Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

How the New Brunswick election might change the next federal vote

With the throne speech a few days away, there’s a looming possibility of a fall federal election. But with the country currently in the middle of a pandemic, how should parties and leaders proceed? According to an associate professor of Canadian politics, leaders can learn a thing or two from the recent New Brunswick elections.

It's a 'total strategic calculation' for the Liberals when to hold election, says associate professor

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference January 8, 2020 in Ottawa, Canada. (DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

This week is a big one for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party.

With the throne speech taking place this Wednesday, Trudeau's minority Liberal government could be brought down. If no opposition party supports the throne speech in the ensuing confidence vote, a fall federal election is a possibility.

This comes off the heels of Trudeau's decision to prorogue Parliament in August, which led to accusations from Conservative MPs that Trudeau was attempting to dodge scrutiny over his government's WE Charity student-grant controversy.

If a fall election were to happen, it wouldn't be the first time a major election took place this year in the country. Last week, New Brunswick residents voted in members of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick. 

Blaine Higgs' Progressive Conservatives emerged victorious with a majority government. 

Dr. Mario Levesque is an associate professor of Canadian politics and public policy in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Mount Allison University. 

He spoke with Cross Country Checkup about how the New Brunswick election might change the next federal vote.

Here is part of the conversation.

Someone said to me the other day that the New Brunswick election results were no surprise. Given that, what's the point of having an election? 

The popularity of the Progressive Conservative Party was a factor in New Brunswick. The premier was up around 80 per cent in popularity and [that's] largely because of how he was perceived as handing the COVID-19 response.

Now, the longer you go out from the main outbreak of the pandemic, the popularity of a premier is going to fall. So, the question becomes when do we go? If we wait longer our popularity in the polls is going to fall, and that's going to affect us and then people are going to blame us more. And then you also allow opportunity for other issues to come on the agenda to sidetrack you.

So their thinking was, 'We're in good financial position. If we go now, we can catch the parties a little bit flat-footed, we can bring the election on the opposition parties, and we'll make the elections super short.' They made it the minimum number of days, thus limiting the organization ability of the opposition parties. 

If we apply that to the Liberals, Justin Trudeau can engineer his own demise. 

From an increase in mail-in ballots to extra training, there are a number of ways the pandemic could impact a potential federal election. (Brett Gundlock/Getty Images)

How did voting work in New Brunswick? How might we see that on a national scale?

The advance polls were about double than they were in 2018, so that means that people are already thinking about social distancing. They don't want to stand in lines, so they go early to go and vote. Nationally, I would expect Elections Canada to make sure that they are prepared for heavy turnout at advance polls. 

The second item is the fact that there's extra training needed in here by the elections body for the people that run the polling stations. This includes training surrounding COVID, social distancing and getting organized. There were a few hiccups around here in the province because some of the polling station work that they normally use were not available this time around. So that was challenging. 

Mail-in ballots were up dramatically as well. The local polling stations and associations were just bombarded with mailing ballots. Unfortunately, those are still done by hand, which created a lot of work for people. They were not prepared for that quantity of what they got.

That also created problems because there were so many requests that some people did not get a mail-in ballot in time. People have to be able to get their mail-in ballots in time, but also be able to return it in time.

What about campaigning? Trudeau can't necessarily travel across the country, so how do you campaign? 

Federally, it's going to be a lot harder due to the vast geography of our country. New Brunswick is fairly small in terms of geography, so the candidates could hop on a bus, travel the province and have some campaign stops. 

For the federal party leaders. I think they need to be strategic in where they appear during a federal election. So maybe fewer appearances, but measured appearances.

With the throne speech taking place this Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government could theoretically be brought down, depending on how opposition parties react to the ensuing confidence vote. (DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

If an election is to be had, Trudeau needs to go to Western Canada because that's where he lost most of his support. Do you think if he were to do that, it would be frowned upon because of the situation we're currently in?

I think it is expected for them to move around. I think it would be frowned upon if he did not go because [of] the narrative coming out of the Wexit movement, and Jason Kenney would likely [say] he stopped paying attention to Alberta. 

I don't think the Trudeau Liberals will gain very much out in Saskatchewan and Alberta, but they'll lose more if they don't go. So I think they still need to have their presence there and put forth whatever message it is that they would like to put forth.

Do you think it would be wise for the Liberals to be holding an election this fall?

I don't think the Liberals are as high in the polls now as what they may like. I don't think the polls will get any better for them either, though. So that's a significant consideration for the Liberal Party. 

If they also wait longer, they allow the Conservatives and Erin O'Toole to get better organized for the election. So that's in the back of their mind. They may want to go sooner in order to try to capitalize on the Conservatives not necessarily being prepared as much. 

It's a total strategic calculation on their part. Do they prioritize where they are in the polls right now and take advantage of the Conservative Party not necessarily being as prepared as they will be in six or so months? Or do they wait to present a different platform and option to the people, and then work through the Christmas season and then go to the polls in the spring?

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Steve Howard and Kirthana Sasitharan. Q&A edited for length and clarity.