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Analysts says snap federal election unlikely as Liberals ride wave of popularity

- Reuters

As the federal government continues to engage in unprecedented levels of spending to deal with challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced questions this week about whether or not Canadians should be able to pick the government at the helm.

Speaking with reporters, Trudeau downplayed the possibility of a snap election, something a growing number of political commentators and pundits have been muttering about in recent weeks.

“I haven’t heard a lot of Canadians demanding an election right now. Parliament gets to decide when it no longer has confidence in the government,” Trudeau said, adding the focus right now is on helping Canadians as quickly as possible.

“There will be many challenges that we will face over the coming years … and there will be many debates in Parliament and eventually in an election. But I’m not going to speculate on when that might be.”

Don Desserud
Don Desserud

Speaking with SaltWire Network, University of P.E.I. political science professor Don Desserud said he has no doubt that if an election were called now, the Liberals would win a majority.

“The opposition parties are in disarray,” Desserud said.

A snap election would mean the Conservatives would have to quickly pick a new leader or go to the polls with Andrew Scheer as leader, who proved in October he can’t win an election.

Parties would have to figure out how to make their plea to Canadians and rally their base in the absence of normal outlets, and Elections Canada would be left scrambling to figure out how to run an election during a pandemic.

“It is a really, really strange situation and it’s very difficult to know how people would behave because the territory is so unknown,” Desserud said.

While a majority would certainly make it easier for the Liberals to get things done, it’s unlikely the Liberals will call a snap election, he said.

“If the Liberals pull the plug and ask for a dissolution to go for an election they'll be accused of taking advantage of a situation for purely political gain,” he said.

“I think the public would see it as a cynical move and there will be long-term damage for the party down the road.”

Government gain, opposition pain

With Andrew Scheer's resignation, no new leader, and Liberal positioning, Conservative support has been dropping in recent polls. - Reuters
With Andrew Scheer's resignation, no new leader, and Liberal positioning, Conservative support has been dropping in recent polls. - Reuters

Desserud said in a crisis scenario people generally rally behind the governing party, so long as they are doing a good job, which he believes the Liberals are.

Voters in Atlantic Canada seem to agree — polling released by Narrative Research this week, conducted in May, shows 71 per cent of Atlantic Canadians are satisfied with the performance of the federal government (up from 46 per cent in February), which is the highest level of satisfaction since just after the 2015 election.

Provincial government polling from Narrative Research also released this week paints a similar picture in the Atlantic provinces: high, often record levels of satisfaction with the governing party, regardless of their political affiliation.

The same poll shows that if a federal election were called today, 60 per cent of decided voters in the region — making up about two-thirds of those polled — say they would vote Liberal, up from 41 per cent the last time the poll was conducted, in February.

The poll shows support for the Conservative party has dropped to 21 per cent from 32 per cent, and NDP support has declined from 16 per cent to 10 per cent.

National polling shows a similar trend in favour of the Liberals and at the expense of other parties, but not to the extent as in Atlantic Canada.

“We call it the three Cs of crisis management: you have to be calm, clear and consistent and I think Prime Minister Trudeau has been. … I think they are following the best advice they can get. They’re not flip-flopping,” Desserud said.

“Of course they've made mistakes. There’s no manual for them to follow. They’re learning as they go along.”

Desserud said the situation also ties the hands of the opposition parties when it comes to gaining public support — if they go on the attack they’re accused of hindering progress during a crisis, if they do nothing they’re accused of sitting on their hands, and if they work too well with the government their base will accuse them of being doormats.

“There’s not a single thing they can do that I think is going to get the public behind them. They're caught and it's extremely problematic,” he said.

Shaking things up

Even in the absence of a snap election, an unprecedented global crisis could make for an interesting political landscape in the coming months and perhaps even years.


Howard Ramos
Howard Ramos

Dalhousie University political sociology professor Howard Ramos said the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic also has the potential to continue to reposition where the parties sit on the political spectrum and how Canadians align politically.

Ramos said the emergency social programs that have been implemented by the Liberals in response to the pandemic could infringe on the more centre-leaning segment of the NDP’s base.

“The NDP has gained some ground in terms of some of the spending and workers’ rights, but they haven't gained much traction with that approach and have been largely outflanked by the Liberals, which has been key to their success since 2015 by consolidating the progressive vote,” he said.

On the other hand, the Conservatives have been veering more to the right-of-centre to further differentiate themselves from the Liberals.

“The Conservatives are going through this internal process of electing a leader as they gravitate to the more right of centre. This has cost them some support nationally. … This is something they need to be mindful of once their leadership race is over, and whether or not they can rebuild trust, as during the pandemic Canadians have shown that they are more comfortable with the middle ground and progressive approach to managing the pandemic,” he said.

This might prove to be problematic for both parties as Canadians have historically been more comfortable closer to the centre, Ramos said, and the Trudeau government has been able to play to that centre-left base and get a coalition of voters, and use the Conservatives as their foil.

One thing to watch, Ramos said, is how the public reacts when some of the benefit money dries up and things get back to normal.

“The Liberals are in a good position because when you're giving out money it's easy to maintain the lead. … The elephant in the room is, will Canada end up de facto getting universal basic income because of the CERB,” Ramos said. “If some version of universal basic income is adopted it will really dry up the space on the left of the political spectrum.”

And then there’s the question of whether or not the fiscal reality of the billions of dollars the Liberal government has been handing out to deal with an unprecedented financial crisis will come back to haunt them, and what that will mean for future generations.

“It will be very important for the Liberals to get in front of that,” Ramos said.

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