O'Toole wants this election to be a referendum on Trudeau. Trudeau needs voters to see a stark choice

Every incumbent comes into an election trailing baggage — Justin Trudeau is obviously no exception. His opponents are working to turn the ballot question into a referendum on Canadians' satisfaction with the Liberal leader. They have good reasons for doing so.

Leaders work to frame ballot question as campaign enters final days

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign stop in Halifax, N.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The outcome of another odd and surprising federal election may depend on whether voters see this exercise as a referendum or a choice.

Speaking to reporters in Kanata, Ont., on Monday, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole called the election a "choice." But then he spoke of it as a referendum on the incumbent.

This election, he said, is "about whether or not we want to reward Justin Trudeau for breaking his promise and calling an unnecessary $600 million election in the middle of a pandemic "

The relevance of that cost is debatable — the last federal election cost $500 million and a new election was going to happen at some point in the next two years — but O'Toole was more interested in talking about the Liberal leader's character.

WATCH: Erin O'Toole goes after Justin Trudeau on the character question

O'Toole: 'Justin Trudeau started this election, but you can finish it'

10 months ago
Duration 1:45
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole calls on voters to punish Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for calling an election during the pandemic.

Standing in front of an inflatable bouncy castle (O'Toole was nominally there to discuss his proposals for parental benefits), the Conservative leader launched into a pointedly personal attack on the prime minister, going so far as to suggest that he did not respect Trudeau.

O'Toole — who before Monday was talking up his "positive" campaign — described Trudeau as "privileged," "entitled," self-interested, divisive and unworthy of trust. O'Toole called Trudeau "a man who is not a feminist, not an environmentalist, not a public servant ... a man who is focused solely and squarely on himself."

"The differences between Justin Trudeau and myself are stark. I grew up in the suburbs. My neighbours were autoworkers. My dad worked for General Motors," O'Toole said, neglecting to mention that his father was an Ontario MPP for nearly 20 years, representing the same riding that O'Toole now represents federally.

O'Toole presented himself as someone humble, practical and serious.

"I've never pretended to be something I'm not," he said (observers of his leadership campaign might quibble).

He also warned that "a vote for anyone other than Canada's Conservatives is a vote for more of the same from Mr. Trudeau."

Two days later, O'Toole said that "if you want to send a message to Mr. Trudeau for calling this unnecessary $600 million election in the middle of a pandemic, your only option is to vote Conservative."

Spooked by the People's Party?

O'Toole's turn this week could have something to do with the People's Party and the fact that some traditional Conservative supporters seem to be drifting to Maxime Bernier's far-right upstart. If he can't criticize the PPC directly, he can at least try to focus on one thing — a dislike of Trudeau — that unites supporters of both parties.

But turning the election into a referendum on the incumbent can work to the challenger's advantage. And it's very easy to focus on Justin Trudeau.

In 2019, Conservatives and New Democrats tried to turn the election into a reckoning over Trudeau's first four years in power. For the Liberals, the mantra became "it's a choice, not a referendum" — something they'd picked up from Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

The former president of the United States was another young, engaging candidate who promised great change. Had the presidential election in 2012 been only about whether Obama had lived up to high expectations, he might have lost.

Personalities versus policies

But Obama successfully made the case that when Americans cast their ballots, they're not simply being asked to mark "pass" or "fail" on the incumbent president — they're making a choice about how the country will be governed going forward. In 2012, the choice was between Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

In 2019, Trudeau made his own re-election campaign harder than it had to be, but he won the deeper argument about whether the country should continue with his agenda or go back to how things were under Stephen Harper.

Two years later, Trudeau is making a version of the same argument — but this time, it's that much easier to put the focus on him.

A national celebrity before he was a politician, Trudeau has been very front and centre as prime minister and has now been in office for six years. The timing of the election was entirely his choice. And for the last few weeks, he has been followed by shouting mobs of anti-vax protesters. He also hasn't always been able to stop himself from responding to their taunts and slurs.

WATCH: Justin Trudeau is heckled during a campaign stop

Protesters heckle Trudeau in Brantford, Ont.

10 months ago
Duration 0:24
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau faces protesters as he leaves campaign stop on Sept. 6.

Trudeau has never hesitated to make ambitious promises or readily accept that his government should be doing something to address a problem. He has struggled or neglected to make the case that his government has made progress. No matter how many times he says that the government lifted 109 boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities, he will be reminded that he promised to lift them all by now.

Both the Conservatives and New Democrats, meanwhile, are happy to suggest that he's has done little more than sit on his hands for the last six years (close analysis of the Liberal record presents a more complicated picture).

After presenting the election as a uniquely consequential moment in August, Trudeau was slow to emphasize the distinctions between himself and the other leaders. In the meantime, O'Toole has been trying to shrink the differences between the Liberals and Conservatives with nods toward inequality, reconciliation and climate change. If O'Toole is now trying to put the focus on Trudeau, he's also trying to make it feel a bit easier to pick the Conservatives.

Trudeau now has plenty to say about O'Toole ("he doesn't lead, he misleads" is one of the Liberal leader's favourite lines). But in the final week of the campaign, he has also hit on the idea of choice.

WATCH: Justin Trudeau on 'choice' and the federal election

'I think this ... choice that Canadians are going to make is unbelievably important' - Trudeau

10 months ago
Duration 1:14
The CBC's Tom Parry asked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau whether he's starting to feel the pressure of this campaign.

In Richmond, B.C., Trudeau appeared alongside Andrew Weaver, a former B.C. Green leader and environmental scientist, who praised the federal Liberal government's climate action and agenda.

"That's what's at stake in this election," Trudeau said, noting that other experts have endorsed his government's plan. "Do we continue and move forward even faster and harder on the fight against climate change, or do we let Erin O'Toole take us back?"

In Surrey, B.C., Trudeau said "Mr. O'Toole has made the choice very, very clear." He went on to list some of the things Canadians could "choose" on September 20, from stricter gun control to the Liberal housing plan to an emphasis on "the rights of Canadians who got vaccinated."

"This is the moment for progressive leadership and we are the best progressive choice," he said, telling British Columbians that if they want expanded child care, they ought to vote Liberal.

However much Trudeau's personal image is bruised after six years in office, he might still be viewed more favourably than O'Toole. Even as polling says the Liberals have slipped back into a tie with the Conservatives, voters do not seem to have completely turned on the Liberal leader.

A majority of voters also still seem to prefer a Liberal government to a Conservative government — Abacus Data has found that 60 per cent of Canadians would choose either a Liberal majority or minority, while 40 per cent would choose a Conservative majority or minority.

But if the pivotal question in the final days of this election becomes simply whether voters are perfectly happy with Trudeau and his decision to call this vote, Trudeau's hopes might diminish.

If instead it seems like a clear choice between very different options, Trudeau might have a better chance to continue governing.


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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