Two campaigns, two balancing acts Trudeau, O'Toole grapple with precarious platforms

One morning, one election and two different tightropes.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/08/2021 (411 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One morning, one election and two different tightropes.

The leaders of two of Canada’s main political parties decided to hold events Friday within 90 minutes of each other in Winnipeg. And what did the voting public learn from these events?

First, that Manitoba and its 14 federal seats remains a mostly fly-over election battleground.

Not surprisingly, both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole held their events just a stone’s throw away from the Winnipeg airport: Trudeau at a Food Fare grocery store just southwest of the airport; O’Toole at a trucking company depot on the northwestern edge of a runway.

Wheels down, quick announcement, wheels up and on to a city and province where the outcome of the election is more in doubt. It’s still early in the campaign and certainly anything can happen, but no one is predicting now that there will be many Manitoba seats changing hands on Sept. 20.

ALEX LUPUL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a FoodFare store in Winnipeg on Friday.

But that’s not all we learned. More importantly, both Trudeau and O’Toole demonstrated clearly that both campaigns are precariously perched on tightropes that may give way at any moment.

For Trudeau, the tightrope takes him over the decision to call an election in the first place.

The Liberals desperately want a majority mandate. Trudeau clearly thinks Canadians, satiated on pandemic support programs and basking in an over-supply of COVID-19 vaccines, will look past his cynical political motivations and reward him for governing through a crisis.

True to form, Trudeau was working diligently in Winnipeg to divert attention away from the timing of the election, promising more money for paid sick leave and ventilation upgrades for schools and businesses, while reminding Canadians that some popular support programs, like the wage subsidy, are continuing for now.

The Liberals desperately want a majority mandate. Trudeau clearly thinks Canadians, satiated on pandemic support programs and basking in an over-supply of COVID-19 vaccines, will look past his cynical political motivations and reward him for governing through a crisis.

When asked directly about the timing of the election, the prime minister argued the pandemic required his government to do many things for which there was no mandate from voters. “Canadians deserve to have their say” on all these bold programs, he said.

It’s not a bad line, but not all that honest. There has been no real dispute in Ottawa over whether government should support people during the pandemic; only how and how much. If voters figure that out on their own, Trudeau will have trouble maintaining his perch.

The gusts threatening to topple O’Toole are no less significant.

There is virtually no consensus among conservatives in this country on most major issues. In the early days of the campaign, O’Toole is attempting to entice voters across the conservative spectrum along with disaffected centrists by offering what he repeatedly referred to as “reasonable balance.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Conservative leader Erin O’Toole makes an announcement at Bison Transport in Winnipeg on Friday.

Case in point: O’Toole proudly proclaimed this week that he was “pro-choice,” acknowledging that women have the legal right to an abortion if they so choose. However, he was also forced to admit he respects the right of doctors to refuse to perform any medical procedure if they object on moral or religious grounds, and as long as they refer their patients to other physicians.

In attempting to achieve the mythical “reasonable balance,” O’Toole has instead found a position that will be acceptable to few and objectionable to many.

True pro-choice voters will not accept a politician who thinks “conscience rights” trump access to a medical procedure. Similarly, hardline social conservatives — some of whom O’Toole courted to win the Tory leadership — are unlikely to excuse a Tory brandishing pro-choice credentials.

At this early stage in the campaign, it is unclear that either leader is positioned to knock the other off his perch. However, if there is one issue that could help Trudeau, it could be vaccine mandates.

There is virtually no consensus among conservatives in this country on most major issues. In the early days of the campaign, O’Toole is attempting to entice voters across the conservative spectrum along with disaffected centrists by offering what he repeatedly referred to as “reasonable balance.”

Trudeau is mandating full vaccination for all federal employees and for anyone wanting to travel by air or train. His strategy is pretty solid; although mandates are inherently controversial, they are also becoming increasingly popular as more Canadians become fully vaccinated.

This week, an Ipsos poll done for Global News showed a remarkable 80 per cent of respondents were in favour of mandatory vaccination for teachers, health-care workers and public servants. And just over 80 per cent supported it for travel. Even more remarkable is that these opinions were held across all party lines.

O’Toole is just as trapped on vaccine mandates as he is on conscience rights. He won’t demand that all of his candidates are vaccinated (as the Liberals and NDP have done) and won’t support mandates for schools, public servants or travel. His reasonable balance is to offer any unvaccinated person access to rapid COVID-19 testing.

For the gross majority of people across the country that have accepted the jab, this is untenable. There is no opportunity now for O’Toole to change his position; he’s committed to a laissez-faire approach (encourage but not mandate) that fully vaccinated Canadians are rejecting with unusual fervor.

Will vaccine mandates become the seminal issue of the campaign? Too early to say, and other issues may still arise.

However, in almost every way, this outcome of this closely fought election will come down to the last man still standing on his tightrope.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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