Politics·Analysis

Elections matter — and this one may matter more than most

Heading to Rideau Hall on Sunday morning, Justin Trudeau doubtless knew he was going to be called upon to explain his reasons for triggering an election in a pandemic. His response was to invert the question.

Yes, the timing is entirely political. But Canadians still have some important choices to make

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole, centre, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. (Andrej Ivanov/AFP/Getty Images, Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press, Patrick Doyle/Reuters)
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Heading to Rideau Hall on Sunday morning, Justin Trudeau had to know he was going to be called upon by reporters to explain his reasons for triggering an election in a pandemic. His response was to invert the question.

"In this pivotal, consequential moment, who wouldn't want a say? Who wouldn't want their chance to help decide where our country goes from here?" he asked after finishing his official business with the Governor General.

"After making it through 17 months of nothing like we've ever experienced, Canadians deserve to choose what the next 17 months, the next 17 years and beyond, look like."

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defends timing of election call

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: 'We've had your back and now it's time to hear your voice.'

2 months ago
1:12
Trudeau visited the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and launch a general election. 1:12

He called on the other party leaders to explain why they think an election shouldn't happen right now. He argued Canada is experiencing as critical a moment as it's faced since 1945, when the country and the world emerged from the Second World War.

"Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better," he said.

Appearing shortly afterward from a hotel ballroom that the Conservative party had converted into a television studio, Erin O'Toole cast the campaign as a risky exercise undertaken for "political gain."

WATCH: Conservative leader Erin O'Toole says election threatens Canada's gains in pandemic fight

Conservative leader suggests election could risk Canada's gains against COVID-19

2 months ago
2:31
Erin O'Toole spoke with reporters on Sunday from the party's media studio in a downtown Ottawa hotel. 2:31

But O'Toole also came prepared to explain why he doesn't think the Liberals should continue governing. "We can't afford more of the same," he said.

"The election is about the future and the choice is this: who do you trust to secure your economic future?"

A while later, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh walked up to a podium set up in a park in Montreal. He said he also thinks an election is unnecessary right now. But he also has some complaints about the Liberal government. And he thinks that things would be markedly improved by the presence of more New Democrat MPs.

WATCH: NDP leader Jagmeet Singh calls early election call 'selfish'

NDP leader says Liberals are calling 'selfish election' to gain more power

2 months ago
1:28
Jagmeet Singh launched his election campaign Sunday at a stop in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood. 1:28

Canadians can be forgiven for feeling conflicted about the prospect of an early vote. After the last year and a half, they have every right simply to feel tired.

The precise cause of this election will always be at least part of the story of these next five weeks. And no, Trudeau probably wouldn't be the one triggering an election if the Liberals weren't ahead in recent opinion polls.

But elections matter and have consequences — regardless of why and when they occur.

If ever it was possible to believe that it didn't matter who was in power, those comfortable days are now past. Who is in charge of the federal government after Sept. 20, and what sort of Parliament they'll face, will affect federal policy in dozens of ways, big and small. The last 18 months also reminded us that elections determine who presides over moments of profound crisis.

The campaigns may be ridiculous — the issues are not

Granted, it's not always easy to remember that elections are important — even when there aren't reasons to question their timing.

The events that make up an election campaign can be ridiculous and unedifying. An election campaign is part show business, part religious revival and part sporting event — a spectacle of words, photo ops, television ads, media leaks and memes.

But elections are also about real things. And there are any number of real things to talk about.

The last year and a half exposed our weaknesses and vulnerabilities — the gaps in our social contract, the failures in our history, the consequences of climate change, the fragility of democracy and the tenuousness of the world order.

Michelle Maisonneuve pauses as she looks through the remains of her home she shared with her partner Robert Hugh — destroyed by the White Rock Lake wildfire in Monte Lake, east of Kamloops, B.C. — on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

A deadly virus preyed on the inequality in our society and our disregard for the elderly. Heat waves and wildfires are forcing us to see and feel the consequences of decades of failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ground-penetrating radar has forced Canadians to fully confront the brutal reality of residential schools — while reminding us that the injustices of the past still resonate today.

Regardless of whether those issues receive the attention they're due over the next five weeks, the vote on September 20 will decide who is in charge of handling them and how.

What worries us now

According to new polling by Abacus Data, when respondents are asked to identify their top five concerns, 62 per cent say the "cost of living" — a seven-point increase since August 2019. That almost certainly includes anxiety about the cost of housing.

Forty-seven per cent cite "access to health care" — five points more than two years ago. Climate change is cited by 46 per cent of respondents, up seven points. An "economic plan for Canada's future" is cited by 41 per cent, up eight points.

By comparison, "reconciliation with Indigenous people" might seem like a more distant concern, given that only 21 per cent of those polled included it in their top five. But that figure is more than double what it was two years ago.

Members of the Tsuut'ina Nation take part in a silent march in memory of the 215 unmarked graves found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., on June 7, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

There will be some partisan jostling to put other issues front and centre: China, government debt, conversion therapy, political reform, taxing the rich.

Elections can also become about other things entirely. In 2008, Stephen Harper's neatly arranged campaign was sideswiped by a global financial meltdown. In 2015, the election unexpectedly turned on questions about the niqab and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Already, this election seems like it could turn on the question of vaccine mandates — with the Liberals saying they'll require vaccination for federal public servants and anyone travelling by plane or train, and the Conservatives reluctant to say they would do the same.

Standing in front of Rideau Hall yesterday, Trudeau noted that one Conservative backbencher has described such mandates as "tyrannical."

"The answer to tyranny is to have an election," Trudeau said, "and I think people who disagree with this government, or disagree with this direction, should have an opportunity to make themselves heard."

Trudeau isn't doing this because someone accused him of being tyrannical, of course. He'd like to come away from this with a majority in the House of Commons (though he did not use the word "majority" even once during his remarks) or at least something he can call a win.

For Trudeau, it's a gamble either way. But the potential consequences of an election always extend well beyond any one prime minister.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

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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