little spike in food price inflation. Also, there are other problems well, but on that issue, is that an issue where a party can put policy in the window, that people will fasten on and say yes, that response for my concern. I’m sure people are being honest when they’re asked what are the big issues for them and they say, well, cost a living you know, I’m worried about that kind of thing. But what’s the savvy political reaction to that? Are their policies you can put in the window that people will think, yes, that party will make a difference to my…. You know how much I can save at the end of the month. I think that’s a challenge, even knowing the issues important to people, it’s not the same thing as knowing you can exploit it.
Jordan: Well to that point because you mentioned an issue like housing which is perhaps not quite the purview of the federal government. Do we have a sense of how the momentum among provincial votes is impacting this election? Because, you know, you’ve even seen the conservative premieres them-self tout a blue wave, and there’s been a number of elections where provinces have gone blue, and is that a sign?
John: Yeah, well, Maclean’s made itself famous or notorious, depending how you look at it, by putting the resistance on our cover, a controversial cover where we had the premier’s lumped together talking particularly about carbon taxes, but it could be extended to other issues when you lump together that band of relatively newly elected conservative premieres. Just looking at the image of a phalanx of blue suited blue Tory opponents to the federal levels, he would say well that has to help Andrew Sheer, it has to be threatening to Justin Trudeau. But wait a minute here, every pollster will tell you that in the last month or two, one of the things that has buoyed liberal fortunes, is the fact that the Ford government in Ontario has become quickly and deeply unpopular, and that has given people when they think about their federal vote, has given them pause, and some people are backing away from the federal conservatives precisely because Doug Ford’s government is so prominent, and so much in their face in Ontario. So the exact factor that seemed only a few months ago to be leaning hard against the liberals, now you wonder if it isn’t one of the main things that’s putting wind their sales. So this dynamic of people looking at their provincial leaders, and then looking at their federal choices and deciding what they want to do, I’ve heard people speculate wildly over the years about how that works. There’s a theory that people tend to want to do offsetting votes, you know they prefer to have a different party in power federally than provincially. I’m not sure I buy that to be honest, but I do think it’s true that an unpopular provincial government with a particular partisan strike can definitely make life difficult for their federal cousins, and in this particular case in Ontario, that’s happening. Now people across the country will be frustrated whenever us guys in the Ottawa bubble start to obsess about Ontario, there’s a you know, this is where we live, and people fear that we’re a suspect; that we’re preoccupied with that. But for a federal election, it’s very difficult not to think hard about Toronto and all the suburban seats around Toronto because that is the biggest single block of seats, they’re typically up for grabs between the Liberals and Conservatives, and even in some cases it’s available to the NDP. That and suburban Vancouver, the lower mainland of BC, a cluster of other places, there are number seats, for example, in Winnipeg that people think might be in play this time. But when you look for big numbers of seats, Ontario’s where it’s at, and in Ontario right now, that provincial conservative dynamic is definitely playing in Justin Trudeau’s favor.
Jordan: Well I want to ask you about the politics on the left for a minute, because you kind of mentioned that if you care about climate change you’re probably on that side of the spectrum with your vote anyway. So first of all, I guess, is this election going to feature on argument against vote splitting, and also have either the NDP or the Greens really done anything to siphon off votes from the Liberals? Because I feel like I haven’t seen Jagmeet Singh in like three months, I don’t see him anywhere.
John: I think you and a lot of other people. Like so on just the raw numbers most polls are showing the NDP standing. It’s somewhere in the mid teens, that’s a couple points down from where they were in the last election campaign, which if you remember, people didn’t think was a grand day for the NDP but they’re a little below that. They’re not horribly below that mark, but most polls show them a little below where they were in 2015. The greens stuck at, you know, somewhere around the high single percentage points. I would have thought that given the problems that Trudeau had back in the winter with SNC Lavalin, in Jody Wilson Raybould, Jane Philpott, and the fact that that was around the time that Jagmeet Singh was winning his bi election in BC, that the reset button moment for him was then. He had been back on his heels of it but he suddenly had won the by election, he needed to win to remain viable as leader. He had a wounded prime minister, who’s you know, kind of floundering around on those issues, was forcing people on the center left, on left to maybe rethink the liberals a little bit. If there was a moment that the NDP was going to make people think again, pull people into their column, I would have thought that was it, and it really didn’t happen, the New Democrats essentially have stagnated through that period. Same for the greens. So if what we’re thinking is that for people to think hard about a leader like Singh, or like Elizabeth May, there needs to be something to jolt them. I think that jolt happened, I think that jolt happened when Trudeau was looking extremely weak back in the winter and early spring. I think that it’s true that the liberal vote softened markedly during that period, but it does not look like there was any very sticky, if I can put it that way movement of people into the other center left and left column. See also the fact that their numbers haven’t moved yet is really quite troubling.
Jordan: You mentioned before that none of us are good at predicting these things, but if I had to ask you looking at this election from where we are now, what are you most sure about?
John: Well, that’s a hard one. I’m quite sure that there will be a; Because right now at least the polls are looking like minority polls, you know that both the conservatives and the liberals sort of are looking right now like a minority outcome. That’s always dangerous to break but that’s how it’s looking. At some point it will dawn on people that the big promises, the promises that require a party to have a majority to make good, that those kinds of promises are maybe a little at best probably just meaningless and instead what we’ll have is a kind of election where people are not thinking what is the big promise at the window, but rather okay if we’re gonna have the complex minority situation, who do I want to have as prime minister in that situation? Who looks to me like someone I would trust or feel okay with as Prime Minister, and so this brings us back to the more nebulous territory, not the hardcore polished territory, but the more nebulous territory of personal narrative. So do you trust and believe Andrew Sheer’s hey, I’m an ordinary guy like you, you can trust me because I see the country the way you see it, I grew up the way ordinary middle class and even lower than middle class Canadians have seen it as a kind of a struggle where you’re worried about your family, or are you more inspired by the idea of having Justin Trudeau there who’s gonna look you in the eye through the television camera and say remember, we got a new NAFTA deal from Trump, we are going to move ahead with a real plan on climate change, we did bring in the candid trial benefit which is there single biggest policy, you know, kind of policy thing that they like to put in the window because it does amount to thousands of dollars for parents with kids. These are big things we’ve done, we’re gonna continue to do that kind of thing, we bring a kind of vision. Is it that kind of vision for what government can accomplish or is it Sheer’s vision for what a prime minister needs to understand? So, Trudeau, I understand that government can do big things and I want to big things. Sheer, I think the government needs to understand the lives of ordinary Canadians, and I would do that, I would understand your life and govern accordingly. I think it’s that kind of division in not just style of government, but someone’s underlying philosophy of what government is, that people will be asked ultimately think about, and that will be even more powerful in an election where by the time we’re getting closer to polling day people are probably thinking this is likely a minority, they’re gonna have to sort of muddle through rather than making good on every single promise they put in the window during the campaign.
Jordan: Last question, I left it till last on purpose. How much of this upcoming campaign as it gets tighter is going to be about Donald Trump?
John: The Liberals would like this campaign to be very much about Donald Trump. Arguably the best single day that Justin Trudeau had in the polls last year, 2018, was when he and Trump clashed after the G7 summit in Quebec City. That’s arguably his best day period. All kinds of people rallied behind him, they would love to have a situation where they’re contrasting Trudeau and Trump on the world stage and in-bilateral relationships and it will be a real chore for Andrew Sheer to distance himself from that. He’s tried to do that quite often, but the truth is most polls show that quite a few Tory’s not all, but quite a few Tory’s in Canada kind of like Donald Trump, so it’s harder for him to be as hard nosed about the American president but I think if the Liberals have their way, they’ll be reminded Canadians at every turn, Canadians voters at every turn that we’re living in the age of Trump, and that’s kind of an overarching I don’t know, almost like a…. it’s a mood setting thing. It’s sort of like, who do you identify with? Do you identify with a progressive young prime minister in Canada or an aging populist reactionary in Washington? And, yeah, for sure, if Trudeau could run against Trump rather than Sheer and Singh he would definitely do it.
Jordan: I guess we’ll see what we’re wrong on this time in less than 100 days.
John: Lots of stuff will be wrong on lots of things, I guarantee you that.
Jordan: Well thanks for setting the table for us, John.
John: Great to be here.
John: John Geddes is the Ottawa bureau chief for Maclean’s, and that was The Big Story. For more from us, including our past political episodes detailing basically all these narratives, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, you can talk to us and tell us why we’re biased @thebigstoryfpn on Twitter and, of course, you can find us wherever you get podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify. Subscribe for free, leave us a rating, leave us a review, that’s how we know you listen. Thanks for that. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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