Welcome to the Liberal edition for our 2019 Federal Election “Path to Victory” blog series! So far, we’ve looked at Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives, and we will be looking at the other parties over the next few weeks.
At the beginning of 2019, the Liberals’ position atop the polls seemed unassailable. Despite some blips like the India trip and unpopular small business tax reforms, Justin Trudeau had successfully renegotiated NAFTA, the economy was firing on all cylinders, and Canadians were still sizing up two new, untested party leaders in Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh.
This all changed in a few short months with the SNC Lavalin affair, which resulted in the resignation of two key cabinet ministers and Trudeau’s Principal Secretary and close friend, Gerald Butts. As the controversy dragged out, the Prime Minister’s approval ratings fell off the cliff. The media and Conservatives smelled blood, and it began to look like Andrew Scheer was in the driver’s seat.
The Trudeau Liberals seemed to have shed the spectre of the SNC Lavalin crisis, heading into the summer with a strong finish to the parliamentary session and modestly rebounding poll numbers. However, following the August 14th release of the Ethics Commissioner’s damning report, the ghost of SNC Lavalin is again haunting the Liberals, although it is still not clear to what extent this latest development will affect their standing with the public.
Just prior to the Ethics Commissioner’s report the polls were deadlocked between the Liberals and Conservatives, with a minority government as likely as a majority. The first post-report polls suggest the findings have done little to change voters’ minds, although it will take more time to confirm if that holds.
While most of the attention is on the front runners, the biggest surprise is the grudge match currently shaping up between the Green Party and the NDP for third place. If the Greens are a much stronger force in this campaign than in the past, they could take votes away from the Liberals as well as the NDP.
As challenging as it may seem for the Liberals, they have been in tighter spots before, coming from third place in 2015 and pulling off an unprecedented electoral win. Four years ago, Justin Trudeau won on the strength of his debate performances, a Conservative campaign that mistimed its focus on identity issues during the Syrian refugee crisis, and by outflanking the NDP on the left with a commitment to run budget deficits. The Liberals captured the fickle progressive vote and were pushed over the top by a new wave of millennial voters.
So, what will it take for the Liberals to win a second majority mandate?
Who are they targeting?
The Liberal coalition in 2015 was built on strong support from women, youth and urban Canada, as well as new Canadians and seniors. Hoping to keep these voters in the big red tent, they have been the target of signature Liberal government policies throughout the mandate:
- Women: Enhanced Canada Child Benefit, gender-balanced cabinet, flexible parental benefits, investments in sexual and reproductive health and rights;
- Youth: Legalized cannabis, support for first-time home buyers, lowering student loan interest rates;
- Urban Canada: Carbon rebates, zero-emission vehicle incentives and investments in mass transit and social housing;
- New Canadians: Inclusive policies, family reunification and increased immigration;
- Seniors: Rolling back the age of qualification for Old Age Security to 65 from 67, a more generous Guaranteed Income Supplement, and an expanded Canada Pension Plan.
BC will be a tough battleground for the Liberals, where energy and pipeline politics has fractured the progressive vote. The loss of Jody Wilson-Raybould, who will be running as an independent in Vancouver-Granville, has also damaged their brand with some urban and Indigenous voters.
Despite the difficult landscape in BC, the Liberals will mount a strong challenge as they did in recent by-elections which saw South Surrey-White Rock flip to the Liberals in 2017. With the NDP losing several veteran MPs and a surging Green Party, the Liberals will be fighting hard to hold onto the Lower Mainland while targeting existing NDP seats that might be vulnerable to a vote split. They have nominated star candidates such as former provincial Liberal health and environment minister Terry Lake in Kamloops-Thompson-Caribou and popular TV news anchor Tamara Taggart in Vancouver Kingsway.
While some Liberal seats in the lower mainland are vulnerable, they have their eyes on enough unheld seats that the post-election total may end up looking similar to 2015. That said, it is likely that the current Liberal seat total of 17 is their electoral apogee.
Alberta & the Prairies
The Prairies are always an uphill battle for the Liberals and this election even more so, especially against the backdrop of high-profile squabbles with conservative provincial premiers over climate policy and environmental assessment for major projects. Many feel that they will be hard-pressed to hold onto their Calgary seats following controversies surrounding Darshan Kang, who now sits as an independent MP after findings of sexual harassment against former staff, and Kent Hehr, who resigned his Cabinet post following workplace harassment allegations – although Hehr in particular has a loyal base of support.
The belated approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion led to an uptick of support that may be enough to retain their two Edmonton seats, where progressive voters held firm in the recent Alberta election and may again coalesce around the federal Liberals. Meanwhile, seats that the Liberals won elsewhere in the Prairies were carried by a large margin in 2015 and are likely to stay in their column – namely Ralph Goodale’s Regina riding and the cluster of seats around Winnipeg.
The battles in the 905, 519, 613 and 705 area codes will be some of the toughest in Canada. This bellwether territory ranges from Peterborough to North York, to Milton, Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, Niagara and southwest into London and Windsor. The Liberals have opened up a lead in recent weeks and will take every opportunity to tie the federal Conservatives to their provincial cousins given Premier Doug Ford’s ~60 per cent disapproval ratings. Liberal success in the province will hinge on whether NDP leader Jagmeet Singh can deliver on a promised breakthrough in the 905, including his home turf in Brampton. At this stage the mood on the ground among Liberal candidates is positive.
Among star candidates, Olympic gold medalist Adam van Koeverden is challenging high profile Conservative stalwart Lisa Raitt in Milton, while former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello has announced she is seeking the Liberal nomination in Windsor West. In Markham-Stouffville, former provincial Liberal health minister Helena Jaczek will go up against independent Jane Philpott, where the battle between these two medical doctors could end up electing their Conservative opponent.
The Liberals hope to offset losses elsewhere in Canada with gains in Québec, where they are currently buoyed by weak Conservative and NDP support – although the Bloc Québecois is making a comeback. The collapse of the NDP in Quebec has coincided with a surge in the Liberal numbers, with early estimates suggesting that the NDP could lose up to 12 of their 14 seats to the Grits. If the NDP vote flips Liberal, it won’t take much for many ridings, even some of the BQ seats, to turn red. Liberal support got a boost with the nomination of prominent environmentalist Stephen Guilbeault, who co-authored a recent climate report for the government.
As noted in our last blog, the Liberals have nowhere to go but down in Atlantic Canada after sweeping the region last election. Surprise wins in 2015 included southwest New Brunswick where it will be tough to hold four to six seats in this region, especially after the provincial Conservatives won the September election to form a minority government.
In Nova Scotia, the Liberals will fight to hang onto key ridings that opened up with the retirement of popular veteran MPs including Scott Brison and Rodger Cuzner. While the federal Liberals won by significant margins in 2015, the provincial Liberal government is waning in popularity and a spillover effect could spell trouble for the new candidates.
In PEI, a surging Green Party, which holds the balance of power provincially with eight seats, could play spoiler for longtime Liberal MPs. Meanwhile in Newfoundland and Labrador, the recent provincial election was incredibly close, with the provincial Liberals holding onto power with a minority over the Conservatives.
Policies the Liberals have announced so far
Expect the Liberals to trickle out their platform over the course of the campaign much as they did in 2015, providing the media with a daily dose of news. While they are keeping their powder dry until the election is underway, there have been some indications regarding what policies might form the next government’s agenda.
According to Abacus Data, the top issues of concern to Canadians are cost of living, climate change and health care. Accordingly, the Liberals hope they have an edge by touting pocketbook-friendly policies announced in the last budget, Climate Action Incentive payments and national pharmacare.
Cost of living is the main battleground issue between the Liberals and Conservatives. Even issues like the climate incentive and pharmacare – where the Liberals have staked out distinct turf from their Conservative rivals – will be viewed through the cost of living lens. These policies become appealing to middle-class voters who are striving to get ahead because they will reduce out-of-pocket drug expenses and reward those who spend less on gas and home heating – leaving most families with more money in their pocket.
This appeal to middle-class voters will continue with a focus on student loans, housing costs and zero-emission vehicle rebates. If the Liberals take further action on issues like child care, expect them to emphasize the economic benefits of empowering more young women to remain in the job market and enhance their earnings prospects.
Regarding deficit spending, the Liberals show no sign of prioritizing a return to balanced budgets, as long as the government maintains a 30 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio. This would allow them to continue to offer new programs as long as the economy keeps growing – although it may take two mandates to implement Eric Hoskins’ ambitious, $15 billion national pharmacare plan.
In a campaign that could be marred by misinformation and foreign interference like the 2016 US presidential election, Brexit vote and other European elections, the Liberals will likely emphasize their plan to implement the Digital Charter and regulate the big internet platforms. The Prime Minister has become concerned about the role of large technology companies when it comes to disinformation and radicalization on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.
Despite damage to the Prime Minister’s brand this year, Trudeau still comes out on top in the “preferred Prime Minister” question among party leaders, according to Nanos Research. Trudeau continues to draw strong crowds at public events, and his frequent townhall tours where he fields unvetted questions from average voters in open-mic bearpit sessions is the antithesis to Trump-style demagoguery. For all of the woes he suffered this past year, Trudeau’s ability to connect with voters is one of the electoral advantages the Liberals will rely on over the next few months.
Another strength for the Liberals is the political ground machine that they have developed over the last few campaigns. With a relatively young caucus and volunteer base, expect to see grassroots organizing be a big factor for the Liberals as door-knocking season gets underway. The adage “Go Knock Doors” has been drilled into every Liberal volunteer across the country. Local campaigns will be bolstered as experienced political staff from Ottawa are deployed across the country on unpaid leave. As the Liberals’ sophisticated voter contact program tracks supporters in order to get them to the polls, it will be challenging for the other parties to deploy a volunteer army that rivals the red team. In many ways, this is their secret weapon.
All governments accumulate baggage in office as they spend their political capital to address thorny issues. On two fronts, the Liberals made decisions that will upset the voter coalition that elected them in 2015. The first is their broken promise on electoral reform, where the Liberals committed to make the 2015 election the last to use the first-past-the-post voting system. The second is the double-edged sword of the Trans Mountain pipeline purchase and approval. While the long-delayed project remains unpopular with many climate conscious voters, the Liberals will hope that their “grand bargain” of balancing the economy and environment will sway the silent middle who support both climate action and resource development.
The NDP, Green Party and Bloc Québecois will run to the left of the Liberals on climate change – an issue where voters are becoming increasingly alarmed. While most of the Green Party surge at the moment is at the expense of the NDP, if the Liberals begin to lose voters to the Greens, progressives looking to make a statement on climate could deliver vote splits that would greatly benefit Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.
In 2019, immigration and Canadian identity remain top-of-mind issues for Conservative-leaning voters. While the federal Liberals have spoken out against Québec’s religious symbol ban, they have largely avoided the issue as it remains popular in la Belle Province. Depending on how the polling breaks, the Conservatives may seek to elevate this issue in order to corner Trudeau. This would carry a high risk for all involved, but Canadian identity could end up dominating the closing days of the election, much as it did in 2015.
The SNC Lavalin affair is the biggest political crisis faced by the Trudeau Liberals. The Ethics Commissioner’s report finding the Prime Minister in violation of the Ethics Code is the latest chapter in the saga. Jody Wilson-Raybould’s forthcoming book, to be released during the campaign, may add more fuel to the fire. It remains to be seen if this issue will move votes, having already received so much attention, but it could throw the Liberals off message and cloud out their ability to talk about past successes and future plans.
What is their advertising strategy to date?
With national fundraising totals that have trailed the Conservatives, the Liberals are saving their advertising money for the campaign. They have targeted their pre-writ advertising on Québec – another sign that the Liberals are pinning their hopes there. The Liberals’ French-language TV ads featured Trudeau with the tag line “we stood up” while emphasizing the Canada Child Benefit, middle class tax cut, pricing pollution and renegotiating NAFTA in contrast to Conservative austerity and cuts.
Interestingly, a series of French-language radio ads featured cabinet ministers from across the Québec – a sign that Trudeau might not be as popular as the Liberal brand in his home province.
While the Liberals have not spent ad dollars in the rest of the country, they benefitted from third party ads before the new pre-election spending rules kicked in. A union-funded group calling itself “Engage Canada” ran TV commercials linking Andrew Scheer to Doug Ford with the tagline “Scheer Weakness” during primetime, including the Raptors’ playoff run.
How will vote-splitting benefit/hurt the Liberals?
In 2015, the vote-splits benefited the Liberals, while in 2011 the Harper majority was founded on little more than 3,500 key votes across the country. Small swings can sometimes make a big difference.
Conservative voters tend to be extremely loyal. In 2011, the Conservative Party received about 5,800,000 votes and a healthy majority government. In 2016, the Conservatives received 5,600,000 votes and lost 60 seats. Assuming the Conservative vote holds, the determining factor of the election will be how the vote splits among progressive voters.
Compared to 2011, the Liberal machine turned out a remarkable 2,800,000 new voters in 2015 (mostly millennials) and converted about a million votes from the NDP. In order to be re-elected with a majority, the Liberals need to come close to repeating that feat.
The Liberals will hope to capitalize on the NDP’s current organizational and financial struggles. After the heights of Jack Layton’s Orange Crush, the NDP appears to be returning to its historic range of voter support (15-19 per cent), with their voter share in Québec drying up and by all accounts returning to the Liberal Party.
The risk to the Liberals is if their voters decide to stay home or go to the Greens. The Green Party’s recent popularity in provinces like PEI and BC could play spoiler for Liberal organizers hoping to capitalize on NDP decline and the environmental vote to put them over the top for a second majority mandate. The Greens are putting up big numbers in the western Lower Mainland in BC that could deliver some seats to the Conservatives. Similarly, the BQ and Greens are a factor on the island of Montréal and could produce some wild five-party vote splits.
With the progressive vote in play, you can expect the Liberals to paint a grim picture of what an Andrew Scheer government would look like. When they criticize the social policies or cuts that a Conservative government would undertake, they are not trying to convince moderate Conservatives to vote Liberal – rather they are trying to convince 2015 Liberal voters to get off the couch and prevent another decade of Conservative rule.
What is their range of outcomes?
Based on current public polls, aggregator 338Canada.com currently gives the Liberals a 29 per cent chance of forming a majority government compared to 18.4 per cent for the Conservatives, with the odds of winning a plurality of seats tilting 55.4 per cent/43.9 per cent in favour of the Liberals. However, the race may tighten back up in the wake of the Ethics Commissioner’s report.
While it’s a coin toss whether the Liberals or Conservatives win the most seats, if neither has a majority then the Liberals are in a strong position to remain in government given the common ground they share with the NDP and Green Party on core issues like climate change and national pharmacare. And as the incumbent, the Liberals will get the first shot at winning the confidence of the new House of Commons.
The old saying that “campaigns matter” bears repeating and the 43rd federal election has yet to even begin. Watch for the rest of our “Path to Victory” series in the coming weeks, followed by detailed regional breakdowns during the writ period.
By Sheamus Murphy, Vice President, Federal Advocacy, Ben Parsons, Account Director, Federal Advocacy and Evan Wiseman, Senior Consultant, Federal Advocacy
Sheamus has over 15 years of experience in government, communications and public affairs, including on Parliament Hill, at Queen’s Park and in the private sector. Before joining Counsel, he was Acting Vice-President, Corporate Affairs and Communications at Shoppers Drug Mart. At Queen’s Park, Sheamus served as Director of Communications to the Minister of Health and Long-term Care and in senior roles with the Attorney General and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.
Ben Parsons is a high-tech political professional who has worked on central campaigns at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. He has extensive experience in issues management, digital advocacy and public engagement campaigns. Federally, Ben served as a senior advisor at the Liberal Research Bureau (LRB) in government where he provided guidance on political risk management and media strategy. Ben also worked at the LRB between 2009 and 2011 in opposition.
Evan is an experienced political organizer who has worked in the House of Commons and on campaigns at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Evan’s training includes a double Master’s degree from the University of Toronto and the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs specializing in the evolution of Chinese governance practices. Prior to joining Counsel, he served as the Executive and Legislative Affairs Manager for a Member of Parliament, where he provided support for the MP’s roles as Parliamentary Secretary for Democratic Institutions, and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.