People are anxious — and this election campaign isn't helping

Many election campaigns revolve around what we fear more than what we want. The 2019 campaign is giving us all the fear — with none of the reassurance.

The state of the 2019 campaign is giving us more reasons to worry ... about the quality of our leadership

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer take part in the the federal leaders French language debate in Gatineau, Que. on Thursday, October 10, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

What is this election about?

Perhaps, as some say, every election is about anxiety. The body politic has concerns and fears and it seeks out reassurance, security, stability or hope.

But the 2019 federal election comes at a time when there is much to be anxious about — an unusual and profound array of things to rob us of sleep.

It's just a shame that the campaign hasn't always risen up to meet the moment.

If you're not worried about something right now, it's presumably because you're not paying attention. In fits and starts, gasps and groans, this election has been about those worries.

Worries about the cost of living and economic security. About keeping pace with modern life and feeling successful and believing that the system works and dealing with the sense that things are changing and changing quickly.

Worries about whether we can afford to continue developing our resources, and whether we can afford not to.

Worries about Donald Trump. About China. About populism and nationalism — forces that draw on fear, resentment and frustration. About disinformation and foreign interference — corrosive agents which feed on cynicism and distrust. About the future of liberal democracy and the global world order.

A woman wears a hijab while draped with a Quebec flag during a demonstration to protest against the Quebec government's Bill 21 in Montreal, Monday, June 17, 2019. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Worries about immigration and inclusion and multiculturalism and whether an elementary school teacher in Quebec should be allowed to wear a hijab. About the unfinished business of reconciliation. About what Canada should be and how it should stand in the world.

About the increasingly unavoidable threat of climate change and what that means for our children and grandchildren. Canadian politicians have been talking about global warming for more than 30 years. But the time for talking has nearly run out — consequential choices must now be made.

The terrifying meets the trivial

Whirring away in the background is the anxiety-inducing hum of social media, the buzz of pithy sarcasm, sneering outrage and gallows humour.

This election is about all of that. Even if it has sometimes seemed to have more to do with a private school's gala fundraiser in 2001, the insurance broker certification laws of Saskatchewan and whether a federal party leader's national tour should use one plane or two.

In various ways, the last six weeks have provided voters with new reasons to feel insecure about the individuals who might wield power in this country after October 21.

Justin Trudeau, a champion for diversity, was found to have dressed up in blackface. Just a month after being called to account for the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau had to try to explain his decision to don a racist costume eighteen years earlier.

Demonstrators take part in a climate protest in Montreal on Friday Sept. 27, 2019. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Andrew Scheer struggled to explain his views on same-sex marriage and abortion. Then he had to explain the limitations of his brief experience as an insurance broker. Then he had to admit he held American citizenship — a fact he had neglected to mention previously, even while he was questioning the dual citizenship of a former governor-general and after his party had criticized the divided loyalties of other leaders of the opposition.

Elizabeth May, seemingly poised for a breakthrough, quickly found herself stumbling over questions about her party's positions on abortion and Quebec sovereignty.

Are Singh and Blanchet the only ones enjoying this?

Maybe it's no coincidence that the two party leaders whose public standing has improved the most over the past month and a half — the NDP's Jagmeet Singh and the Bloc Québécois' Yves-François Blanchet — are the ones who have been scrutinized the least.

Singh in particular has succeeded by surpassing the low expectations he spent two years working hard to establish with a lacklustre performance as party leader. But Singh seems to be enjoying himself during this campaign. And in the wake of those blackface photos, he spoke to the occasion in a way that seemed to transcend a campaign that has, at times, played out like a competition to see which party could be busted with the largest number of embarrassing candidates.

But then Singh also has now wobbled on the question of Quebec's Bill 21 (after also trying to split hairs on the reality of federal jurisdiction over interprovincial pipelines).

The travails of the major party leaders seemed to culminate in a messy English-language debate that failed to settle much of anything. That event had barely begun when Scheer — who used to insist that he would campaign on a "positive" vision — turned to Trudeau and angrily called him a "phoney" and a "fraud."

Underneath all the cross-talk and shouting, the campaign has not been bereft of proposals and possible responses to the predominant worries of the moment.

Why we're talking about tax cuts now

Front and centre have been  proposals to deal with "affordability" — this campaign's buzziest of buzzwords. There are duelling promises from the Liberals and Conservatives to provide both broad relief and targeted support, with real differences between the two offers. The Greens and New Democrats have countered with proposals to significantly expand social programs, with each committing to national pharmacare.

When the world seems to be coming apart at the seams, it could feel a bit odd to be talking about tax cuts and the interest rates on student loans. But everything else might be a bit easier to deal with if everyone feels more comfortable in their day-to-day lives.

Dennis Matthews, who once ran advertising for the Conservative Party, observed last month that "affordability" is about more than having a few dollars left to spend at the end of the month — it's about how you feel about the way things work.

The other major fault line of this campaign is more explicitly existential: climate change and what, if anything, we should do about it. On that, there are serious questions about ambition and feasibility — buffeted by dire warnings that our house is on fire and doctrinaire claims that no one can be both truly committed to the welfare of future generations and willing to support a pipeline.

The platforms might not be stirring. The presentations might not be cinematic. But it can't be said that there aren't real differences between the options. Three parties are preoccupied with climate change. One party is intent on cutting spending to balance the budget. All elections have consequences.

With another four weeks, we might be able to explore all of it in greater detail. It's always more complicated than the sound bites allow for.

On the other hand, another four weeks might be just squandered on "unfounded rumours" — another of this election's defining phrases — and whatever new conspiracy theories bubble up from the fever swamps of Twitter.

Regardless, the final days will be rife with warnings about what might happen if the result goes one way or the other.

Some have lamented that this election has lacked inspiration — or worse, that it has been a grubby and dispiriting affair. To the long list of all the things we worry about, we could add the state of our politics.

But these things have always been messy. And some elections certainly have been worse.

It's not an election about nothing

The other complaint we hear is that this has been an election about nothing. That's only true if you ignore everything there is to worry about and all the ways those things might be affected by the election's result.

The most consequential moments are not always preceded by the most brilliant displays of democracy. The United Kingdom's general election of 1935 is not remembered as a particularly interesting affair. But it created the Parliament that led the British into the Second World War.

Perhaps this campaign has not offered much in the way of reassurance or excitement. But all the things we might worry about will still be there on October 22.

This election is about deciding how we will deal with all of it, and who will be responsible for doing so.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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