John Ivison: Liberals get clashing election messages while best chance to win a majority passes by

Another incumbent provincial government wins a resounding majority.
But the federal party loses support in two Toronto byelections.

Opinion polls suggest the Liberals would regain their own majority if an election were held today.

Yet, nearly half of the electorate say they don’t want an election next year, or even the year after that.

is caught in a Hamlet-like dilemma – should he stay or should he go?

The historic fourth majority for Scott Moe’s centre-right Saskatchewan Party reinforces the message from the recent provincial elections in British Columbia and New Brunswick (in which minority governments won majority status) – voters in the grip of a pandemic want stability.

The Liberals are weighing whether the circumstances that existed at provincial level would hold federally.

Those provinces kept the virus under control but there is no guarantee that voters in the pandemic hotspots of Ontario and Quebec would respond as favourably to an unwanted election.

The byelections in Toronto Centre and York Centre suggest an enthusiasm gap for the Liberals. Former journalist Marci Ien retained Bill Morneau’s former seat for the government but the share of the vote dropped to 42 per cent from 57 per cent last year. New Green leader Annamie Paul came in second, with 32 per cent of the vote.

In York Centre, small business owner Ya’ara Saks had a close shave in her contest with Conservative Julius Tiangson, winning 45.7 per cent of the vote to her rival’s 41.8 per cent – again with a reduced share of the vote.

Trudeau dismissed suggestions that lost support is a sign he needs to change his political strategy. “(Ien and Saks) will help to continue the great work our government is doing,” he told reporters.

On turnouts of 31 per cent and 25.6 per cent respectively, it would be foolhardy to read too much into the results but if you are a young prince, with honour and a crown at stake, it might make you even more cautious.

There is no shortage of voices around the prime minister advising him that he should go to the Governor General and ask her to dissolve Parliament.

Opposition parties worried that the almost hysterical Liberal reaction to this week’s motion, to have the health committee examine Canada’s pandemic response, was a harbinger for a short trip across the grounds of Rideau Hall. Access to future vaccines could be jeopardized and lives endangered, the Liberals claimed, which would constitute suitable grounds for a just war. They may be yet.

But the enthusiasm for hostilities seems to have abated.

Last week, Trudeau appeared hell-bent on going to the polls when he declared a vote on an opposition motion a matter of confidence and did not negotiate support from the NDP.

But sources claim he genuinely does not want an election, something he seemed to indicate when he said on Tuesday that his party would “work with Parliament” on the COVID-19 response inquiry.

The fear of appearing opportunistic seems to have constrained the prime minister to this point, with the result that senior advisers on both sides of the aisle think, if we survive until Christmas, we could be in for a minority government to rival Lester B. Pearson’s second 960 day term of office.

The byelections in Toronto Centre and York Centre suggest an enthusiasm gap for the Liberals

That could change in a heartbeat if the Conservatives overplay their hand. The “anti-corruption” committee proposal last week was very nearly a political Darwin Award winner – an uber-partisan proposal that could have provoked an election which polls suggest new leader Erin O’Toole would have lost.

If this is not to be the Conservative leader’s “Mr. Harper, your time is up” moment (the occasion when former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff proved to be all hat and no cattle), he will have to tone down his language, at least until advertising has introduced him to more Canadians.

For their part, the New Democrats are in no mood or condition to fight an election.

In 2005, Jack Layton propped up Paul Martin’s minority until the Gomery report on sponsorship made the Liberals undesirable bedfellows. Layton subsequently demanded that the government bar the privatization of healthcare, Martin refused and an election followed.

Jagmeet Singh’s NDP needs an “on-brand” reason to remove its support. But it also needs time and money.

The party will have paid off its 2019 campaign debt by the end of the year and is in the process of opening candidate nominations. But it is still a long way from being campaign ready.

The news that there will be no fiscal anchor in Chrystia Freeland’s fall update suggests a smorgasbord of spending that the NDP will be able to support, buying it some time.

But the government may not want support.

The hawks around Trudeau are urging him to force an election for good reason – the auspices for electoral success diminish in the new year.

The ethics commissioner’s report is likely to further taint Trudeau’s nice guy image; millions of people who received government benefits will discover they are taxable come spring; and, fiscal pressures will force the Liberals to start unwinding temporary relief programs by the summer.

Those are powerful reasons for Trudeau to go to an election now.

But the fact he did not do so when he had the chance suggests it is more likely that we will have a durable minority than a snap election.

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