Can you catch election fever during a pandemic? In the next few weeks, Canada’s federal politics will serve as the laboratory for that question.
While most Canadians are more focused right now on how COVID-19 will affect schools, jobs and public health this fall, the prospect of a federal election has suddenly crept onto the horizon as well.
Elections Canada has started preparing for a pandemic-style election, just in case Justin Trudeau loses the confidence vote he will face not long after Parliament resumes next month. Premier Doug Ford has already decided he will be too busy to campaign with brand-new Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who alleged this week that Trudeau was trying to “engineer” a fall election.
The Bloc Québécois has said for weeks that it is willing to provoke the collapse of Trudeau’s government, while the New Democrats are not really keen to have an election but haven’t totally ruled one out, either.
This is often how elections sneak up on us in minority governments. At some point, “why we should not have an election” turns into “why not have an election?” And it’s usually impossible to pinpoint the moment when the improbable turns into the inevitable.
That moment has not yet arrived, but federal-politics watchers would be wise to look for symptoms of election fever in the days ahead.
Trudeau’s government is in the midst of drawing up an entirely new blueprint for government in the pandemic age, which the prime minister promises will be an ambitious plan “to build Canada back better.”
Putting that plan before Parliament is the democratically correct thing to do, Trudeau said when he announced his intentions to start anew in September with a speech from the throne. But you know what’s even more democratic than a vote in Parliament? A nation-wide vote.
Normally, throne speeches are created out of election platforms. But in this upside-down pandemic year, it’s surely occurred to Liberals: why not reverse the process and repurpose a throne speech into a red book of campaign promises?
As for the suggestion that it’s irresponsible to hold an election while the pandemic rages and possible second wave of COVID-19 lurks, there’s a three-part reply to that: New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and the United States.
Two provinces are going ahead with pandemic elections this fall — on Sept. 14 in New Brunswick and Oct. 26 in Saskatchewan.
But the big pandemic election is taking place south of the border, with Donald Trump vying for re-election, and this could turn into a crucial factor in the consideration over holding a national vote in Canada.
It was pointed out to me this week — not by anyone close to Trudeau or the Prime Minister’s Office, I should stress — that it might serve the Liberals quite well to conduct a campaign in the shadow of Trump’s re-election bid.
If this week’s Republican National Convention is any indication, Trump is going to go hard-right populist and Canadians might welcome a chance to make sure that politics of that sort doesn’t migrate here anytime soon. Trudeau has spent a lot of time during this pandemic demonstrating that he’s not Trump; he could turn that into a campaign pitch, too.
The prime minister had a rough ride over the WE Charity debacle this summer, including the loss of finance minister Bill Morneau. But when he was asked at the mini-shuffle of cabinet afterward whether he was running in the next election, Trudeau perked right up.
“Absolutely,” he said enthusiastically. “This is a moment where government can and must step up to be there for Canadians.”
About that shuffle: Rumours had been rampant earlier this summer that cabinet was in for a big overhaul, but after Morneau left, Trudeau kept changes to a minimum. Is that because he’s waiting to do it as a post-election overhaul (provided he wins)? It’s plausible, though no one around the PMO is even hinting at that scenario right now.
This prime minister tends not to borrow from past Liberal practice, but Jean Chrétien did blaze a trail when he triggered an election right after the opposition chose Stockwell Day as its leader in the fall of 2000. Chrétien was rewarded with a majority, something Trudeau would obviously prefer to his current minority.
Elections Canada is busy putting plans in place for an election that will be very different from the one held less than a year ago.
But all of the federal parties, in their own ways, are also hoping for a different result than the one in 2019, which may be one of the conditions for election fever to take hold while the country is still battling another virus.