Liberal campaign covers big miles, but questions linger over reason for snap election call

What was missing in week one was a compelling reason for why Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had to seek a third mandate in the middle of a fourth wave, writes the CBC's David Cochrane.

Trudeau's first week of this late summer election campaign spent in battleground ridings

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau holds a campaign event in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, Aug 18, 2021. He is backdropped by Liberal candidates. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau spent the first week of this late-summer election campaign hitting the battleground ridings he needs to get the majority he seeks.

The path to a Liberal majority runs largely through the suburbs of Canada's largest cities. And the opening moves of the campaign tour foreshadowed the Liberal's election endgame.

But what was missing was a compelling reason for why Trudeau chose to seek a third mandate in the middle of a fourth wave. 

Throughout the week, Trudeau highlighted a vaccine mandate he announced before his Parliament-dissolving visit to Rideau Hall. He again pitched the $10-a day care deals his government had already secured with a majority of provinces  — while suggesting that Ontario was on the cusp of an agreement. 

He promised to extend economic support for the tourism and cultural sectors, more money to battle wildfires, and billions to improve long-term care. 

All important measures. 

And all measures that would have easily won support with the existing parliamentary makeup.

What was missing was The Big New Thing the Liberals were putting on the table for Canadians. An idea to justify the launch-day rhetoric that Canadians were facing the most consequential time since the end of the Second World War.

Instead, questions tend to lead back to the Liberal's wedge play on vaccines. 

"The difference between what we're offering and what the Conservatives want to do is stark," Trudeau said Friday in Winnipeg.

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"Conservatives won't tell Canadians that all their candidates are vaccinated because not all of them are obviously, but also, they are not going to be enforcing people to be fully vaccinated to go on planes and trains in the coming months. We think that's a mistake."

The lack of the Big New Thing is clearly something that worries the campaign. A senior Liberal source told Radio-Canada that Trudeau is consulting candidates looking for "big ideas" with a "wow factor."

There is concern that progressive voters aren't motivated or that their support is too dispersed. 

"You have to give them a reason to go out and vote, and not vote for the NDP," the senior Liberal source told Radio-Canada.

Crisis in Afghanistan dominates early days

The lack of a clear and compelling ballot question had reporters pressing Trudeau on day one to justify this election just minutes after his meeting with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh dubbed it a "selfish summer election" and accused Trudeau of a power grab.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said there was "no reason for this election" and accused Trudeau of putting "his own self-interest ... ahead of the national interest."

Privately, Liberals shrugged and insisted that the issue and the questions would quickly go away. And to a large degree they did. Not because the questions were answered. But because the crisis in Afghanistan started to dominate the daily question and answer session. 

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Liberal insiders say they wanted to use the first week to clearly show there is a stark choice for voters between them and the Conservatives. They argue that the divide between the leading parties on vaccine mandates helped underscore that point. In 2021, vaccines seems poised to play the role that abortion and same-sex marriage played in 2019. 

So, instead of focusing on one big idea, the Liberal campaign tries to put the focus on the moment. Trudeau describes a country on the precipice of historic change that requires a historic choice. 

"The various parties are putting forward very different ideas about how to get through the end of this pandemic and mostly how to build a better future for everyone," Trudeau said Friday. "This is the moment, as we approach the end of this pandemic, where Canadians should have their say."

That is clearly a task the country will have to face. But the end of the pandemic will come long after the end of this campaign, which is running concurrently with the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan and the nation-wide reopening of schools for a largely unvaccinated student population. 

So while it may not be entirely clear why Trudeau needed to dissolve Parliament, it is crystal clear which voters he is trying to reach. 

Afghan people fill up their details on a sheet of paper to register their name in order to leave the country in front of the British and Canadian embassy in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

On day one, the Liberal campaign plunged into Bloc Québécois held ridings in the suburbs around Montreal. Then the big red bus rolled into Ontario, hitting Conservative-held ridings along the 401 and in the greater Toronto area, before the campaign flew to Vancouver for the opening push into the competitive-three way battleground of the British Columbia lower mainland. 

The week ended with the Liberal campaign hopscotching back to Ottawa with quick stops in target ridings in Calgary, Winnipeg and Regina. 

The geography of the tour told us exactly whom Trudeau wants and needs to vote Liberal. 

The message was less clear as to why that vote had to happen at this exact point in time.

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