The federal government is slated to lay out a fiscal update before the Canadian people today that is unlikely to please either side of the opposition benches—laying out a tempting bait for the governing party to call an early election. With polls showing the governing Liberals in solid majority territory thanks to the COVID-19 boost of approval of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his party’s handling of the pandemic response, trigger fingers must be itching in the shadows of the backroom.
An election based on the need for a strengthened hand in order to keep on keeping on with what appears to be a winning strategy in dealing with the global pandemic would doubtless return the full reins of power to the Liberals.
But the lessons of Canadian political history clearly demonstrate that calling an election for cynical partisan reasons can backfire spectacularly—if the electorate can be convinced of the motive.
The NDP appears to be drawing a line in the sand over their demands of the government response to the continuing COVID-19 threat—they appear to be waving the non-confidence stick in the air. It is the NDP, after all, which has largely kept the Liberals in control of the halls of power even though there are two other parties who could shore up the Liberals.
The Conservatives, still hunting for a leader who can take them over the electoral summit, have nonetheless continuously rattled their sabres ever since falling short of the seat count needed to send the Liberals packing in the last election—despite hauling in the most votes in that encounter. Should a confidence vote opportunity arise from the COVID-19 mist over government accountability, the combative Tories would be hard put to back down from what would be, on the face of plunging poll results, a fatal charge down the electoral lists.
The NDP is in no fiscal position to embark on any headlong charge across the field either, although the zeitgeist of the day does place a strong card into its hand. Despite that, the party’s poll numbers, if not in freefall, remain anything but dynamic.
Left with only the Bloc Quebecois as a counterbalance, the Liberals could find some cover in seeking a stronger mandate by calling an election without losing a confidence motion. The Bloc itself might see the current Quebec provincial government’s high popularity as an encouraging sign for their own electoral hopes in La Belle Province.
But herein lies the problem with summer polls and the current political landscape.
The electorate is notoriously inattentive to all things political during the lazy, hazy days of summer. With the House largely in abeyance due to the pandemic provisions the opposition have few opportunities to pierce that haze, there is even less focus on politics. The electorate might well sleepwalk to the polls and, if current numbers were to hold, the Liberals would return in the fall with an unassailable majority.
Ask Thomas Mulcair about summer polls; his NDP was the front-runner throughout the summer of 2014, only to plunge in the heat of electoral combat when the electorate decided they preferred sunny ways to an angry Tom or a distant Steve.
Ask former Ontario Liberal Premier David Peterson about the advisability of treating the electorate with contempt by calling an unnecessary summer election in the hopes of dodging a coming downturn in the business cycle. When the dust had settled over the electoral field of combat, the Peterson Liberals found the results to be anything but pretty.
The COVID-19 numbers may have abated, but this country is still very definitely not out of the pandemic woods. We are still facing a crisis unparalleled in our lifetimes. This is a time when Canadians want our leaders to pull together to craft solutions. “Only a fool fights in a burning house” may be a quote from a fictional Klingon philosopher, but its sentiment certainly rings true in the current context.
We strongly advise each of our national party leaders to leash their political dogs of war—our nation has more important things to worry about than partisan politics.