The most important number in this election campaign

A man casting his vote. The Canadian flag is in front of the ballot box.

It takes a lot to surprise me when I look at polling numbers. But I had a double take this week when I reviewed the data from our latest polling for Global News on the federal election.

A good poll doesn’t just ask people how they are going to vote if an election were held tomorrow (although we ask that too). It also asks questions about the underlying reasons for why people are voting for a party and about how they feel about the leaders, various policies and the important issues in the campaign.

Ipsos’s latest work for Global does all of this and more, which is why we have released it in pieces this week.

What caused my double take? It was the answers to this question: which of the federal party leaders would you say has a hidden agenda?

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Almost every time we have asked this question in a federal election, the Conservative Party has come out on top. This was especially the case when former prime minister Stephen Harper topped the Tory ticket, and was also the case for former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in the last election. This time Canadians said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is the most likely to have a hidden agenda. He was ahead of Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole by 10 points on this question and 28 points ahead of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

This is a very troubling finding for the Liberal campaign. That’s because they have been in government for almost six years and have had the better part of the last year to communicate to Canadians about what their agenda is for the future. Canadians have seen little of the other party leaders or their policies during this pandemic and know almost nothing about what they have planned for Canada if they win the election on September 20th.

Why is it that Canadians are the most suspicious of what the Trudeau Liberals have planned for our future?

Perhaps it’s because 44 per cent of Canadians think the prime minister will say anything to get elected (O’Toole is 27 per cent on this, Singh is at eight per cent). Perhaps it’s because 56 per cent of Canadians don’t believe we should be having this election despite the urgency communicated by the prime minister when he kicked off the campaign in front of Rideau Hall. Whatever the case, for the first time in his political career, Trudeau finds himself as the political leader who Canadians are the most suspicious of.

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Where will this take us over the next five weeks? Likely back to the federal election of 2004 and 2006. During those campaigns, the Liberal Party was convinced that if it could fill in what Stephen Harper and the Conservatives had planned for Canada’s future (their hidden agenda), they would traumatize progressive voters enough that they would unite behind the Liberal Party lead by Paul Martin rather than voting NDP.

That means Canadians are in for a lot of tough messaging from the Liberals about the Conservative Party’s position on mandatory vaccines, abortion, climate and tolerance over the next few weeks. The prime minister and his proxies, likely having polling showing what Global’s numbers show, will be ramping up the attacks with increasing vigour in an attempt to convince Canadians that the Conservatives are really the party with a hidden agenda.

Click to play video: 'Housing affordability emerging as key issue in federal election campaign'
Housing affordability emerging as key issue in federal election campaign

On the other side the Conservatives (and NDP) will be busy trying to define their agendas before the Liberal Party does it for them. This is especially the case for Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole, who remains a blank slate to most Canadians. That’s why the Conservatives dropped their extensive policy platform so early in this campaign. Their claim will be that their agenda isn’t hidden if they have already laid out what they will be doing in 160 pages with a very small font.

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The Liberals attempt to define the Conservative agenda before the Conservatives define it themselves worked in 2004 when Paul Martin was able to hold on to government, albeit a minority government. It failed in 2006 in perhaps the ugliest campaign in recent Canadian history when Stephen Harper and the Conservatives defeated Paul Martin and formed a minority government.

Over the next five weeks we will see if 2021 is a repeat of 2004 or 2006.

Darrell Bricker, Ph.D., is chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs and leads Ipsos’s political polling team for Global News.

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