With the election of Jason Kenney as Premier of Alberta, Canada’s premiers are now all men and the vast majority of Canadians are governed provincially by a right-leaning party. Prince Edward Island’s legislature still remains to be contested, but the Progressive Conservatives won the most seats despite the widespread expectation that a “Green Wave” was about to sweep the province.
Prime Minister Trudeau can’t expect to be met with arms wide open by most of his provincial counterparts, but with a federal election on the horizon, that may prove more beneficial than challenging. It may seem counterintuitive, but in politics, if you’re not fighting someone, the people who vote for you just think you aren’t fighting for them.
The polls tell us that the Conservatives should come out on top in October, under the leadership of Andrew Scheer. These numbers encapsulate continued fallout from the SNC-Lavalin deferred prosecution scandal that cast a pall over some aspects of construction lobbying in Ottawa in February and March. The fortunes of the Liberals and Conservatives flipped in mid-February, but the Liberals have recovered somewhat since their polling low point following the scandal. Justin Trudeau’s leadership favorability numbers still remain higher than Andrew Scheer’s, which could cause headaches for the Conservatives in the national campaign that looms on the horizon.
The Conservatives have done an exceptionally good job of distancing themselves from the criticisms of the previous Harper government. They have yet to be attacked on social issues that can define Canadian elections and have not worn the controversial views of some of their caucus members. At the same time, the public at large is waiting to hear what their plan is to grow the economy, at a time when unemployment is at the lowest rate in decades. The main criticism, that the government is spending money irresponsibly, could be undone by numbers from April that showed tax revenues were up and that the government is running a surplus.
The Liberals are about to pass a budget that introduces a great deal of new spending in the last year of their mandate, and consumers are waiting to make important purchases, like buying new electric cars on May 1 when new consumer incentives kick in. Many Canadians are feeling the pinch of paying more at the pump now that the carbon tax is in force, but others are benefiting from rebates, especially those who have small carbon footprints to begin with. These policy choices have set the stage for an election that will allow the Liberals to run against not just the federal Conservatives, but also against conservative premiers from coast to coast. Premiers in the process of belt-tightening have generated their fair share of public concern, especially in Ontario, and especially in big cities, where most of the seats up for grabs are represented.
Elections are always a battle for the future. Trudeau’s true test will be whether he can frame the public conversation as a fight for the next four decades, rather than just the next four years. Voters facing pocketbook issues now may be unlikely to accept that short-term pain is worthwhile for long-term gain on climate change matters. If it looks like the Conservatives are poised to take power, both the Green Party and the NDP could bleed supporters to the Liberals as the only environmentally friendly alternative with a real chance of forming government. Strategic voting has always been a consideration in Canadian elections, but its prominence has risen over the last four elections. Choosing the environment as a defining issue has been calculated as the best way for the current government to take advantage of the strategic choices of voters across the left wing of the political spectrum.