Federal cabinet ministers are popping up across the land these days spreading largesse liberally — Liberally? — and, when given half a chance, reminding folks that the other guys are meanies.
Except, the “other guys” aren’t running in the fall federal election.
In Ontario, where the Liberals have regained the lead in most polls, Conservative Premier Doug Ford is the obvious, convenient target for Liberals intent on raising fears that a federal Conservative government would spread Ford-style austerity nationwide.
Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered federal funding to Ontario legal aid programs cut in the Ford government’s first budget, and he said this: “The fact that we have to be here today to recognize that yet another conservative government, the government of Doug Ford, is walking away from services for the most vulnerable is really frustrating for me and I think for all Canadians. … Conservative politicians keep trying to move us back and make the most vulnerable hurt for the decisions that they make.”
Ford’s the target because 65 per cent of Ontarians have a negative impression of his government. In fact, the Liberals can use Ford’s government as the bad example of conservatism across much of Central and Eastern Canada, where the Ontario premier’s approval rating tops out at about 15 per cent, according to Abacus Data.
And where the spectre of Doug Ford doesn’t send shivers down the spines of potential voters, there’s always the ghost of Stephen Harper to fall back on.
It’s all part of the Liberal strategy to define the current federal Conservatives, and their leader Andrew Scheer, as cut from the same cloth as those mean Conservatives, whether they are in power, like Ford’s Ontario Tories, or just a fading, unpleasant memory, like Harper’s late federal government.
Andrew Scheer is Stephen Harper with a smile, or maybe Doug Ford but in the compact model, according to Liberals.
When the campaign starts in earnest, the Liberals know that Andrew Scheer will become the face of federal Conservatives, but by then they hope to have him painted the same shade of melancholy blue that attached to Stephen Harper in years past or to Doug Ford in present day Ontario.
And why not? All indications are that it’s working.
Having regained the lead in seat-rich Ontario, and with double-digit leads in polls in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, the federal Liberals have risen from near death just months ago, at the height of the SNC-Lavalin affair, to regain their place as the favourites to win.
The Conservatives and Liberals are still in a virtual dead heat in national polls. Both parties have the support of something like 35 per cent of the Canadian electorate. But, as it now stands, Liberal support is likely to be more efficient in producing seats in the House of Commons.
Conservative support is heavily concentrated in Alberta and the Prairies, where the party is likely to come pretty close to running the table. But, even if Conservatives won every seat from the Manitoba-Ontario border to the Rockies, that’s just 62 in the 338-seat Commons.
The Liberals can’t match the Conservatives western strength anywhere, but they lead where most of the seats are, in Ontario and Quebec, with 121 and 78, respectively. And, with the NDP fading in both provinces, Liberals are well positioned to win a lot of head-to-head races with Conservatives.
The Liberals’ most commanding lead is in Atlantic Canada, where they won all 32 seats in 2015. That feat won’t be repeated this fall, but the attention the region is getting lately from federal cabinet ministers tells you that in October every seat will matter.
Canadians may have to wait for the final returns from the West Coast on election night to see who will govern them, or if it’s a majority or minority. British Columbia is the one province that offers a lot of three-way and even four-way races because of the strength of both the NDP and the Green Party there.
If we learned anything from the 2015 election, it’s that campaigns matter. The Conservatives have plenty of time and lots of money to take back lost ground in Ontario and take the election back from the Liberals. But it seems to get that done, they need to convince Ontarians that Andrew Scheer is nothing like Doug Ford.