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Canada election: How the major party leaders stack up so far

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Canada’s election campaign is shaping up to be less a clash of ideologies than what Freud called a narcissism of small differences.

Sure, the leaders clashed on vaccination mandates. They sparred on child care, subsidies to businesses and workers, and climate change. But having seen the same polls, which show Canadians in a risk-averse mood, candidates are unified on the most significant issue: spending. Across the spectrum, each party will raid the federal treasury and promise the bill will be paid by someone other than you.

As a result, no one is proposing a sharp break from the status quo — just more or less of the same. So whatever happens on Sept. 20, Canada will travel the same road, in the same direction — but different drivers might take us into separate lanes, or move at different speeds.

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Can the federal election be held safely during the fourth wave of COVID-19? – Aug 17, 2021

While the campaign will surely bring surprises, it promises to be mainly about leadership: whom do you want driving the bus? Here’s how the leaders of the five major national parties are looking in the early days.

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Justin Trudeau, Liberal leader

In launching his campaign, Trudeau touched on a few policy areas where he is seen to perform well, including climate change and child care. However, he saved his energy for the matter of the moment: the Liberal policy of mandatory vaccination for public servants and travellers. It’s one of the few issues on which there’s a real difference between the major parties, and the majority is on Trudeau’s side. Watch for him to keep driving the wedge on this one.

While Canadians see Trudeau as the best PM, the sunny ways of his early days in office are long past, betraying his vulnerabilities: a penchant for virtue-signalling and theatrics, and actions that often fall short of his lofty words — most notably on Indigenous services.

Read more: Liberals maintain lead as election begins, but face tough road to majority, poll finds

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Best path: Run a tightly controlled, disciplined campaign where he has minimal opportunity to go off-script — while the leader’s surrogates and advertising mercilessly cast his principal opponents as risks to Canada’s recovery. Keep talking about our responsibilities to one another — including vaccine mandates.

Biggest risk: While poor handling of the Delta variant of COVID-19 would be the most severe risk, the most likely one is that with no compelling reason for an election, the ballot question becomes about Trudeau’s credibility. A modest surge to either the NDP or the Conservatives would deprive him of a majority; a large surge could cost him his government.

Best hope: The ballot question is about which party is seen as best able to manage the pandemic and post-pandemic period — the Liberals’ preferred territory — and the Conservatives are just strong enough to scare soft NDP and Green voters into voting Liberal.

Erin O’Toole, Conservative leader

In introducing himself to Canadians, O’Toole exuded positive energy, coming across as more affable and less brittle than Stephen Harper or Andrew Scheer. He also showed genuine, authentic emotion when speaking about women and girls in Afghanistan and about the threats facing military families. He needs to show this human side more often.

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O’Toole released his platform on Monday, reinforcing a key campaign theme: he has a “recovery plan” that will “secure the future” with massive investments in wage and investment subsidies. His verb choice is no accident: He doesn’t need to be exciting; he needs to be a safe, secure choice.

Read more: Erin O’Toole released his election platform. What promises could hit your pocketbook?

Unfortunately, he lacks a decisive advantage on any major issue except perhaps spending control — a territory surrendered to avoid giving the Liberals an opening to attack him. While the party’s fiscal hawks are unlikely to dissent publicly right now, this could change if the party struggles in the polls.

Best path: Let the leader be a positive, optimistic voice with a credible plan while the party pounds away at perceived Liberal arrogance, waste and entitlement. (Imagine Bill Morneau and the Kielburger brothers guest-starring in Conservative ads). Choose issues carefully: for example, since he can’t talk about the risks of spending, focus on the dangers of debt.

Biggest risk: Continuing to fall into Liberal traps. Opposing vaccination mandates for public servants and travellers put the Conservatives badly out of step with mainstream voters.

Best hope: A restless, anxious nation decides it’s time for a change. The NDP siphons off Liberal votes, and the Conservatives emerge as a safe, mainstream choice.

Jagmeet Singh, NDP leader

Engaging and charismatic, the NDP leader has an opportunity to be the voice of Generation Z, following Trudeau’s 2015 playbook.

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To do this, Singh must convey a distinctive, positive vision, untainted by the cynicism of government, building on a line from his launch speech: “I believe better is possible.” He can focus on outcomes where Liberal performance has been weak, such as the failure to follow through on promises to improve services to Indigenous communities — particularly in Western Canada, where Singh polls particularly well.

Yet Singh’s early campaign performance has focused less on these outcomes and more on the means to get there: the NDP mantra to “make the ultra-rich pay.” The threat suggests an early focus on energizing (and keeping) his base, not expanding it to grow his appeal with the mainstream suburban voters who decide elections.

Read more: Party leaders tour Canada as first full day of election campaign begins

Best path: Be visionary, be positive. Focus less on class warfare and more on the tangible outcomes he aims to achieve – particularly on issues where the Liberals lack credibility. For example, pharmacare — a perennial Liberal broken promise — could provide another opportunity, particularly after the current public health crisis.

Biggest risk: Nothing sticks. His policies on child care, climate change and other issues are seen as less realistic, more expensive versions of Liberal plans. Meanwhile, the Conservatives surge, stopping any “Singh swing” from Liberal/NDP switchers.

Best hope: Singh’s best day in 2019 came during Trudeau’s “Blackface” scandal, allowing him to show humanity and generosity. Any moment where he can be a voice for reconciliation will be a good one.

Yves-Francois Blanchet, Bloc Québécois leader

Blanchet was one of the big beneficiaries of the 2019 election, achieving a surprising reinvigoration of a party that had seemingly lost its raison d’etre. He opened this campaign positioning a Liberal majority as a threat to Quebec — one that he alleges would make it more difficult to protect the French language, supply management and the province’s controversial secularism law.

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Top financial concerns for Canadian voters in 2021 federal election – Aug 17, 2021

Best path: Tear down Trudeau, build up Legault. Show Quebecers why more Bloc MPs can give the Quebec premier a stronger hand to extract more fiscal or policy victories from Ottawa.

Biggest risk: Amidst public health and economic uncertainty, Quebecers decide they want to be on the inside of government. (Second biggest threat: Bloc supporters who wish to talk about sovereignty).

Best hope: Linguistic politics or federal-provincial conflicts take centre stage in the campaign, giving Blanchet an opportunity to stand up for his province’s interests and values.

Annamie Paul, Green Party leader

For the embattled Green Party leader, this campaign is personal – meaning that her singular political objective must be to win her own seat. It will be a tall order, given the stubborn choice to run in a historically safe Liberal riding held by a high-profile incumbent. Nonetheless, Paul will benefit from campaign coverage, putting her on a similar level to the other national leaders. She took full advantage of this dynamic on the first day, highlighting the human devastation of extreme weather, wildfires and other manifestations of the climate crisis. She also highlighted her credentials and struck an optimistic note: “I’m someone who loves big, doable ideas.”

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This optimism will be essential in the hard days to come, with an uphill climb, limited resources and a badly divided party.

Read more: Green Party faces challenges heading into fall election

Best path: Drive an ‘underdog’ narrative. Focus on a simple, sustained message and a small set of signature issues. Seize every opportunity to earn media coverage in Toronto. Hold onto its Vancouver Island beachhead. 

Biggest risk: Her scarce resources — money, media attention and time — are squandered by continued internal party strife.

Best hope: She earns respect as a voice the people of Toronto Centre want to see in Parliament.

Daniel Tisch is the CEO of Argyle, one of Canada’s largest public engagement and communications consulting firms. He has advised a long list of private and public sector leaders, including cabinet ministers and heads of government representing all major parties.

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