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Sunday, September 26, 2021

What might be motivating the Liberals to call a COVID-19 election?

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TORONTO — The last time Canada held an election, it was three months before the country’s first case of COVID-19. Now, while there are enough vaccines in Canada to immunize all who are eligible, the pandemic is far from over. On Thursday, federal public health officials said that the country is experiencing a fourth wave of infections, so why have sources confirmed to CTV News that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning to call an election now?

There are a couple key reasons experts have pointed to: the government’s minority status, and poll numbers that suggest a majority could be within their reach.

Not holding the majority of the seats on the House of Commons, minority governments historically only last about 18 months, according to Andrew McDougall, an University of Toronto assistant professor in Canadian politics.

“The backdrop that everybody has to keep in mind here is that this is a minority parliament,” McDougall said in a phone interview this week.

To pass legislation, they require support from the opposition.This has not been a problem of late, with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh promising not to trigger an election during the pandemic and instead helping prop up the Liberal government.

“If this was any other time, instead of the time of the pandemic, we would normally see the opposition being much more aggressive in their threats to bring down the government,” McDougall said.

In the midst of a national crisis like COVID-19, the Liberals were able to push through legislation and stimulus aimed at helping Canadians and businesses, experts say, leaving opposition parties in a tough position.

“They’ve been sort of stuck. During the pandemic, there was clearly no appetite on the part of the public for an election … and it didn’t serve the opposition interest at all to really get in the way of the Liberals when they were trying to govern through that,” said McDougall.

Four of the last six federal governments have been minorities, with the last one prior to Trudeau led by the Conservatives and Stephen Harper from 2008 to 2011. Harper’s lengthy minority run was brought down in a motion of no confidence by the opposition in 2011, but the Conservatives went on to win a majority of seats. About two-thirds of the minority parliaments in Canadian history served for less than two years.

As the pandemic recedes, opposition parties are expected to become bolder in their criticisms of the government and position themselves as being able to do a better job, McDougall says, potentially putting them in a stronger position to force an election at a time of their choosing.

That’s why Trudeau wants this election to happenas soon as possible, says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University.

“He’s trying to find that sweet spot where people are still happy with the vaccine roll-out and the income supports, but not so much so that we start to get into, ‘how are we going to pay for all of these things?’ and start to look at other aspects of the Liberal record,” Bratt said Thursday on CTV News Channel.

The Liberals are hoping that calling an election on their own terms will help them win enough seats for a majority that can carry them through another four years.

“From the Liberal perspective, given the context that they’re in a minority position, but they still have all of this goodwill going on, [the election] makes strategic sense,” McDougall said.

Poll numbers suggest a majority is within their reach, and with Canada among the most vaccinated countries in the world, the Liberals are getting a lot of credit for navigating the pandemic, their vaccine procurement efforts, and even how they have managed to keep the economy stable through the crisis.

“If the elections were held today, we’d probably be looking at a Liberal majority,” Nik Nanos, founder of Nanos Research,told CTV News Channel on Thursday. At the same time, he says, there is never really a right time to call an election during a pandemic.

“You’re basically hostage to whatever the public health situation is.”

Sources have confirmed to CTV News that Trudeau is expected to launch a federal election campaign this Sunday, with the vote set to be held as early as Sept. 20. Signs of an election have been everywhere this summer, however: the Liberals have been lining up their candidates coast to coast and some MPs have announced they would not be running for re-election. Social media even lit up with amused speculation that an election was coming when Trudeau shaved off his beard and got a haircut at the beginning of the summer.   

Opposition party leaders for their part have been getting ready in anticipation of the announcement, making campaign-style stops around the country, meeting the public, touting their platforms, planning out their travel itinerary and the logistics of renting campaign space and transportation.

They have also been trying to paint Trudeau as opportunistic. This week, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole expressed concern the Liberals were putting political interests ahead of what was best for Canada and keeping the public safe, while Singh wrote on Twitter that calling an election in the middle of a pandemic was “selfish.” The Conservatives are currently lagging about 10 points behind the Liberals, according to Nanos, and must also contend with the NDP being close on their heels.

Even so, much of the Conservative base have been wanting an election “since the moment Trudeau was re-elected in 2019,” said Bratt.

“It’s a tough argument for O’Toole to make that now is not the time for an election.”

While campaigning could become challenging should the COVID-19 case numbers rise and measures tighten again, there have already been regional elections held over the course of the pandemic demonstrating how it can be done, and Elections Canada has said it is ready for a pandemic vote.

How long the goodwill towards the Liberal government will last remains to be seen. From the possibility of surging COVID-19 infections by the time voters cast their votes in September, to polls showing little public appetite for an election, Trudeau could be taking a risk in many ways by holding an election now.

“Not a lot of enthusiasm. I think a lot of people are just recovering from the third wave, trying to see loved ones,” Nanos said.

“This will be … an unwelcome intrusion on the summer after the third wave.”

With files from CTVNews.ca Ottawa News Bureau’s Rachel Aiello

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