Trudeau Eyes Summer Election to Strengthen His Grip on Power
(Bloomberg) -- Canada’s parliament broke for summer this week, with conditions ripe for Justin Trudeau to trigger an election in a bid to win back complete command of the legislature.
Polls suggest the incumbent Liberals have seen a boost in popularity due to their response to the coronavirus pandemic that could parlay into a majority government. Vaccination rates are climbing fast, allowing for looser public health restrictions, and the economy is rebounding. Speculation is that an election could be called as early as August, with a vote in September or October.
For Trudeau, a majority win would heal the reputational wound of his near-defeat in 2019 and allow him to become one of Canada’s longest-serving prime ministers, along with his late father, Pierre Trudeau.
Since losing his majority two years ago, Trudeau has needed the help of other parties to pass legislation, allowing the opposition vast leeway to set the agenda and harangue him over ethics.
That’s a far cry from his first mandate, where the Liberals held a comfortable majority and Trudeau was heralded as an antidote to Donald Trump’s style of politics -- a comparison that helped him domestically. Joe Biden lauded the prime minister as one of the last global progressive leaders standing on the eve of Trump’s inauguration.
“They want to have a majority so that they don’t have to be answerable to pesky opposition parties,” Anne McGrath, national director of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, said in a telephone interview. “They want full control.”
The Liberals have the support of 37% of Canadians, according to an Abacus Data poll released Thursday, with the Conservatives at 27% and the NDP at 18%.
In addition to a double-digit lead on party preference, approval ratings for both the government and Trudeau personally are higher than they were at the start of the 2019 election campaign. Impressions of his main rival are lower and voters are showing less desire for change, according to Abacus.
Those sort of numbers put Trudeau on the cusp of a majority, with the 49-year-old prime minister clearly benefiting from what has been regarded as successful management of the Covid-19 crisis.
After a slow start plagued by delays and confusion, Canada’s vaccination campaign is accelerating rapidly toward the milestone of 75% fully vaccinated, which could allow for the opening of the U.S. border and the resumption of travel. Though the economy hasn’t yet made up all the jobs lost to the pandemic, growth is exceeding expectations, thanks in part to a hot housing market, and consumer confidence has soared.
Trudeau maintains he doesn’t want an election. But in discussing his government’s efforts this week to pass key legislation, the prime minister signaled his frustration with opposition parties, particularly the Conservatives under new leader Erin O’Toole. “We have seen a level of obstructionism and toxicity in the House that is of real concern,” he said Tuesday.
The past month saw a series of farewell speeches from Liberal lawmakers who don’t intend to run again, allowing the party to begin nominating new candidates. Trudeau’s team has scheduled a platform workshop session with business groups and industry associations, according a person familiar with the plans.
To be sure, calling an election could backfire. “It’s always tricky in the summer because you can annoy people if you get in their faces,” John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister, said by phone. “Especially this summer, people are going to say: ‘Enough with politics. Leave me alone.’”
Campaigns matter in Canada. Trudeau himself went from third place to power in 2015, when voters decided it was time for a change after nearly a decade of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper.
And last time, the prime minister’s re-election bid was almost derailed entirely by revelations Trudeau wore blackface make-up on multiple occasions as a younger man.
This time, the Liberals are hoping their stewardship of the economy through Covid-19 and ambitious spending plans for the recovery are enough to win back control. They’ve been tailoring specific policies to help make that happen, with a focus on the vote-rich, French-speaking province of Quebec.
“There’s no doubt that the Liberals’ path to majority runs through Quebec,” according to pollster David Coletto, chief executive at Abacus.
A bill to regulate streaming and social media that the government managed to pass before the summer break is popular in the province, where cultural protection is paramount. Trudeau’s support for the Quebec premier’s effort to strengthen French-language rights will also help the Liberals compete for votes against the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
In Ontario -- home to 121 of the 338 seats in Canada’s legislature, 76 of them already Liberal -- Trudeau will likely try to use perceptions that Doug Ford’s provincial government mishandled the pandemic against the federal Conservatives.
And in British Columbia, the Liberals are hoping their climate-change agenda will take support away from the NDP and the Green Party.
“They’re going where the seats are,” McGrath said. “What they’re banking on is that people will feel more optimistic by the end of the summer, and that will be good for them.”
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