Election 2021: Opening salvos

This is the second column from Sergio Marchi, as he analyzes the current federal election. His articles will appear weekly.

The first week of the election is in, and everyone is still standing.

Predictably, in the opening days, a consistent public refrain emerged. Namely, ‘why an election now’? This question was unsurprisingly top of mind with the media and the Opposition Leaders, immediately after the PM emerged from the GG’s residence.

It was quickly picked up by the public. In fact, my neighbours asked me about it. And, when out for lunch, our two servers both asked the very same. One added, “I am really angry with Trudeau. Why? Why now, when Covid is still a big challenge? Why, when he still had two years to work for us? This election should  not be about him, it’s about us!”

Her comments summed up the frustration well.

If this timing question persists, it could prove problematic for the Liberals. It risks becoming another “David Peterson” moment, as I mentioned in my first article. That’s why they are valiantly striving to change the channel. Trudeau wants to talk about anything but. It will be interesting to see if this annoyance is sustained.

In rationalizing the election call, Trudeau said that voters have a right to be consulted during this critical time. Accordingly, the PC’s and the NDP quickly released their party platforms. Kudos to both parties, as they provide important fodder for the national discourse. It’s also transparent. A debate about ideas, is what any election should be about.

So, why have the Liberals chosen not to follow suit? Why hold back on their proposals for Canadians, when they triggered the election? Trudeau will look cagey, if he continues to delay the release of his plans.

The only negative — and it’s rather significant — is that the two released platforms have not been fully costed. That’s not responsible. Citizens need to know the price tags since they will be paying for the promises. For the time being, Trudeau can’t criticize them, since his platform is still a secret. But the PC’s and NDP will quickly need to release a financial accounting of their goodies, if they are to be credible.

One important and potentially defining issue that has captured considerable early attention has been the matter of mandatory vaccines for public servants and travellers. Trudeau and Singh are in favour, while the Conservatives and Greens are opposed. O’Toole declared that parties should not play wedge politics with vaccines. But is it a wedge? Or, is it a legitimate issue for discussion? I’d say it’s the latter.

After 18 months of severe global sickness and death, and with still too many anti-vaxxers, what is wrong with debating how to best ensure public health safety moving forward?

Personally, I am offended by political leaders, including Premiers, who rule out vaccine passports, for example. Why should people not be asked for proof when they go to a restaurant, or a ball game, or to the movies? It is only fair to the workers and clients of the establishments.

The Coronavirus kills and spreads quickly. It’s variant cousins are even more lethal. It is therefore common sense for governments to protect their citizens.

I think O’Toole and Paul are wrongly reading the national mood. They are trying to carefully balance the feelings of their own members, but I believe the majority of Canadians want tough medicine to combat an equally tough foe. Trudeau has gone after O’Toole aggressively on this matter, and don’t expect him to stop. He smells a political vulnerability.

I would also urge the PM to go the next logical step, and establish a national vaccine passport to be used in country. It is a promise that could potentially provide the majority that the Liberals so badly covet.

Given the threat of a Covid fourth wave, this matter is certain to be an overarching issue for the remainder of the election.

When I consider how the Leaders are holding up, I must say that Singh has impressed me. Last week, I mentioned that he was the most authentic of his fellow colleagues in the last election. He has managed to carry that aura into this campaign.

While the other Leaders opened with tight teleprompter scripts, Singh spoke without notes from a park in Montréal. He was relaxed, and radiated calmness and confidence. It was a reassuring performance, and it is bound to be endearing to Canadians who want a dialogue  with their leaders, and not a series of formal lectures.

He has chosen to dress down on the hustings, showcasing an air of informality. He also displayed genuine emotion when visiting the unmarked graves of Indigenous youth. It was admirable to see the raw feelings he had for this terrible chapter of our history.

Singh should continue with more of the same. And the other leaders should take careful note.

Leaders are also facing the expectations ‘game’, which accompanies every election. Trudeau will feel the most pressure, since he is the incumbent and owns the election call. Next is Singh, who still remains the most popular leader. Accordingly, a serious mistake from either one could quickly exact a huge toll.

The least pressure will be on O’Toole and Paul, since they have yet to connect with Canadians in any positive way. They also have had problems within their own parties. Potentially, the two leaders could show a more explosive growth if their campaigns take off. This is, in good part, what propelled Trudeau to victory in 2015. Watch this space.

British PM Harold Macmillan was once asked what was the biggest challenge he faced. “Events, my dear boy, events”, was his reply. And during the first week of the campaign, there has been plenty of events —- the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the devastating Haitian earthquake, the decisive defeat of the Liberal government in Nova Scotia, and the conclusion of the marathon extradition hearing of Huawei executive Mengrong Wenzhou.

Whether and how these, and other events, impact the election is anyone’s guess. But such occurrences can overwhelm the best laid plans of our political leaders, and test their abilities to react on the fly. Their strategists will no doubt be closely monitoring developments from afar.

Finally, a nagging question is whether Canadians are paying attention now? Do the first weeks matter? Between continued concern with Covid and stealing some holidays, the dog days of August are not exactly conducive to focusing on elections. Frankly, we’ll need to probably wait until Labour Day for our fellow citizens to really zero in. Until then, the mission for politicians is, ‘do no harm’.

The Hon. Sergio Marchi served as a Toronto City Councillor, MP, Minister, and Ambassador.

PHOTO: iStock