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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Ready or not? Canadians apprehensive as parties brace for an election call

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OTTAWA — Behind the scenes, federal political parties are finalizing campaign plans in anticipation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling an election this month. But, with the latest national modelling warning that the country may be on the verge of a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, Canadians and the opposition parties are expressing concerns about hitting the trail.

“It’s not the right time to have an election,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Tuesday. He thinks the prime minister’s focus right now should be on supporting those still feeling the pandemic’s impacts and seeing as many Canadians receive vaccines as possible.

National modelling issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada on Friday indicated that with reopening plans underway the country is seeing an increase in new cases, with thousands more predicted.

How severe the “Delta-driven” influx in new infections will be come September depends on how much higher Canada can get its vaccination rate, officials said. 

The same day, the federal government announced it’d be extending the COVID-19 aid programs into October, removing the potential for them to expire amid a fall federal election. 

“I can’t comment about the speculation about an election… We all have a responsibility as leaders, elected leaders, to act appropriately based on the disease epidemiology in our region,” said Health Minister Patty Hajdu on Tuesday when asked about whether it would be responsible or safe for Trudeau to call an election.

Singh has been outspoken about his opposition to an election throughout the pandemic, and recently tried to make the case in a letter to newly-installed Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, arguing that there is “no reason” to call an election right now, other than Trudeau wanting more power.

“Sure, people might say ‘that that’s what governments do.’… I don’t think that’s what governments do when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, when you’re up against a potential fourth wave, when you’re up against such serious problems,” Singh said.

While he said the NDP is ready for an election, Singh is offering to continue to prop up the Liberals on key legislation, should they return to Parliament in the fall.

“We’re confident that we can show Canadians that we’ve been there for them and that we fought for them and will continue to fight for them in the recovery, I just don’t think it’s the right time,” Singh said.

While Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has said he enjoyed getting to go to Alberta in July to meet people and is: “excited to keep the momentum going and meet more people across the country,” a few of his top staffers took to twitter to voice their concerns this past long weekend to question the timing of Trudeau’s widely-rumoured election call. 

“A Delta-driven 4th Wave is a clear, immediate, and foreseeable threat to Canada. Its mitigation should be the exclusive focus of the government right now, not an election,” tweeted O’Toole strategist Dan Robertson. 

Jetting off across the country over the last few weeks and resuming in-person announcements, Trudeau deflected suggestions that he’s conducting a pre-campaign test run or eyeing a visit to Rideau Hall to ask that the writs of election be drawn up.

“We’re announcing a lot this summer because over the last year and a half, we all spent a lot of time on Zoom and it’s nice to be here in-person to talk about the work that we’ve done,” he said when asked outright at an event on July 20 when the next election was going to be called.

Despite his deflections, recent polls from various public opinion outlets have signalled that the Liberals could be within reach of a majority government if a vote was held soon, which could also be feeding into the arguments from opposition parties to hold off.

WHERE DO CANADIANS STAND?

While political junkies may be getting ready for a federal race, new data from Nanos Research suggests that the majority of Canadians aren’t that enthusiastic about an election right now.

Building off July survey data from Nanos Research that indicated that more respondents were either neutral or upset about the prospect of a federal election than were happy about it, a new survey is shedding light on how folks are feeling.

According to the poll by Nanos Research and commissioned by CTV News, three in five Canadians surveyed over this past long weekend felt an election in the fall might not be necessary.

Specifically, 34.8 per cent of respondents said it was unimportant to have an election and 22.8 per cent said it would be somewhat unimportant.

As for those who are more on-side with an election this fall, just 15 per cent said it would be important, while another 23.1 per cent said it would be somewhat important. Further, 4.2 per cent of those asked were unsure.

“There’s not a lot of enthusiasm to have a federal election at this particular point in time, and I think the fact of the matter is, for most Canadians, they’re just happy to try to put the pandemic behind them, and to start to connect with loved ones, [rather than] think about listening to politicians ask for their votes,” said Nanos Research’s Nik Nanos in an interview with CTV News.

Nanos said that Canadians are aware of the risks of an election amid a pandemic, calling it an “uneasiness” that could “turn into resistance to an election,” if the COVID-19 situation worsens.

“The question of whether it’s necessary or not is a big question,” he said.

The survey also indicated that less than three in 10 Canadians want a majority Liberal government right now.

Specifically, when asked which fall election outcome would be the best outcome for Canada, 27.7 per cent of respondents said a Liberal majority, 20.7 per cent said a Conservative majority, 17.4 per cent said a Liberal minority, 9.7 per cent said an NDP majority, and 8.4 per cent said a Conservative minority.

“The conditions for an election usually involve some sort of parliamentary or political crisis: A government gets defeated in the House of Commons, it’s not workable, it can’t pass legislation, there’s a scandal of some sort, and that’s when parties usually clamor for elections. That’s usually when Canadians want to vote in order to cast judgment on the government of the day,” said Nanos. “In this situation, there is no crisis… So the question for Canadians is: What is the crisis? And what is the urgency? And I think that’s probably the first question that the Liberals will have to answer if they decide to call an election.”

Political campaign strategist Zain Velji noted that there is some good news in the numbers that indicate Canadians don’t want an election: “It kind of indicates that many Canadians are fine with the status quo,” he said in an interview with CTV News, cautioning that there is also a risk in Trudeau waiting to call an election.

“If he waits from a political standpoint, here’s what could be on the table: The ballot box question could change, the halo of vaccinations and the last leg of COVID that the Liberals are getting high marks on will dissipate, and fundamentally you give Erin O’Toole more time to perhaps entrench himself with the public, find his footing, find a convenient or accessible ballot box question, and expand his constituency,” he said.

CAMPAIGNS BRACING FOR CALL

Amid the ongoing speculation, all federal parties are pushing ahead with rapidly nominating candidates, putting in place key campaign staff and sorting logistics like renting planes and busses to crisscross the country.

“While Justin Trudeau is focused on an election instead of an economic recovery, we will take the steps needed to be ready if he forces Canadians to the polls including having travel arrangements on standby in terms of both buses and a plane,” said Conservative Party of Canada spokesperson Cory Hann in an email to CTV News.

As of Tuesday, the Liberals have nominated 226 candidates, the Conservatives have nominated 275 candidates, the NDP have nominated 126 candidates, and the Greens have 97 candidates nominated.

Asked for details on their COVID-19 precautions, all parties said they plan to follow the necessary local health guidelines in each place they travel.

“While we don’t comment on the specifics of election readiness preparations, we’re looking forward to safely sharing our strong plan with Canadians across the country during the next campaign, whenever that may be – and our teams will continue to monitor and follow all applicable public health guidance,” said Liberal Party of Canada spokesperson Matteo Rossi in an email.

Rossi said that already Liberal party supporters have been door-knocking and holding small events and the party is “hopeful that we will be able to continue building on that progress safely in the weeks ahead.”

Further, Rossi said that Liberal national campaign director Azam Ishmael and Liberal Party president Suzanne Cowan have been leading regular briefing calls with local riding staff and volunteers on virtual organizing tools and latest COVID-19 protocols.

The New Democrats are requiring that everyone on the leader’s tour be fully vaccinated, and the party says they plan to use both outdoor and virtual events to supplement the in-person aspect of the campaign.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul and all candidates will “strive to hold outdoor rallies whenever possible, and will utilize virtual town hall options as well,” spokesperson Rosie Emery said in an email.

ELECTIONS CANADA LIMITATIONS?

If the vote is called, and case counts keep rising, Elections Canada may have to amend its plans to accommodate shifting local public health restrictions, but already the agency says it’s ready to conduct an election should one be called while COVID-19 is still a threat.

In June, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault outlined how his agency has taken steps to prepare for people to go to the polls safely during a pandemic. 

This has included stocking up on personal protective gear for electors, staff and volunteers at polling places; implementing capacity limits and rapid testing at voting locations; and planning out how votes could be cast in high-risk institutions like long-term care homes.

The biggest change that Elections Canada is bracing for is a surge in mail-in voting. The agency says it has increased the capacity to process mail-in ballots, including implementing an online vote-by-mail application system.

The agency also plans to deploy drop boxes for mail-in ballots inside all polling places to allow any voter who may be cutting it too close to send it by mail an option to still cast their ballot and have it counted.

In the last federal election, out of 18.3 million ballots cast, approximately 55,000 were done by mail. Based on recent polling done by Nanos Research, that number could be far greater if there’s a 2021 election.

“It might not sound like a big number, [but] 37 per cent of Canadians outright said that they’re interested in voting by mail,” said Nanos on the latest episode of the Trend Line podcast. 

That means Elections Canada potentially could be counting millions, not thousands, of mail-in ballots.

One proposed change that isn’t expected to come to fruition would be setting up weekend voting, essentially a three-day election period rather than just one voting day, as the legislation to implement this didn’t pass this spring. Advanced polling days would still be arranged and would be subject to when the timing of the election would be.

Under current law, a federal election has to be at least 36 days in length, and no more than 50 days long. For context, the 2019 vote was held 41 days after the campaign kicked off. The maximum length capacity was set after the 78-day 2015 federal election.

If an election was called in August, depending on when and how long of a campaign period there would be, election day would likely be sometime in mid to late September.

Perrault has spoken favourably of having a longer writ period, as that would allow Elections Canada to have a longer runway to get all measures in place. Though, the longer the race the riskier it becomes that unforeseen events could upend the government’s fortunes and so it remains to be seen if we’re soon off to the races, and how long it’ll be before ballots are cast.

NANOS’ METHODOLOGY

Nanos conducted an RDD dual frame (land-and cell-lines) hybrid telephone and online random survey of 1,002 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, between July 30thand August 2nd, 2021, as part of an omnibus survey.

Participants were randomly recruited by telephone using live agents and administered a survey online. The sample included both land-and cell-lines across Canada. The results were statistically checked and weighted by age and gender using the latest Census information and the sample is geographically stratified to be representative of Canada.

Individuals randomly called using random digit dialling with a maximum of five call backs.

The margin of error for this survey is ±3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

This study was commissioned by CTV News and the research was conducted by Nanos Research.

This story was edited by CTVNews.ca producer Adam Ward. 

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