Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Just a little while ago, I mentioned in one of these intros that it was just a matter of time before we got an election this summer, and I would take credit for being right. But everyone was right. We knew this was coming. And here it is.
Clip of Justin Trudeau: After making it through 17 months of nothing like we’ve ever experienced, Canadians deserve to choose with the next 17 months, with the next 17 years and beyond will look like.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: The question I want to ask today is why? Why are we having this election right now? Are there important issues that Canadians need to address this month, or do we have a minority government that wants to be a majority government and thinks this is its best chance? Or both? I guess it could be both. How often do governments actually get punished by voters at the polls for calling an election that very few Canadians say they want? How often does that get forgotten by, oh, day six or so as the campaigns pick up steam? And finally, since we’re voting in September anyway, what can we do? What questions can we ask? What issues can we raise to make sure that we, as Canadians, get an election that really matters at a time when there really are some crucial debates that we need to have.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. David Moscrop is a political writer and commentator. He is, fittingly enough, the author of the book, ‘Too Dumb for Democracy’. Hey, David.
David Moscrop: Hello.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why are we having an election right now? That’s my first and possibly only question.
David Moscrop: Do you want the charitable or the uncharitable take?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I want them both. But start by being charitable.
David Moscrop: Well, the charitable case or election is we have been through a pandemic. We have been through roughly the average life of a minority Parliament in Canada. The Parliament of Canada, especially on the House of Commons side, has been moderately obstructionist compared to the usual. And the government feels that needs to go to the people to check in on what it’s done and to try to secure itself another go to implement a post-pandemic recovery plan. That’s the ultimate charitable take.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It seems reasonable. That take seems very reasonable.
David Moscrop: It seems extraordinarily reason, but in reality, it’s much more the case that Liberals want a majority government, full stop. They don’t like dealing with the opposition in the House of Commons in a minority government situation. They especially don’t like dealing with them at committee, where opposition members have significant influence of not controlling committees and can cause all kinds of problems for the government, as we have seen in, quote, unquote scandal or scandal after scandal. And they see a chance to potentially secure a minority government. And they’re probably not going to get a better chance anytime soon, and otherwise they’re rolling the dice with the Delta variant, with future variants and with the uncertainty that faces a fourth wave. And so now is the time to go. And I suspect the truth between the two is probably a mix of the best and worst case defences of the election, with probably a slight bias towards the worst.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In general in Canadian politics. How often does this kind of thing happen? I know that we saw it in British Columbia last year, but is this a traditional move, or is this something that people should feel grieved by?
David Moscrop: Well, both. It’s both common and irritating.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Fair.
David Moscrop: The average government in Canada, I wrote about this a few years ago in 2016. The average government in Canada lasts, since the Second World War, lasted three years. Obviously, most majority governments go about four. The minority governments were closer to two and change. And so it was pretty common. It has been roughly two years in a little bit and then an election. Of course, the note here, the asterisk or the caveat is that it’s not true during a pandemic. It’s extraordinarily unusual to have an election during a pandemic like this when it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary. And that’s the difference. Most people understand when you have to have an election two years and change into a minority Parliament, it’s different when it’s in the midst of a pandemic. And if you look at most of the opposition to the election, it is stated as, ‘we don’t need an election during a Pandemic’. This was the same thing that people said about British Columbia, incidentally. Not all parliamentary democracies work in that way. You don’t always have snap elections, although sometimes you do.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So that was going to be another question. Is that a unique feature to Canada’s system? What to other parliamentary democracies do, and how common are snap elections in those countries?
David Moscrop: So it would be uncommon to not have a snap election in a parliamentary democracy.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: The fact is this is utterly routine, not just in Canada, but in parliamentary democracies around the world with a few asterisks. Again, one is New Zealand, after switching to proportional representation in the 1990s, saw far fewer and perhaps none. I don’t perhaps none by way of snap election. So that’s one note, although that isn’t to say that proportional representation means no snap elections because there are snap elections under PR systems. Norway bars snap elections. It’s unconstitutional to have snap election in Norway. Once you’re elected, you just have to sort it out. Coalitions in the legislature rise and fall, but that gets worked out amongst the coalitions, not amongst the people in an election. So it’s a different model. Pros and cons, but it’s a different model. So it’s not uncommon to see this in Canada. It’s typically what you see, although again, with the note that not during a pandemic.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’ve heard a lot in the lead up to this election as we’ve covered it on this show that, you know, to your point, people just don’t need it right now, they don’t want it right now, especially during a pandemic. How often does that sentiment translate to a bad result for the government that calls the election? Do we ever punish governments for sending us to the polls?
David Moscrop: We do. And most famously or infamously, people think of David Peterson in Ontario in the 1980s, who called extraordinarily cynical snap election and lost government. But the fact is, for every David Peterson, you have John Horgan. And we saw John Horgan call a snap election during the pandemic in the middle game of the pandemic. So we were still worried about waves and vaccines and what we are going to do to a mitigate future wave. And he won a majority.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: And so the fact is that, sure, the election call itself is a sort of meta issue, but it’s not going to remain the election issue. We’ll talk about it for a couple of days, maybe a week. Then people are going to say, okay, what about child care? What about pharmacare? What about disability rights? What about the climate? What about Indigenous reconciliation? What about anti-Black racism? What about taxes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And they’re going to move on. So while there are plenty of instances of governments being punished, there are plenty of instances of the government’s not being punished. And so I suspect in this case, you’re more likely to see the government not particularly punished, more like a Horgan than a Peterson.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you look at the state of play for want of a better term in terms of all the polls leading up to this election call, should the Liberals be this confident that they’re going to walk into a majority by calling a quick election?
David Moscrop: I don’t think, well, there’s a lot of Liberals, so there’s a variety of different opinions and levels of confidence. I think the Liberal confidence narrative is more of a media construct, than a representation of the state of the party. I think there are Liberals who are very concerned about their chances of certainly getting a majority and not willing to take government for granted. There are some who aren’t plainly, but I do think they’re aware that there’s always a risk when you go to the polls, especially during a pandemic. So I don’t think the smart Liberals are over confident. I think they know what they’re dealing with.
That said, I think they’ve looked at the probabilities, they looked at the polls and said, this is as good as it’s going to get. There’s a risk here. There’s a potential reward. And if you see the polls, the aggregates, the best polling firms hovering around 36% for the Liberals, high twenties for the Conservatives, 28, 29. That’s not a bad deal for the Liberals, who say, okay, well, the worst case scenario is we end up kind of where we are. The best case scenarios, we get a majority, really. They only need to add about three points on aggregate of course, it matters where those points are distributed. They’ve got to pick up areas of the country. Just because you’ve got, as Andrew Scheer learned in 2019, just because you’ve got good aggregate numbers doesn’t mean that’s going to translate into seats.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: You can win all of Alberta and get more votes than the other party and still not form government, as Andrew Scheer did almost all over again. So I do think they’re aware of that. But here’s the other thing, and this often gets lost in the poll talk. Campaigns matter. They matter a great deal. We’ve learned that 2015, we saw that with Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau campaigns matter. And I suspect the Liberal think they are better campaigners, they’re better poised, and they can pick up two and a half or three points in the right places and return to majority. In worst case, the consolation is a minority, which I already have. So they get a renewed minority.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Do they deserve as a government to be sitting in the position that they are right now in the polls going into this election? And I guess I’m asking that more in terms of, to use a sports metaphor, you know, have they been winning this game, or have the opposition parties been losing it?
David Moscrop: Well, I mean, I come at this particular perspective, you have to disclose off the top, I’m not a Liberal supporter, I’m a socialist. I’m not a support of any party, incidentally.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: I’m a socialist who would like to see a socialist elected. And so I never think that that Liberal parties, small L or big L deserve the polls that they get in a sort of normative sense. But if we do an imminent critique or an imminent analysis in the context of Canada itself, the fact is, most Canadian voters, to the extent that they have ideological predispositions at all, coherent or otherwise, our sort of center, small-L Liberals. And this government has secured a couple of really important policies, the Canada Child Benefit that goes back several years now. They managed the pandemic competently, certainly, as a lot of people will look and say, look, look at the look at the CRB, look at the wage subsidy, look at the business loan account, look at how they were able to procure vaccines. I mean, I think if you look at the vaccine portfolio of the country, it is among the best in the world. You just can’t deny that. You have to be such a partisan brain to think that Canada hasn’t been a success on the vaccine front with the one note that the actual shame of the vaccine procuring strategy has been to shut out, to some extent, the rest of the world, especially poor States who now have limited access to vaccines and they’re paying the price. But domestically, it’s been a good strategy. So all that primed them for reward.
And in the closing days of Parliament, they secured a handful of child care deals that I think are very appealing to a lot of people and for good reason. So I suspect that a lot of people are going to look at it and say, you know what, if we’re comparing that to Aga Khan, and SNC, and selling arms to Saudi Arabia and things that I don’t particularly care for, and I’ve got plenty of other critiques, but I think of most sort of small centrist Canadians look at that. They’ll say it works for me and will be in client or the Liberal, even though people like me would not be.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If you were a strategist for one of the opposition parties, then just given what you just said about listing those scandals, and to your point, most Canadians probably don’t care about them when compared to the domestic policies that are benefiting them, how would you then attack this government knowing that the big scandals that you want to make headlines are probably not going to move that many votes?
David Moscrop: Well, it certainly depends on which party.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: I think, and on which things went wrong that led to me being a political strategist, both for myself and for the parties that would hire me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I should make you the Conservative Party strategist for this exercise now.
David Moscrop: Well, for the Conservatives thing, here’s the thing. I think the Conservatives are in deep structural trouble for the reason that they are far more fractious than people sometimes think. People talk about the left as being divided and difficult to govern and to hold together. The fact is, it’s the right. You look at the contemporary history of Canada, it’s the right that routinely fractures. Stephen Harper, to his credit, by the way, was able to come in and say, okay, I’m going to stitch this Frankenstein’s monster together, by God, by any means necessary, and I’m going to hold it together. And he did. The problem is, then he left. And subsequent leaders haven’t been able to hold it together like he has was able to, rather. And so the challenge of the Conservatives is finding that next 10% without reverting to appealing to the base, which is easy and cheap and maybe even satisfying but utterly ineffective because it gets them nothing they don’t already have.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: And in fact, if I were a conservative strategist, I would say to Erin O’Toole, you have two jobs. One, grab a hold of the reigns of this party and run it like Stephen Harper did, lock it down. I say this to someone who likes party democracy, likes open. I’d be like, if you want to win, you’re going to lock these people down. You got to lock them down hard.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You mean the base there, you’re talking about?
David Moscrop: The party caucus and the party influencers. And then the base is sort of secondary because the Conservative base under Harper sort of fell into line. They learned to live with the fact that abortion wasn’t going to be on the agenda, that same sex marriage wasn’t going to be on the agenda. Harper basically said, okay, that’s settled in this country.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: He moved on. To the benefit of the Conservatives, if they had stayed in the mud trying to relitigate those issues that are quite rightfully closed, I think it would have done him no good. In fact, you saw that when he sort of reverted back to old form in 2015 with barbaric cultural practices and the hijab stuff, it serves him really poorly because that’s not what people wanted to talk about. People rightfully saw that as deeply, deeply problematic. So I would say, ultimately, two jobs lock those folks down, lock them down hard. Two, wait for Trudeau to trip over himself. It’s received wisdom in this country that you you vote out governments, you don’t vote in government. And I think that’s broadly true. And so for the Conservatives, I think it’s a waiting game.
I would also say to the party, you got to hold on to a leader for more than one election or otherwise, you’re never going to get anything done. Stephen Harper was around for more than one election, going back to his early days. And for the NDP, I would say broadly the same thing. But I would also add, the NDP should be focused on getting new voters to the polls, not just trying to flip Liberals or Greens or the occasional conservative who might be on the fence or even an undecided. I would say try to find new voters and the way Justin Trudeau did in 2015 and do that by being unabashedly left.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In terms of voting governments out and not voting new ones in. Is that why the Liberals can be so, I don’t want to say that they’re confident to your point earlier, but is that why that they can be so brash in terms of calling the election because they know that, you know, in a time like this, Canadians would probably just prefer to stick with what got them through the pandemic. It’s not that bad. And is that kind of who we are as voters?
David Moscrop: That is who we are as voters, I think. Well, not universally, but largely yes. The fact is, the voters are not particularly partisan. They’re not particularly politically engaged. I’m talking about, on average. They are not ideological, which is different than partisan. I’m ideological not partisan. And they don’t walk around with a coherent set of value of criteria, an ideological check boxes that they want to tick. They’re good at what they’re good at, their jobs, their hobbies, their sports, whatever, their family. They are trying to get through the day, and they’re looking for good enough. And that’s true of all kinds of countries. That’s just true of how democracies tend to tend to work. And then, of course, there are, you know, institutions that pattern behaviours and ours have patterned ours in such a way that we tend to get Liberals more often than not. I mean, they’re called the, quote unquote natural governing party, which is an irritating phrase. But the fact is they’ve governed more often than they haven’t.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: And what you typically see, if you look back to the history of the country, you see a long period of Liberal rule and the Liberals blow it. The Conservatives govern for a couple of years, and then the Liberals are back. We default to the Liberals, and it’s institutionally the case, and long has been.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, I’ll ask you to drop the cynicism then for a second. I know it’s very easy to be cynical about this election. In an ideal world, you know, we’ve got an election here. We’re going to have 36 days or whatever it is to make a choice. What could this election be about? What kind of chances do we have in front of us?
David Moscrop: Right. So I’ve just finished writing a piece about this, and I argue that this election is unnecessary, but nonetheless important. I mean, the fact is that whether or not you want an election, whether or not you think in elections is necessary, independent of that. The fact is, elections are important. They matter, and they are an opportunity to talk about things. And we typically do engage in policy debates. They’re not the best, always. They’re marked by all kinds of partisan skullduggery. But there’s still a policy conversation that happens. And I welcome that. I really do. And I think this can be an election about a handful of things and will be, chief among them climate. The IPCC report of a few days ago was called a Code Red for Humanity by the Secretary General of the United Nations. We’re seeing around the world, we know. So we can have another climate election. Every election from here on out has to be a climate election. Pandemic recovery. The fact is, we’re slowly beginning to recover from the pandemic, notwithstanding the fourth wave and perhaps future waves. But we know that we’re in a place where we can start to work on recovery. There’s a real discussion about how we ought to do that, how we can do it equitably, who gets what, when and how, to use an old line for politics.
So, Pandemic. And then, of course, the issues I mentioned earlier, which are still live issues, even though climate and the pandemic often overshadow them. There’s still Pharma care, child care, Indigenous reconciliation and justice, anti-Black racism, disability, a tax policy, all kinds of things that are critically important notwithstanding the climate debate and the pandemic recovery, in fact, and our part of the climate debate and pandemic recovery debate. So I think we can have a real important conversation with how we ought to do that and set the agenda for the next six weeks. And I’m going to be moderately optimistic in saying that I think there will be a bit of a robust conversation about that stuff, because the parties do differ to some extent on how to do things. I will say this, though. I do think, to some moderate extent, the vote will be a bit of a referendum on have I been double vaccinated? And can I sit on a patio? And will I be able to do that for another couple of months? And I think the Liberals are counting on that.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How will we know what this election is actually going to be about? You know, you mentioned back at the beginning of this chat that the election is about, oh, we don’t want an election for a very brief period of time, and then other things kind of take hold. What will you be watching for to see what’s setting the tone for voters? And when will we get a sense of what’s really going to matter when we go to the polls?
David Moscrop: Well, elites set the tone. The truth is-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s not encouraging.
David Moscrop: No, it’s not. But the alternative is, I should qualify that a little bit. Obviously, you can affect things from the ground up. And a lot of the issues that are percolating are percolating because people have been working on them. But the fact is the election, it’s going to be a reflection of what the parties choose to talk about and what the media chooses to cover and highlight, because the fact is there’s a lot of stuff going on out there. And in any given day, we see a fraction of it. And that fraction is a reflection of what we’re most likely to see because it’s being covered the most or the most prominently.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
David Moscrop: And that’s why the media and the parties have a huge what we call agenda-setting functions, and so it’ll be up to them. And it’s one of the reasons that has a columnist and writer, I try to talk about substantive issues as much as I can in productive ways, because that’s going to shape what people talk about, and that’s a serious responsibility. And so I think we’re going to see the usual horse race stuff, the usual why we don’t need an election talk, the meta stuff, the horse race meta stuff. But then I really do think it’ll be up to the parties to decide what they want a forefront. And I suspect it’s going to be a mix of again, looking back on the Liberal record, obviously, but looking forward to pandemic recovery, climate and social policies around, I would say mostly Pharma care and child care.
And here’s the thing, if the parties in the media want to spend six weeks talking about climate, pandemic, childcare, Pharma care, as well as an Indigenous reconciliation, I think will be also top of mind, if they want to spend six weeks talking about first and foremost of those issues and then several others. As I mentioned, I would welcome that, because here’s the thing. We’re already having those conversations right now. We’re going to have them under the hot lamps of an election, and I think that would be a credit to us. I really do. So I’m actually moderately optimistic we’re going to have a fairly decent election because, again, something has changed in the last a couple of years that there are rising consciousnesses in different communities and populations and in general about core issues that have been festering for a long time. And I think we’re ready to have a big conversation about them because we’ve already been having it. And I think that gives us a real opportunity to perhaps introduce some new perspectives, set the agenda, and maybe even some better policies. So ultimately, I don’t particularly think we need an election. But if we’re going to have one, I think we can and should make an account.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This conversation started with cynicism and ended with optimism, and I hope the election is the same way. We will maybe check back with you in a few weeks and see how you’re doing with that.
David Moscrop: Please do that’s. My superpower. The cynicism to optimism swing. That sort of Nike swoosh or Fish Hook is substantively valid, but also good marketing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, thank you so much for it. We’ll talk soon.
David Moscrop: Thank you.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: David Moscrop, political commentator, author of ‘Too Dumb for Democracy’, a book you can find wherever you get your books. That was The Big Story, a podcast you can find wherever you get your podcast. You can also talk to us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can email us if you like. The address is thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. We’re also in every podcast player on every smart speaker, and we really appreciate ratings and reviews, and especially real life word of mouth. You can see your friends again. So tell them what you’ve been listening to. Thanks for choosing us.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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