I can hear it in the exasperated voices of friends and acquaintances as we discuss the ongoing federal election campaign in Canada. Regime fatigue has definitely set in this election campaign.
“Harper’s got to go!” one friend told me last night. She lives in Etobicoke-Lakeshore in west Toronto, a bellwether seat that usually swings to the winning party. Last time, the Conservatives took it, defeating Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. This time, all three parties are competitive there. My pragmatic, progressive friend told me last night she’s leaning NDP this time.
The progressive majority in this country has put up with Harper’s regressive policies and dysfunctional leadership for almost ten years. We’re sick to death of him now and more determined than ever to get rid of him. I suspect this year we’ll finally get our wish.
The election call in early August did wake a slumbering electorate. While most Canadians have continued to enjoy their summer, most have also started listening more closely than they otherwise would’ve in August. Thus, the Mike Duffy trial revelations of a big conspiracy within Harper’s office to lie to the public about Senate corruption simply reinforced sour opinions of Harper’s team and judgment. The slumping economy has also undermined Harper’s main message that ‘we’re better off staying the course.’ With most middle class Canadians barely getting by, living pay cheque to pay cheque, the spectre of more of the same seems woefully inadequate.
I’m beginning to think that Harper’s choice to call the election so early will prove to be a big blunder that no negative ad campaign come September and October will overcome. It might’ve been possible that most Canadians would’ve simply missed the minutiae of the Duffy trial revelations this month were there no election call. Instead, with their political senses heightened by the call, Canadians were given a daily dose of scandal for two weeks as well as Harper’s increasingly uncredible denials.
Meanwhile, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s steady, cautious campaign thus far has done much to calm many fears that persist about the NDP forming a government. Talk of modest, progressive, incremental change isn’t scaring anybody. An old video of Mulcair praising the free market policies of Thatcher’s Britain should prove to even the most skeptical conservative that Mulcair is not some lefty lunatic.
In his rush to the centre, Mulcair is ceding much progressive ground to the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau, whose campaign is showing resilience and renewed strength. The NDP has a careful balancing act to maintain in order to win over centrists while not alienating their progressive base. Thus far, they’re mostly succeeding although it’s clear that Trudeau’s Liberals are targeting those same voters with vigour.
Polls now show Tom Mulcair overtaking Harper in the “Best Prime Minister” category. Even Justin Trudeau, who the Tories have labeled “Just not ready,” is competitive in those same polls with the incumbent. That’s got to hurt, especially after the Conservatives spent millions pushing the anti-Trudeau line.
Ultimately, I suspect the anti-Trudeau attack won’t work as well as the Conservatives hoped. The Liberal vote is coming back from its historic low of 19% in 2011, currently pegged around 27-30% in polls today. But now, pragmatic centrists and progressives looking for change have switched to the NDP, pushing them into the mid-30s, well ahead of the Conservatives.
Another woman I met last week who lives in Waterloo, Ontario told me she likes Trudeau but does worry about his level of experience for the job this year, while her fatigue with Harper was obvious. So that means, “I guess I have to vote for Mulcair,” she said.
As the next month-and-a-half rolls out, voters determined to change the government will take a close look at their local ridings and decide which opposition party has the best chance to knock off the Tories, or at least add to the seat count for the party with the best chance of beating the Conservatives nationally. In most parts of Quebec, that will be the NDP. In Atlantic Canada, it will mostly be the Liberals. In BC, it will be the NDP, except in parts of the Lower Mainland where the Grits are competitive again. In Ontario, it will also depend on the region in which they live. Downtown Toronto might lean NDP, while the outer suburbs will mostly lean Liberal. In some ridings where both the NDP and the Liberals pose strong challenges to the Tories, the choice will be agonizing.
In a healthy democracy, most of us can tolerate a victory or two by our ideological opponents should they earn it. In many ways, Harper did well earn his 2006 victory over a tired Liberal government and a Prime Minister in Paul Martin who failed to impress much with his dithering style of leadership.
Harper then got luckier facing off against the hapless Stephane Dion in 2008, but still failed to secure a majority in progressive Canada. In 2011, Michael Ignatieff’s uninspiring leadership, coupled with a surging NDP, forced a Liberal collapse that handed enough seats in Ontario to give Harper a majority even though he got less than 40% of the national vote.
Currently, Harper is failing to crack 30% in the polls. Those polls also show that the vast majority of people currently backing other parties will not consider the Conservatives as their second or third choices. Thus, the chances of Harper getting back up into the mid-high 30s seems unlikely, barring major screw-ups by Mulcair and Trudeau on the hustings. The Conservatives’ only real hope now is to inspire their own base like never before and suppress the opposition vote. Their “Unfair Elections Act” is a tool in their arsenal to that end, but I suspect these sleazy Tory tactics won’t work this time. Voters determined to get change will make it to the polls regardless of Tory robocalls illegally misdirecting them. Plus the Tory base is shrinking and badly outnumbered by Canada’s progressive majority.
The grassroots desire for change is palpable and firming up. We are simply waiting and watching this election campaign to see which opposition party poses the greatest national threat to Conservative rule. Once that becomes clear come early-mid October, we should expect a big swing behind that party to finish the job October 19th.
Follow Matt Guerin on twitter: @mattfguerin