During Canada’s 44th election, it’s a card game for Trudeau — and a delicate one

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WATCH: We're now into week two of the federal election campaign and though the first week is usually long forgotten by voting day, it's worth taking stock of where things stand, which leader has momentum and what issues have thrown campaigns off track. Mercedes Stephenson has insight into the governing Liberals campaign and why it's working to get things back on the rails. – Aug 24, 2021

In kicking off his re-election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had all the cards.

His pandemic approval ratings were generally positive. He led in the polls. He controlled the timing. And he even knew exactly what the first question would be: why now?

While the answer wasn’t convincing, he had one ready: “We’ve been making really big, consequential decisions. Canadians deserve their say.”

Then, he turned the tables, challenging the other parties to explain why Canadians shouldn’t have their say.

It was a hint of the Liberal strategy: a good defence is a good offence. Raise the stakes.

Read more: Liberals, Conservatives in dead heat as Trudeau’s popularity dips: election poll

We saw that again this week, when the Liberals pulled out one of their favourite political tropes — the hidden Conservative agenda — but ended up playing into their own vulnerabilities.

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Political communicators everywhere love the “hidden agenda” play. It’s particularly effective in the age of digital and social media, fuelled by surreptitious recordings of private events, out-of-context quotations and skillfully edited or even doctored video clips.

In Canada, it’s been a reliable, high-percentage Liberal play for years, because Conservative supporters usually take the bait like a hungry pike on a summer day.

No wonder we saw the Liberals try it regularly in the first week: on guns; on abortion; on vaccines. And on that perpetual, uniquely Canadian and overstated threat of “private health care” — something every party allows, but no party asks Canadians to pay for.

Then, the Liberals pushed things too far.

Read more: Voter uncertainty pointing to unpredictable, ‘volatile’ federal election, poll finds

Chrystia Freeland, Trudeau’s incumbent finance minister, rolled multiple attacks into one memorable social media post, claiming that “Erin O’Toole wants to cut taxes for the wealthy and cut services, like public health care, for everyone else.”

She attached a video clip in which O’Toole endorses a greater private sector role in health-care delivery, edited to remove the Conservative leader’s comments about the importance of protecting universal access.

Not only did the truth make the “hidden agenda” threat toothless, but the affair also earned her the ignominy of a “manipulated media” warning label from Twitter.

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The episode was a reminder that the “hidden agenda” ploy has serious risks. Sometimes, it signals that the party playing offence is really playing defence, driven by early campaign insecurity or late-campaign desperation.

Paul Martin’s incumbent Liberals found themselves in the latter category in 2006 with a hyperbolic ad that revealed Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s alleged hidden agenda: “Soldiers with guns. In our cities. In Canada. We’re not making this up.”

Today’s Liberals run similar risks, for several reasons.

First, O’Toole is proving to be more surefooted than his predecessor. Second, the Conservatives’ decision to release their full policy platform on the second day of the campaign makes the “hidden agenda” charge less likely to stick. Third, an Ipsos poll for Global News shows that for the first time in many years, voters believe it is the Liberal leader — not his Conservative opponent — who is most likely to have a hidden agenda.

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It’s unusual territory for a government with decent approval ratings, with an experienced leader. But when we come back to Trudeau’s first answer, on the first day, we find a clue: when people see no reason for an election — and you don’t give them a strong one — it’s not surprising they wonder what you are hiding.

The other surprise is that notwithstanding controlling the timing, the Liberals remain the only major party yet to release its platform.

The platform release could provide the Liberal leader with an opportunity to reset his campaign — and the campaign in general.

Read more: Canada’s 2021 federal election is officially a go. Here’s how it will work

He still has much going for him. His aggressive spending commitments have set a direction for the country that no major party is fundamentally challenging. While the Conservative platform exceeded expectations with some innovative economic policies, they are still essentially saying, “Me, too,” on many big issues — including belatedly endorsing a watered-down form of carbon pricing and accepting at least another decade of deficit spending.

The New Democrats’ promises to finance much higher spending just by taxing the ultra-rich, or even the moderately affluent, don’t add up, and their commitments to do everything faster strain credulity.

Finally, Trudeau may yet get an unexpected gift: a legitimate Conservative gaffe. They have a propensity for them.

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As recently as this past spring, 54 per cent of party delegates embarrassed their leader by voting against a resolution acknowledging that “climate change is real.” The skillfully staffed Liberal war room will surely be ready.

For a suddenly vulnerable incumbent, success will depend on improving his own hand — and then being prepared to strike when his opponents play weak cards.

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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