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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Tom Mulcair: O’Toole has knocked Trudeau off his stride and it’s starting to show

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SAINT-SAUVEUR, QUEBEC — When word leaked over the weekend that Justin Trudeau was asking his candidates to share any “wow” ideas they might have for the campaign, seasoned organizers from all parties were gobsmacked.

When you’re in power and you get to choose the date of the election, you’re not supposed to be last out of the starting blocks.

As seasoned journalist Michel C. Auger cheekily suggested, perhaps Trudeau should place a call to Andre De Grasse, known for his so-so starts and sizzling finishes.

As the second week of the campaign begins, Liberals are asking: where’s Trudeau? Over the weekend, in a nod to another well-known race, the tortoise Erin O’Toole was trudging straight ahead as Trudeau’s hare chose to take most of the weekend off.

The Conservatives, the Bloc and the NDP had already put their platforms in the shop window for all to see. The Liberals…were still writing theirs!

I’ve been up against the redoubtable Liberal machine. They don’t give any quarter to their opponents. Trudeau will have his lines well-prepared for the debates and will no doubt do well during those crucial encounters. But will it be enough?

O’Toole is a very strong debater himself. Unlike Andrew Scheer, who as Speaker of the House of Commons never got used to the cut and thrust of rapid-fire exchanges, lawyer O’Toole has been an MP, a Minister and now a party leader. He is mediocre when delivering prepared lines. He shines in scrums and does even better in individual interviews, especially in tough ones.

Trudeau was to the manner born. He’s just supposed to show up and be the “wow.”

Problem is, seeking a majority in the middle of the fourth wave of the pandemic makes him appear disconnected from families who don’t know whether their kids are going back to school with or without masks, if at all. When your branding is taking care of “the middle class and those working hard to join it” he appears aloof. To the manor born…

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been holding steady in the 20% range. His base appears solid but his main challenge will be to hold onto it. If the numbers between the Liberals and Conservatives continue to tighten, Trudeau can be expected to make a classic Liberal pitch to NDP voters not to “split” the vote. But even that has Liberal entitlement written all over it. As if “The” vote was naturally theirs and thinking of voting for someone else was an error easily corrected.

This time around, the most important question is: whose voters are actually going to show up at the polling station?

With no compelling reason put forward, a lot of Liberal voters may well simply shrug and say that there’s no reason to bother. Add the pandemic and it’s safe to predict that the 2021 election will have one of the lowest turnout rates ever.

The most motivated voters are the ones most likely to show up. Who are the most motivated voters? Those who want change. That works against Trudeau.

Although recent numbers show a close call between Liberals and principal opponent Conservatives, there is another factor that does play in favour of the Liberals and that’s the efficiency of their votes as Andrew Scheer learned.

If the Conservatives win, say, an Alberta riding by 25,000 votes, it’s still just one seat.

If the Liberals win a couple of dozen Greater Toronto seats by an average of 1,000 votes, they come out way ahead in the race to form government.

Progressive voters know that that’s because Trudeau broke a key promise for democratic reform and to get rid of our unfair “first past the post” voting system.

In fact, it’s that lengthy series of broken promises on key progressive issues such as democratic reform, climate change and clean water on First Nations reserves that will make the Liberal pivot to NDP voters that much more difficult this time around.

The NDP will be back on the map in Toronto thanks to Singh’s hard work and the increased support of ethno-cultural communities tired of being taken for granted by the Liberals. Singh’s ability to empathize and connect with the shared life experience of so many new Canadians who often feel left out, will pay dividends at the ballot box.

The NDP can also be expected to make gains in environmentally conscious B.C. The self-destruction of the Greens will mean that voters weary of heat-domes and forest fires, who want real action on climate change, will be turning in large numbers to Singh.

Singh did extremely well over the weekend marking the 10th anniversary of Jack Layton’s passing. It also reminded people of Layton’s single greatest achievement, reaching out to Québec and giving the Dippers a real presence there.

Singh’s dance of joy on the night of the 2019 election, when almost all Québec seats were lost, remains puzzling for many in La Belle Province. His party’s absence there means that the Liberals will also be able to scoop up all of the left of centre federalist vote by default.

For now, the key battle in Quebec is between the Liberals and the Bloc. If polls show the Conservatives in a position to win nationally, there could be a classic swing of votes to O’Toole’s troops that could give them a bounce in their number of Quebec seats. Word of mouth is a key communications tool in Quebec and if there’s a sense of change, Quebecers can adapt quickly.

In one generation, Quebecers have voted in successive Conservative, Bloc, Liberal and NDP majorities. They’re not fussy and they know how to cover their bets. Neither Trudeau nor Blanchet can be sure of anything there as the campaign rolls on.

A sympathetic understanding of the opioid crisis one day, a strong overture to unions the next; it’s hard to know what else O’Toole has up his sleeve. One thing is certain, in the early going of this campaign he’s knocked Trudeau off his stride and it’s starting to show in the polls.

Tom Mulcair was the former leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017.

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