ANALYSIS: Election’s first week had a heavy focus on B.C. and a strong start from O’Toole

22 Aug 2021 | Politics | 206 |
ANALYSIS: Election’s first week had a heavy focus on B.C. and a strong start from O’Toole

At the end of the first week of Canada’s 44th general election, it was clearer than ever that, this time, British Columbia voters will play an outsize role in determining the winner on September 20.

Don’t take my word for it. Consider the amount of attention each campaign paid to winning over voters on the West Coast. In the first seven days of this campaign, Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh each spent two days in B.C. That, in my experience, is an inordinate amount of week-one love for B.C. off the top of a federal election.

It was also clear from week one that Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party is prepared to give the incumbent Trudeau Liberals as much of a challenge as possible. If one campaign had to be declared the week’s winner, it was the Conservatives — even though O’Toole spent much of the week cloistered in a TV studio specially built by the party in a downtown Ottawa hotel.

Still, once O’Toole got out of the studio, he, like the other leaders, made sure to point his plane west.

And though each party will have to defend what they already hold in British Columbia, the focus for each was offence. O’Toole, for example, was in the riding of Delta on Saturday, held by Liberal MP and employment minister Carla Qualtrough, and in New Westminster on Sunday, where New Democrat Peter Julian has, in my estimation, an unassailable hold on voters there. Still, taking on a Liberal minister and a New Democrat veteran is an early sign of a confident campaign.

As for Trudeau and Singh, they campaigned within a day of each other in the riding of Port Moody—Coquitlam where, in 2019, Conservative Nelly Shin won the closest of all that election’s 338 races, edging the NDP by 153 votes and the Liberals by about 1,100. They also popped up in other ridings where they hope to defeat Conservative incumbents. Their campaigns, too, are confident about their chances in B.C.

“B.C. is a tough place to call,” said pollster Kyle Braid, Vancouver-based senior vice-president for Ipsos. “You could plausibly come up with any scenario that sees any of the three main parties capturing the most seats at the end of this election.”

In 2019, the Conservatives took 17 seats in the province, the Liberals and NDP each had 11, the Green Party won two and an independent won one. That independent was Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Liberal justice minister who has decided not to run in her riding of Vancouver Granville.

The 2019 popular vote in British Columbia that produced those seat totals was: Conservative: 34 per cent, Liberal: 26 per cent;  NDP: 24 per cent, and Green: 12 per cent. A Global News aggregation of the most recent publicly available vote intention data from six pollsters, including Ipsos, currently has British Columbians voting this way: Liberal: 33 per cent, Conservative: 31 per cent, NDP: 25 per cent, Green: 8.3 per cent.

As a result, B.C. has more than a dozen ridings where there is a legitimate three-way race and the winner, as with Shin in 2019 in Port Moody-Coquitlam, could well be based on vote splits. The big challenge for all the campaigns will be to find a way to separate themselves from the pack.

“The challenge in BC. right now is there is no single issue that stands out for the province,” Vancouver-based Braid said. “We’re not fighting the federal government on an issue like pipelines today. We’re not arguing about forestry or fishing or other issues. British Columbians are generally pretty happy with the performance of the federal government.

“And so the issues that arise in B.C. are things like the economy, COVID-19 health care, affordability. But none of those issues leaps off the page. It’s unclear what is going to emerge as the top issue for British Columbians in this campaign.”

And if policy is what you judge campaigning politicians by, then it seems pretty clear that O’Toole had the best week, followed closely by Singh.

O’Toole used his TV studio time to beam himself out to virtual town halls around the country where he talked about his party’s platform, released almost as soon as the election got underway. Each of the Conservative Party’s campaign days during the week was anchored to one of the policy planks in that platform. While Singh and Trudeau are usually seen as the two leaders most at home in a visual social media environment, O’Toole’s tele-visual presence in the town halls and on social media were smooth and confident. For a leader whose biggest challenge may be introducing himself to Canadians who know little about him, O’Toole may have exceeded low expectations in much the same way that Trudeau did in his first campaign in 2015.

“O’Toole has momentum after a first week where he exceeded low expectations,” said Regan Watts, a Harper-era Conservative political staffer who is now out of politics.  “His team were disciplined where the Liberals were flat.

“Yes, it’s the first week,” Watts said. “A long way to go but he’s set himself up for victory in week one.”

Jagmeet Singh has also been building his campaign days around announcements that highlight planks from his party’s platform, released a week ahead of the election call. In addition to traditional campaign-style events, Singh has made heavy use of his huge following on social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, to push his party’s presence.

If there was a loser in week one, it might have been Yves-François Blanchet and the Bloc Quebecois, which is still bedevilled by some internal party grumbling after Blanchet refused to sign the nomination papers of the sitting BQ MP for Terrebonne, Michel Boudrias, after Boudrias failed to meet party-imposed targets on fundraising. The BQ got 32 per cent of the popular vote in Quebec in 2019 but the Global News aggregation of the most recent polling data has the BQ at about 28 per cent — not good enough to block Liberal ambitions in Quebec.

As for the Trudeau team — the first week was okay but it wasn’t great. Avoiding disasters is the first rule of a favoured incumbent and the Liberals certainly did that. But the Liberals want a majority and to get there, they’ll need to do more than just okay in the weeks ahead.

The Liberal platform has yet to be released and any policy announcements from the Liberal leader so far have been largely extensions of or elaborations on temporary measures the government adopted during the pandemic. There were no big ideas animating the Liberal campaign in the first week and, because of the public health protocols governing all campaigns, there could be none of the crowded, high-energy rallies that helped power Trudeau and the Liberal campaigns to victory in 2015 and in 2019.

David Akin is the chief political correspondent for Global News.

by Global News