Just over a year ago, Erin O’Toole took over an opposition party reeling from its failure in Canadian parliamentary elections and hobbled by its socially conservative leader’s opposition to gay marriage, abortion and action on climate change.
So when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a snap election in Canada last month, most political analysts expected the Liberal party to win an outright majority, or at the least expand its minority.
Instead, Trudeau has run up against a well-managed campaign by the Conservative party leader, who has broken with predecessor Andrew Scheer by moving to the centre on social issues and climate change, and eschewing fiscal conservatism in favour of new stimulus spending.
The parties are now neck and neck. O’Toole has been aided by a resurgent separatist party in the battleground province of Quebec and Trudeau’s waning popularity after six years in power. At the same time, a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic has left many weary Canadians questioning why an election was called at all.
“He [O’Toole] moderated the party, he made the party’s view on climate change sensible, he adopted a retail carbon tax, he put himself in the mainstream on climate change, he put himself in the mainstream on some issues that hurt the previous leader on gay marriage and abortion and those kinds of issues,” said Ken Boessenkool, a former top campaign strategist for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“And I think by doing that, he didn’t make himself popular. He just made it so that he wouldn’t be unpopular.”
Boessenkool said the Liberals had been unable to articulate why an election was necessary. The minority government has faced few obstacles in passing legislation, aided often by the progressive socialist New Democrats to its left, and the election was announced during a surge in the pandemic complicated by school and business reopenings and anti-vaccine protests.
“It’s astounding to me that the person who decided the date of the election woke up that day and couldn’t answer the question of why he did that,” he added. “And I think that is the explanation for why Erin O’Toole is popular more than anything Erin O’Toole has done.”
Polls show the Liberals likely to win more seats than the Conservatives but to remain well short of a majority. Such an outcome would be a big setback for Trudeau, who had hoped that his government’s handling of the pandemic, stimulus spending and successful vaccination drive would catapult his party to a majority.
For the moment, O’Toole’s tactics seem to have succeeded in presenting the Conservatives as a viable alternative to the Liberals.
“The Canadian consensus dictates that, essentially, our actual political differences are a mile wide and an inch deep,” said Jen Gerson, co-founder of The Line, a newsletter on Canadian politics. “The Overton window of what is an acceptable opinion and an acceptable political ideology in Canada is extremely, extremely small by any comparison.”
The Conservatives released a policy platform in the first week of the campaign which included billions of dollars of new stimulus spending and support for small businesses. It was designed to calm voters worried that the party would usher in austerity measures to rein in the deficit, which they nevertheless pledged to plug within a decade.
O’Toole courted voters in the battleground province of Quebec by pledging to continue federal support for its universal childcare programme, though with a preference for tax credits rather than direct transfers.
He has also said he would allow provinces to keep a federal carbon pricing scheme passed by the Liberal government, an issue that was once a lightning rod for the Conservative base.
O’Toole has distanced himself from anti-vaccine protesters who have hounded Trudeau on the campaign trail. Though he does not support mandatory vaccinations for federal workers, he said he was in favour of rapid testing and that vaccines were “critical” in the pandemic fight.
As a result, O’Toole has largely neutralised traditional Liberal attacks aimed at equating the party with its radical rightwing elements and highlighting the possibility of cuts to social programmes.
“Phase 1 was to build the personal brand of Erin O’Toole by not making mistakes and having a steady and good platform, and they did that and his personal numbers went up,” said Nik Nanos, chief data scientist and founder of Nanos Research, a polling company.
“Phase 2 was to introduce a platform that had extra spending, and about as much new spending as the Liberals, a platform that had major planks like a national childcare programme, although it was different, and also had a housing strategy, although it was different.”
“And it effectively inoculated the Conservatives from the fear tactics that the Liberals usually want to use in campaigns, which is that if you elected a Conservative government, they will cut programmes,” he added.
Still, O’Toole’s path to victory is challenging. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s poll tracker shows the Liberals at 31.6 per cent support and the Conservatives at 31 per cent as of Friday, with the Liberals much more likely to form a government due to the way seats are distributed in the provinces.
O’Toole’s party would need to win more seats and forge a coalition with the Bloc Québécois, a nationalist party in Quebec that has received a surge in support in recent days that could lead to it winning seats in traditionally Liberal districts.
Conservative support in some races could also be diluted by a recent resurgence in the polls by the People’s Party of Canada, a populist, libertarian party that has attracted disaffected potential voters and anti-vaccine protesters who see the government’s pandemic restrictions as tyrannical.
O’Toole issued an appeal to Conservative voters not to jump ship on Friday.
“There are actually millions of Canadians who are very frustrated with Mr Trudeau,” he said. “If they allow that frustration to do anything other than vote Conservative, they’re voting for Mr Trudeau.”
More than anything, the tight race appears to show that neither leader is particularly popular.
“I think there will be a couple of ballot box questions,” said Gerson. “I think the key one is why are we here? Canadians traditionally do not like elections that come off as cynical, or as a leader taking advantage of a moment of weakness in an opponent to secure more power.”
“The other question really just hinges on whose voice do you want to listen to less,” she added.