THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 1, Season 9
Sunday, September 8, 2019
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Guest Interviews: Darrell Bricker, Anne McGrath, Fred DeLorey, Richard Mahoney,
Curtis Brown, David Akin
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh: “People tell me I’m different from the other leaders, and I am. I don’t work for the wealthy and well-connected; I don’t think government should be run for their benefit like it has for decades. I believe the government should work for all of us.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer: “I have a plan to lower the cost of living to make life more affordable, to leave more money in the pockets of Canadians, for their kids, for themselves or for their aging parents, because it’s time for you to get ahead.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “I got into politics to help people. In October, we’ve got a choice to make: Keep moving forward and build on the progress we’ve made, or go back to the politics of the Harper years. I am for moving forward, for everyone.”
Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Sunday, September 8th. I’m Mercedes Stephenson.
Welcome to a brand new season of The West Block, as we prepare for the Super Bowl of politics: a federal election campaign.
In just over six weeks, Canadians will decide who will be the next prime minister of Canada. Right now, the race is too close to call. The key battleground ridings will come down to the lower mainland in B.C. and greater Toronto area. To get a majority, a party needs to win 170 seats. Anything less is a minority, which means working across party lines. So where do the parties stand now as we look forward to October 21st?
Joining me now from Toronto is Darrell Bricker, CEO of IPSOS, a public opinion research firm. Darrell, this is the Super Bowl of politics heading into a federal election campaign. What’s the end zone here in terms of where people are going to be fighting this election geographically across Canada?
Darrell Bricker: Well geographically there’s a few places that are going to be critical, none more critical than where I’m standing today, which is pretty close to the suburbs of Toronto. So the donut of seats, what we usually call the 905 which is the exchange code for the telephone, is the place where we see the most potential for movement one way or the other, mainly between the Liberals and the Conservatives. And just so people can understand, there’s 78 seats in the province of Quebec. There’s almost 70 in the GTA, depending on how you add it up. This place is going to be critical to who wins.
Mercedes Stephenson: So those are the key battlegrounds. What are the big issues that voters are looking for?
Darrell Bricker: Well you’re going to see the federal Liberal Party really go after a couple of things. One of them is going to be, obviously, the disagreement with the values of the Conservative Party. And to say to anybody who’s on the progressive side of the agenda that they really have to vote for the Liberal Party in order to stop Andrew Scheer and his Conservatives from coming into power and really not changing things in the country in a way that they wouldn’t like.
The Conservatives are going to be arguing on the other side about affordability, and they’re going to be talking about putting money back in taxpayers’ pockets, about changing around the economy, about really challenging whether or not the government is working on behalf of particularly middle class Canadians.
The Green and the NDP are all going to be attacking Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party mostly from the left, to talk about how he’s not really kept his commitments when it comes to things, for example, like income and equality, but also in particular and specifically, the Trans Mountain pipeline and anything that has to do with climate change.
Mercedes Stephenson: At the end of the day, what moves votes for people? Is it issues, or is it how they feel?
Darrell Bricker: Well in this day and age, it really comes down to the leaders of the parties, for the most part, and whether or not they’re perceived as being credible. And then whether or not they perceive a connection, whether or not they feel that this person is actually going to be able to deliver a government that’s going to make a difference in the day-to-day lives of Canadians.
Justin Trudeau was able to make that commitment in the last election campaign and was rewarded with a majority government as a result of it. The question this time around is who can steal that?
Mercedes Stephenson: Looking right now at the numbers, is there someone whose election this is to win or lose? I know the Liberals and the Conservatives are awfully close, at this point in the polls anyhow.
Darrell Bricker: So you would expect that the incumbent would be in a better position to win, particularly since we’ve seen the spending spree from probably a couple of months ago to the call of the election in which they’ve really got out there and tried to position themselves strongly through public spending with the public. But also, governments invariably get a lot more coverage than the opposition parties do, coming up to the election campaign. They should be in a really strong position and they’re not. So it really is anybody’s call going into this. As we move past the call of the election, the other parties are going to start getting more coverage and that’s when we’re potentially going to start seeing some of the numbers move around.
Mercedes Stephenson: Darrell, one of the questions that pollsters face now, especially with recent elections, is whether or not their polling is credible. Obviously, six weeks out, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but do you think pollsters are doing a better job of figuring out what people really think and how they’re going to vote?
Darrell Bricker: Well I think some of us are really putting a serious effort into trying to do a better job. But I will say, you know, the record of polling around the world, and even in Canada, specifically, has actually been pretty good over the years. I mean, it’s been more challenging of late, but it’s been pretty good. And the truth is, there’s been no alternative that’s been created that does a better job. So I think it’s incumbent upon the pollsters to really go out there and listen to what Canadians are saying, to construct polls that do a good job of capturing their opinions, and to reflect that back in the reporting that we do on the campaign.
Mercedes Stephenson: Darrell, we’ll be speaking to you, I’m sure again, throughout this campaign. Thank you for joining us.
Darrell Bricker: My pleasure.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, we’ll talk to three party strategists about what to watch for in the election campaign.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. It’s that time. Campaign slogans, mantras that you will hear again and again and again, on ads, on TV, in your social media feeds or in signs planted in your neighbours’ front yards. Here are some of the rallying cries you’re going to hear from the parties: “Going Forward.” “Choose Forward.” You’re also going to hear “It’s time for you to get ahead, or “In it for you”. Different parties but similar jingles. But will these slogans and their party platforms resonate with voters? Here to answer those questions with us is our strategist panel who we’re going to be introducing you to for the first time, but they’ll be joining us throughout the election. They’re plugged into the campaigns and they will be with us right until October 21st.
For the NDP, we have Anne McGrath, for the Conservatives, Fred DeLorey and in Toronto, Richard Mahoney for the Liberals. Welcome, all of you.
Anne McGrath: Great to be here.
Richard Mahoney: Hello, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Let’s start out by doing a little bit of a round robin on what the campaigns are really going to be trying to push. What does the NDP whose been struggling to this point, Anne, need to do to achieve take-off in this campaign?
Anne McGrath: Well I think the most important thing is that people will be getting their first impression, in many ways, getting their first impression of the leader Jagmeet Singh. He’s been leader for less than two years now. This is his first federal campaign as leader and he has an opportunity here to introduce himself to Canadians as a fresh new face, as someone who is as he says, “Not like the others”, someone who’s in it for them, as per the slogan, and who has ideas that will help make people’s lives better. Things like Pharmacare expanding our health care system, housing, improvements to telecommunications, climate change action, electoral reform—those sorts of things. So I think he’s going to be really presenting himself to Canadians and I think that he does go in with some challenges that I think people have been spending a lot of time talking about, and in some ways that provides an opportunity to have people take a look at him and go he’s much more than we thought.
Mercedes Stephenson: Fred, looking ahead to the Conservative campaign, what does Andrew Scheer need to achieve and what’s the strategy?
Fred DeLorey: Well the main message that we’re pushing, of course, is that it’s time to get ahead and we’re the party to do that. Our message is very clear, our platform will show that: the tax cuts and helping families and people. In contrasting, of course, with the Liberals about how they’re clearly, Canadians aren’t getting ahead with them. We’re seeing out of control spending, we’re seeing massive tax increases and of course, we’re seeing the Liberals help their friends by trying to—well breaking the law to help them avoid criminal prosecution. So we need to contrast that and show that we’re going to be here to help people and families.
Mercedes Stephenson: Richard, the incumbent Liberals, you always have a bit of an advantage as an incumbent, but you also have to defend against all those opposition attacks and defend your record. Those who are whispering in Justin Trudeau’s ear, what advice are they giving him?
Richard Mahoney: Well, you’re right, Mercedes. An election campaign kind of, there is an advantage of incumbency but the election campaign itself kind of evens it all out, because all the leaders will get equal coverage and that advantage doesn’t really happen, you know, during the course of government, usually the prime minister is in people’s thoughts and minds a lot more. I think it’s really a combination of two things. One, the country has made a lot of progress in the last four years: over a million jobs created, 9 out of 10 Canadians have had their tax load reduced, an average of at least $2,000, housing starts are up, the economy is in good shape, but we want to keep on moving forward as a country and what Mr. Trudeau’s going to be doing during the campaign is not only defending the attacks from the other folks, as you indicted, but also putting forward a program about how we can build on some of the progress that he has made over the last four years.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the things that we haven’t seen a lot of from any of the parties is really clear platform positions, and we saw this in the Ontario election, too. Doug Ford won without putting forward a really clear policy platform. Is this an election, Anne, that you think is mostly going to be ad hominem attacks, fights on Twitter, issues about candidates, or are people actually going to see each party put out a serious issue-oriented platform for them to choose from?
Anne McGrath: I truly hope so. I hope that it is not just a series of attacks and Twitter wars and those kinds of things. I hope it is a campaign that deals with substantive issues because they are big issues facing the country and Canadians have a lot of anxieties about things like climate change and the economy. So, I hope it is serious in that way. And to that end, the NDP this time, I think was right in putting out a very detailed platform before the campaign even starts. It was put out a couple of months ago, and it is the NDP platform for this campaign. You know, there’s always an argument about when to put a platform out, and so I think it’s risky to put it out early because the argument then is that, you know, you’re not going to get followed as much or get as much ink during the campaign. But I think the people want to know what their elected leaders are promising and what they’re going to do.
Mercedes Stephenson: Fred, are we going to see detailed platforms and if so, when?
Fred DeLorey: Timing wise, I’m not sure but there will absolutely be a platform out there for the Conservatives. They will be pushing their message and what the program will be. Timing’s always difficult to pick during a campaign when to do that. There’s a lot that goes into that, and there’ll be a lot of thought. When we see it, I’m sure Canadians will be quite impressed with it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Richard, I remember the detailed red books that we used to see. Now things have changed and how campaigns operate, have changed. Talk to us a little bit about how a campaign rolls out now and how politicians try to connect to voters, especially in this age of social media and some micro targeting, frankly, when you’re looking at areas where there are specific seats they want to win.
Richard Mahoney: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, the world of campaigns has changed from the days of sort of, you know, back room strategists coming up with ideas they think will work. Now things are much more data driven. The parties have lots of way to reach voters individually, really, in many, many ways across the board in terms of all demographics. So, a modern campaign will do all that but it doesn’t—back to your previous question—it doesn’t take the obligation off the parties to set out where they’re going to go, whether it’s on issues like climate change, whether it’s on issues about helping people get by, about, you know, growing the economy and so forth. So, they’ll be using all the traditional methods, including television broadcast news, but they’ll be using social media in a very targeted way that will allow people to see more of the things that they want from the Liberals, in particular, but the other parties too, I imagine, more the issues that affect them directly and things that will make them turn out to vote. And hopefully that results in more people actually voting in this election, not fewer.
Mercedes Stephenson: One of the concerns, Richard, has been party leaders and in particular, Mr. Trudeau, will try to avoid things like the debates. They’ll try to avoid engaging directly. They’re going to try to go through social media, and that’s something the Conservatives have tried extensively both federally and provincially here in Ontario to circumvent. Why do you think it is that party leaders don’t want to engage traditionally anymore? Is it to avoid being challenged in situations like a debate where there’s a risk?
Richard Mahoney: I mean I think party leaders do sometimes fall into that trap, Mercedes but I don’t think that’s a fair criticism of Mr. Trudeau. He’s probably been more accessible, done more town halls, more huge at-risk sort of open televised things where people can ask him any question you want than any other prime minister that I can remember. And so, you know, that is a pretty effective way of gauging. You’ll probably see a fair bit of that during the campaign. And then of course, as you say, there will be debates with the other four leaders that are officially sanctioned by the debate commission.
Anne McGrath: I think, though, that—you know, I mean I take Richard’s point, for sure, about the accessibility and the town halls and things like that, but an election campaign is a period when people are actually really paying attention to federal politics in a way that doesn’t happen so much, in-between campaigns. So the debates are very, very important, and I think the danger here, is that people won’t remember that he did those town halls. What they will remember is that he declined to do some of the national televised debates that are going to happen during this campaign, and the big risk for him, I believe, is that it runs counter to brand because he has presented himself in the last campaign and since then as being different, as being accessible and open and approachable and all of those kinds of things And so the question people will have is why is he being so controlling all of a sudden? Why is he hiding from debates that are organized that took place in the last campaign that he participated in, in the last campaign and now all of a sudden he doesn’t want to?
Mercedes Stephenson: Fred, Stephen Harper didn’t participate in all the debates either. You guys have been criticising Justin Trudeau, but Stephen Harper avoided it. Justin Trudeau criticized Stephen Harper for that and now he’s doing it. Will we see more clarity from Mr. Scheer on some of the key issues that we’ve seen raised around gay marriage, around abortion that seem to really be sticking for him?
Fred DeLorey: Well just on the debate side first. Mr. Harper did five debates in the last leadership, and I think to answer Anne’s question, it’s very clear why Mr. Trudeau’s not doing the debates. He’s not proud of his record. He’s running from it and he’s going to be nervous to go up against the other leaders and defend that.
To your question, Mercedes, Mr. Scheer has answered those questions. For the last 40 years, this type of stuff comes up. No Conservative government’s touching this stuff. We’ve moved on from it. There’s so many other issues to be addressing that we are looking at doing that’s going to be very good for Canadians.
Mercedes Stephenson: Okay. We have to wrap it up there, and we’ll certainly be talking about what all of those issues are as they unroll, and of course, the unexpected up and downs that always happen during campaigns. Thank you very much to our strats for joining us, and we’ll see you throughout this campaign.
Anne McGrath: Thanks a lot.
Richard Mahoney: Thanks, Mercedes.
Mercedes Stephenson: Coming up, Manitobans head to the polls on Tuesday. We’ll break down the issues and what to expect.
Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. Manitobans are set to cast their ballots on Tuesday in their provincial election. PC Leader Brian Pallister called an early election because he says the province is changing in big ways and he wants voters to have a say on those changes. Will the roll of the dice give the premier a second mandate, and how might that affect the federal election?
Joining us now to talk about all that from Winnipeg is Curtis Brown, principal pollster with Probe Research, and here in studio, our very own chief political correspondent David Aiken.
Curtis, I’d like to start with you. The premier, at the time, called the election early, now running as the PC leader and appears to be the frontrunner. Did that early election call hurt him in any way? Or does it seem so far to have been something that isn’t turning voters off?
Curtis Brown: No, it’s been very—we’ve done polling for the last few years and we’ve really found that the support for Brian Pallister and the Progressive Conservatives has been very consistent. We asked Manitobans at one point about how they felt about an early election call, and while some people expressed the view that it wasn’t a good thing, for the most part, it really appears and has really been borne out in a lot of the research that we’ve been doing recently that there isn’t any kind of an impact. The Progressive Conservatives really seem to be in a strong position heading into Tuesday.
Mercedes Stephenson: What have been the main issues dominating the election campaign so far?
Curtis Brown: So far it’s been health care, health care and health care. There’s been a lot of discussion about health care. The NDP has really tried to make the emphasis on that issue. The Progressive Conservatives, over the last couple of years, have done some work to make some changes to the health care system, particularly in Winnipeg by closing some emergency rooms in suburban Winnipeg neighbourhoods. And some of those changes are taking effect right now. So that’s something that a lot of people have been concerned about. I mean, it is the thing that the provincial government spends almost half its budget on, so that’s been a big thing. But beyond that, the big issues, and these are the things that the Conservatives really seem to be emphasizing are the economy, jobs, affordability, taxes, those sorts of things really seem to be the big issues that people are thinking about when it comes to the provincial election.
Mercedes Stephenson: David, health care is something we expect to pop up in the federal election as well. Why if the NDP are hammering on it so hard, are they not getting traction and you still have Brian Pallister in the lead?
David Akin: Well I think the reason—one—there’s a lot of good reasons the NDP are hammering on health care. And Curtis is right, Wab Kinew, the NDP leader, you know, in the debate—the one debate in this campaign. He got asked, I think, about an economy question and he pivoted right away to talk about health care. In some of the ridings in north and east Winnipeg that Kinew and the NDP need to get back if they have any form of hope of winning government. Those are where the hospitals are that the ER has closed. You know, what’s the traditional sort of NDP platform? Get nurses on your side. What did Wab Kinew say last week? He’s going to hire a lot more nurses and mandatory overtime. A lot traditionally, I think, poplar things for Conservatives. And then Pallister, you know, he’s been sort of playing defence on this issue because some of these reforms he’s initiated have been controversial to say the least. But what I find interesting and I see some parallels to the federal election we’re about to get into, is Pallister wants Wab Kinew, the NDP leader now, to defend Greg Selinger’s record, the previous NDP government. So in other words, Pallister’s kind of campaigning again, against Selinger and the NDP from 2012, 2016. And of course, what have we seen from Justin Trudeau, oh, it’s Stephen Harper’s ready to come back and he wants Andrew Scheer to answer for Stephen Harper’s time. That’s what incumbents do, I guess, when they’re trying to defend or trying to find some reason to attack, and that’s what we’re seeing in Manitoba.
Mercedes Stephenson: There’s a little bit of a federal-provincial issue here that spans the two campaigns and that’s debates. We know that PC Leader Brian Pallister only took part in one of the three possible debates, Justin Trudeau saying that he’s going to take place in the consortium debates but not so much interested in those other debates. Curtis did that hurt Brian Pallister or did it just kind of bounce off him that he doesn’t participate in this debate? Pardon me, the other debates?
Curtis Brown: We don’t think so. We don’t see it. It is interesting because that hasn’t happened in a provincial election. Normally the leaders do participate in more than just the televised debate and some of these ones organized by different organizations. But there’s been a very—that ties into a broader strategy, I think, by the PCs. They’ve—a lot of the other smaller community debates that are organized by different organizations, they haven’t necessarily sent Brian Pallister. They haven’t necessarily sent Brian Pallister. They haven’t sent even their candidates to a lot of them. And we found that, you know, it’s interesting. Even though the Progressive Conservatives do have a lot of support, Brian Pallister’s negatives are actually very high and I think there’s been a very deliberate strategy to keep him out of the line of fire to just, again, be as defensive as possible and make it so there isn’t going to be a gaff or a snub, or something like that that ends up going wrong in those debates and trying to keep him out of those situations as much as possible.
David Akin: One thing I was going to say, Curtis, too, just thinking about your polling that was out last week. And Curtis found, I think, PCs were up with about 11 point lead across the province, tighter in Winnipeg. But one of the things that struck me as well when I was reading your poll, Curtis, was that this issue, the health care, how many Manitobans, far and away this is the top issue for them as you were thinking about things. Okay, so the NDP have been driving the health care discussion and Pallister has been often coming back to let’s get rid of the deficit, let’s balance budgets. What happened to 2015 federally? We saw the one party, the Trudeau Liberals, that say, ah, I don’t mind running deficits if it means more money for government services. And though Wab Kinew and the NDP do have a plan to somehow get to balance, they’re not so focused on that. Pallister’s very much focused on get your fiscal house in order. Even though Pallister’s got that 11-point lead, I wonder if things might move if people do make the decision on yeah, health care’s more important than balancing the budget and Kinew’s talking more about that. That, I think, is the only hope the NDP have to close that 11-point gap, and even then, I think it’s going to be kind of tough.
Mercedes Stephenson: David, what do you see is the interplay, if any, between the Manitoba election results and the federal election as we’re about six weeks out now from e-day across the nation?
David Akin: Listen, provincially and federally, Manitoba’s going to be going blue except for the northern ridings where federally Niki Ashton is. And I think provincially, there’s some blue ridings up there. Riding of Thompson, I think, is going to go back to the NDP, provincially. Don’t want to get mixed up. I’m looking at what’s going on in Winnipeg, specifically downtown Winnipeg. The federal New Democrats we know are a hurting unit. They’ve got one seat in Winnipeg: Daniel Blaikie in Elmwood—Transcona. Blaikie only won by a handful over Lawrence Toet, another Conservative incumbent MP. Toet’s back for the rematch. How? If the NDP can do well in Transcona, and they may, great. Then there’s the downtown Winnipeg seats. That’s where Wab Kinew’s running in Fort Rouge and other downtown provincial seats, that’s where Liberals want to hold Winnipeg Centre, Winnipeg South-Centre. I wonder if New Democrats can federally—I know I’m bouncing around here—federally can do something there. We’ll get a hint of that, I think, with the provincial election.
Mercedes Stephenson: Stay tuned. We will certainly keep a close eye on it. David, thank you so much for joining us, and Curtis. We’ll talk to you soon.
Curtis Brown: Thank you for having me.
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s our show for today. Thanks for joining us.
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. See you next week.
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