Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
Party strategies have turned, as expected, to fear of what lies beyond.
We are down to the real election, in which the voters are urged to cast their ballots, not in favour of either, but strictly in fear of the alternative
“And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.”
— Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales for Children
After the loathing, the fear. For five weeks the Liberals and Conservatives have taken turns attacking each other’s leaders as, variously, a compulsive liar, an anti-woman American, a racist, a fool, etc.
But with the campaign limping to its inconclusive end, party strategies have turned, as expected, to fear of what lies beyond. Gone is the pretence, on either side, of a “positive” campaign, asking voters to support the party’s program of government because of all the good things it would do. We are down, rather, to the real election, in which the voters are urged to cast their ballots, not in favour of either, but strictly in fear of the alternative.
For the Liberals, the fear is simple enough: a Conservative government, and the grim age of “austerity” that would supposedly then dawn. The message is particularly aimed at those left-of-centre voters innocent or stupid enough to be considering voting for the Greens or the NDP — or any party, really, that is not the Liberals. You are not just throwing your votes away, the Liberals warn, in tones of escalating severity. You are literally electing the Conservatives.
Quite how it would help the Conservative cause to elect more New Democrat or Green MPs is left unstated, as is the premise underlying all such appeals to vote “strategically” — that the vote does not belong to the person who casts it, but to its rightful recipients; that a vote for one of the other progressive parties is really a vote denied to the Liberals; that the public do not have a right to vote for the party of their choice, but a duty to vote for the party that can “keep the Tories out,” which is how the Liberals like to say “keep us in.”
While this is a perennial Liberal strategy, it takes notable chutzpah for the party to be trotting it out this time. The Liberals appealed to progressive voters in 2015 on the theme that they would never again be forced into this position: that the current “first past the post” system, in which only one candidate is elected per riding, even with a minority of the vote — while the majority, being “split” among the others, elect no one — would be replaced with one in which “every vote counts.” Having flagrantly broken that promise, they now ask to be re-elected on the same basis as before; not just to be forgiven for their failure to reform the system, but rewarded.
Quite how it would help the Conservative cause to elect more New Democrat or Green MPs is left unstated
The Tories, for their part, have launched their own version of Operation Fear, only with a twist: if the bogeyman in the Liberal fear campaign is a Conservative majority, in the Conservatives’ it is a Liberal minority. The one uses fear of the Conservatives to stampede progressives into the Liberal corral; the other uses fear of the Liberals’ putative governing partners, the NDP and/or the Greens, to frighten centrists into voting Conservative. The first menaces its targets with deep spending cuts; the second, with the prospect of spending shooting through the roof.
In the campaign’s final days, should the Tories look likely to win the most seats, expect this argument to be buttressed by another: that there is something wrong in principle with the other parties combining to form a government, whether in a formal coalition or simply a “supply and confidence” agreement; that it amounts to “stealing” the election from its rightful “winners.” But of course that’s not how our system works. The right to govern goes to whoever has the support of a majority of the House, however that is achieved, not to the party with the most seats.
At the same time, the very normality of such an arrangement tends to undermine the Liberal fear campaign. The only way the Tories can implement their “cuts” is if they win a majority — a majority that would appear to be well out of reach. A minority won’t do it: the NDP and the Greens have both sworn they would never support a Conservative government; the Bloc might, conceivably, but only if the Conservatives replaced spending cuts with goodies for Quebec.
By contrast, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been clear that he would support the Liberals, thus giving his followers further licence to vote their consciences. There is no need to give the Liberals a majority to keep the Tories out. A minority, thanks to the NDP, is enough — though the party’s support will presumably come at a price. Which, irony upon irony, helps the Tories. If a Conservative austerity government looks unlikely, a Liberal-NDP spending surge looks only too possible.
There’s another reason why the Liberal fear campaign may not be working as well as hoped. The Tory spending cuts just aren’t that scary. Over the next four years, program spending under a Conservative government, in billions of dollars, looks like this: 341-345-351-358. Compare that to projected spending over the same four years in this spring’s Liberal budget (again, in billions of dollars): 340-348-358-369. Summing the four years together, the Tories would spend $1.395 trillion, to the budget’s $1.415 — a difference of just 1.5 per cent.
To be sure, the Liberal platform proposes to spend considerably more: $1.484 trillion over four years. But it’s a bit of a stretch to conjure the horrors of austerity out of a spending plan that’s only a hair off what the Liberals were proud to claim as their own six months ago.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019