Liberal strategy: Speak positively, but carry a big stick

Katie Simpson, Senior reporter

Out of the blue this week, I was summoned to an Ottawa coffee shop for a meeting with a senior government official. 

As a journalist, my ears and eyes are always open, so I was happy to have the opportunity. 

In a conversation that lasted about 45 minutes, this official outlined on deep background how the Liberals plan to rely on positivity in the upcoming election campaign, in the hopes of inspiring Canadians to go to the polls.

The source said the Liberal campaign believes the higher the voter turnout, the better shot Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has at securing a second majority government. 

And, the source said, from the Liberal perspective, Canadians are far better motivated by hope than fear. 

Expect no pointed attacks against the NDP or Green Party, the source said, as progressive voters (ones they hope to attract) don’t like negative politics.

But that is where the positive rhetoric and the path along the high road will end. 

The Liberals have already attacked, and will continue to attack, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. No rules around positivity apply here. 

Canadians have seen this building for months — with Trudeau at first trying to link Scheer to his predecessor, calling the new Conservative leader “Stephen Harper with a smile.”

Trudeau is now trying to lump Scheer in with Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, who, for the moment, is incredibly unpopular in his province. Multiple issues — including changes to autism treatment funding, a patronage scandal and other government cuts — have left many in Ontario discussing voters’ remorse.

Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford last shared a stage at the Ontario PC convention in November, but Justin Trudeau and the Liberals continue to portray the two as inseparable. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Andrew Scheer has described that tactic as a Liberal attempt at distraction. “I believe that Justin Trudeau would like to run this next election against anybody except for me,” he said on Friday. “He’s constantly looking for other people to attack, to distract Canadians from other issues.”

The Conservatives are also trying to deflect some of those attacks before the Liberals can land a blow. Last week, Scheer wrote to the premiers guaranteeing he will increase health transfers by at least three per cent every year. “I anticipate my political opponents will misrepresent my position on health care funding. I want you to have my word in writing that I will maintain and increase that funding,” he wrote.

The Liberals used Scheer’s letter as an opportunity to question Scheer’s commitment to health care, noting he did not commit to maintaining additional mental health and home care funding — and then Scheer fired right back to say he will “maintain the current funding formula” and accused the Liberals of lying.

The prime minister also used a funding announcement in the North on Thursday as a platform to attack Scheer. 

While in Iqaluit to unveil a new marine protected area, Trudeau said: “In July, Andrew Scheer travelled to Whitehorse to outline his vision for the Arctic. Not once did he utter the word Inuit. It tells you a lot about the future he would build if he were prime minister.” 

The Liberals may pledge to do politics differently, and be positive — but the idea for now appears only to be applicable in certain circumstances.

Power Lines

The Power & Politics Power Panelists on where the big parties will be focused this week

Amanda Alvaro  president and co-founder of Pomp & Circumstance
Liberals will continue to focus on the clear choice at stake in this election – between going backward with Conservative cuts to vital services for families, and going forward with the Liberal plan to invest in the middle class. Justin Trudeau will continue to highlight that choice at events across the country this week in B.C. and Newfoundland and Labrador

Rachel Curran senior associate at Harper & Associates Consulting
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer will be focused next week on highlighting his Health and Social Program Guarantee: a commitment to maintain and increase the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer by at least 3 per cent per year, providing stable and predictable funding to provinces for social programs. Later in the week, Scheer will be in Cape Breton sharing his positive Conservative vision for Canada.

Kathleen Monk principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group
New Democrats are pushing back hard on Conservatives who are promising voters a few extra bucks at the cost of cutting vital services. This week, Jagmeet Singh will remind folks on Vancouver Island that Liberals and Conservatives always focus on making life easy for the rich – as it gets harder for the rest of us. Singh will call on voters to make a different choice in 2019.

Poll Tracker Takeaway 

Éric Grenier’s weekly look at key numbers in the political public opinion polls. 

The polls will change between now and election day. We know that much for certain.

What we don’t know is how they will change, or by how much.

Minor details, right?

Parties trailing in the polls like to take inspiration from the times they’ve overcome the odds in the past. The Liberals were in third place when the 2015 campaign kicked off and ended up winning. The New Democrats were in the low teens in 2011 before they surged to Official Opposition status.

Having done it once, they can do it again. That’s the theory, anyhow.

The trouble with pinning hopes on such past reversals of fortune, however, is that they’re memorable because they’re so rare.

Any party counting on a dramatic shift to save the day should review its election strategy. Most of the time, a shift in voting intentions is relatively modest; in a close race, it might be enough to turn a loser into a winner, or a minority into a majority. Usually, though, it’s not enough to set entirely new records.

Look at the last six federal elections: on average, support for each of the major parties moved by roughly five percentage points from where things stood in the polls about three months out from voting day.

But that average has been inflated by the last two election campaigns. In 2011, the NDP picked up about 14 points as the Liberals plummeted eight points. In 2015, it was the Liberals who surged by nearly 14 points, nearly all of it coming from the New Democrats.

On average, the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives saw their support move by about nine points in 2011 and 2015.

But in the four elections held between 2000 and 2008, the average shift in support was just three points.

The lesson here is a simple one. Yes, it’s possible that everything could change between now and October. The last two elections offered a clear demonstration of that. But the mere fact that it happened the last few times doesn’t mean we should expect it to happen again.

The odds are it won’t.

Tap here to go to the Canada Votes Poll Tracker


Ask us

Silvesterthelaw asked on Instagram: How (will) the new debates commissioner affect the election?

Fundamentally, he won’t. It’s up to voters to decide who will be the next prime minister of Canada.

But getting to 24 Sussex (or Rideau Cottage, these days) hinges on the party leaders delivering their message and connecting — and you can’t underestimate the importance of razzle dazzle in all of that.

That’s where the cameras come in. 

Debates can be game changers (think of Richard Nixon’s sweaty lip, Brian Mulroney’s knockout “You had an option, sir” line in 1984 or the late Jack Layton gunning after then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s attendance record in 2011) and the marquee events of any campaign.

But the broadcast rights, format and guest list are steeped in as much politics as the debaters on stage.

Enter, the new debates commissioner, former governor general David Johnston.

His commission was set up by this Liberal government to ensure that the debates become “predictable, reliable and stable element(s) of future election campaigns.” That’s largely a reaction to 2015, when the refusal of then-prime minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Tom Mulcair to participate in the English-language debate organized by a broadcast consortium led to its cancellation.

Just this week, Johnston announced that a new partnership of news organizations will produce two federal election debates in the second week of October that will be free to broadcast, stream or share. The goal is to get the debate out to as many people as possible for free.

The new group includes broadcasters CBC News/Radio-Canada, Global, and CTV; newspapers Toronto Star, Le Devoir and the magazine L’Actualite; and online outlets La Presse, HuffPost Canada and HuffPost Quebec.

This doesn’t mean other debates can’t go ahead. Ultimately, the leaders will decide how many they want to do and which ones are worth the risk of facing off against their opponents.

According to the criteria laid out last fall, the themes and questions of the debates will be determined by the new media partnership — as long as Johnston agrees they fit with his mandate to ensure the debates meet “high journalistic standards.”

Johnston will also play a key role in deciding who gets to answer those questions. 

Parties must meet at least two of three criteria for their leaders to participate in the debates: They must have elected at least one MP under the party banner, have candidates in at least 90 per cent of ridings and must have obtained at least four per cent of the vote in the previous election or have a “legitimate chance” of winning seats.

That’s where the commissioner comes in.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet will likely meet the first two criteria and be allowed to participate. 

But People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier was elected as a Conservative, not a PPC member. He is on pace to nominate enough party candidates — but it’ll be up to Johnson to determine, based on polling data, whether Bernier has a “legitimate chance” of winning seats to fulfil the requirements for the debate.

Expect a storm if he’s left off the stage. 

Lights. Camera. Action. 

— Catharine Tunney, Reporter

Have a question about the October election? About where the federal parties stand on a particular issue? Or about the facts of a key controversy on the federal scene? Email us your questions and we’ll answer one in the next Canada Votes newsletter.

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