By Alexander Campbell
Special to The Cheap Seats
One of my favourite writers during the football season is Peter King in Sports Illustrated who, at the end of every Monday Morning Quarterback article concludes with “10 Things I Think I Think”.
It was always my favourite part because it was an admission that no one can ever be entirely sure of what you’ve observed. But you can have a pretty good gut instinct.
And, with that, 10 things I think I think about the the election (so far):
- Everyone had an uneven first debate, except Elizabeth May. May is of course, only of negligible consequence in the scheme of the broader campaign and strong debate performances are unlikely to help her party much. She will likely be the only Green MP standing after the campaign. Barring an unforeseen surge in support, I’m unsure what value she (or, for that matter, Gilles Duceppe in the French language debates) actually contribute to voters trying to determine who will make the best Prime Minister.
- Justin Trudeau is generational change…just not the generation he’d like. While the Liberal leader is a full generation younger than either Mulcair or Harper, the issues he sought to highlight in the first debate are of the last generation in Canadian politics.
No Liberal leader in a national election has spent as much time talking about Separatism as Mr. Trudeau did in last week’s debate since 2004. Even Stephane Dion – author of the much ballyhooed Clarity Act – devoted his energies to other topics.
I always wondered how much time Mr. Trudeau would spend shadow-boxing with ghosts, namely his father’s, in this campaign and he spent a solid half hour doing it in the first debate.
Ultimately, Quebec voters passed their judgment on separatism politics in their most recent provincial election when they devastated the Parti Quebecois who ran almost solely on that issue. He’s doing it, no doubt, to prove to federalist voters on the Island of Montreal that Thomas Mulcair isn’t one of them.
The truth is, the more young Trudeau sounds like a politician from 1990s, the more he’s talking about issues voters don’t care about. No one seems to have much of an appetite for a national unity discussion other than Justin Trudeau and Gilles Duceppe.
- A further note on Mr. Trudeau – his closing in Maclean’s debate was, at best, totally unremarkable but to the average voter, it likely came across as sophomoric.
A closing argument in a debate is a chance to do one of two things: either make the case for why you want to be Prime Minister or deliver a damning prosecutorial indictment of the government. He delivered a calorie-free collection of platitudes. The only saving grace for him is that, throughout the debate, Mulcair largely failed to deliver as well.
- Ontario, Ontario, Ontario. This election will, unsurprisingly, be decided in our largest province. Whatever seats the Tories lose in Atlantic Canada and in parts of the urban west, will be offset by the gains of a few seats in Quebec and the new seats in Alberta and British Columbia.
There are 121 seats up for grabs in Ontario, half of them between Oshawa and Oakville and south of Richmond Hill. This is ultimately where the election will be decided.
There are too many questions to be answered. How many suburban seats can the Tories hold? Can the Liberals gain suburban seats without losing their seats in the urban core? Will the NDP be in play at all beyond 7 seats in Downtown Toronto?
- There is no enthusiasm. Tories can get excited about keeping Justin Trudeau out of office. But I can’t look at the map and get the Liberals to more than 70 seats.
People who want a change in government regularly exceed 65 per cent in most polls but they don’t like their options. Justin Trudeau regularly appears woefully unprepared to lead a G7 Nation and Thomas Mulcair is about as exciting as watching grass grow.
As long as the NDP remains the main competition to the Tories, you’re going to see a pretty boring race. It’ll be a sort of political Bataan Death March to Election Day.
- Two maxims hold true in Canadian politics, the first is that the leader who auditions to become Leader of the Opposition, will become the Leader of the Opposition. It’s why Thomas Mulcair – one of the most effective parliamentarians in Question Period since the late ’90s – was beyond restrained in the first debate.
Too angry is bad in Canadian politics. Our politicians simply don’t do righteous indignation well on a national level (they do on a provincial one) and the national audience doesn’t respond to it.
The trick for Mulcair is going to be landing punches on the Prime Minister without appearing too aggressive or angry.
- The second maxim about Canadian politics is that the Leader around whom the election is focused, always loses the election. If you think about things in this context, you can understand why the Tories continually run attack ads against a Leader whose Party is in third place.
The vast majority of the electorate want change and only one voter in four believe the Prime Minister is trustworthy according to most polls. But, if we go into the polling booth asking whether Justin Trudeau is qualified to be Prime Minister, Stephen Harper is probably going to win.
If we go into the polling booth asking whether we want Stephen Harper to continue as Prime Minister, the outcome is far less certain. The leader who is the focus of the election is the leader who will lose the election.
- I think Kathleen Wynne is helping Stephen Harper. The Ontario Premier is desperately unpopular in much of the province – nowhere more so than Prince Edward County. With the sole exception of 2003-2006 and 1957-1962, Ontarians rarely put the same Party in charge at both Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill.
I don’t know whether this is a conscious attempt at managing checks and balances or if Ontarians would prefer to be able to freely hate both parties at the same time.
However, by highlighting a payroll tax that will see $1,000 dollars taken off the average income by the provincial government every year, as Wynne is proposing, I think she’s misjudged both her audience and her opponent.
The plan went largely unscrutinized last spring because of how badly Tim Hudak screwed up. I don’t expect Stephen Harper to make the same mistake…and he isn’t.
- Our local media types spent a fair bit of time discussing the fact that during the Prime Minister’s visit last week, they were unallowed to ask questions and that only those invited to the event were allowed to attend.
This is the Tory campaign playing on a seminal weakness, the media loves to cover itself. It is the irresistible bauble in the window for most media types and that’s why a lot of editors and producers develop an allergy to stories about the media covering the media.
It’s the kind of self-indulgent, navel gazing that separates the press from the voters they’re supposed to be informing and it takes away from covering more important issues.
In this case, the media covering itself on Friday and Saturday leaked into the Sunday and Monday coverage which took time away from examining the Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday that, if re-elected, he would make it illegal for Canadians to travel to parts of the world currently occupied by terrorist groups like ISIS.
This is a policy that’s damn near unenforceable and almost certainly unconstitutional. It’s also inherently contradictory given that conservatives, often the first to crow about the size and cost of the expansion of government, have developed a dismayingly close relationship with the coercive power of the security state.
But we heard more about whether reporters could tweet from an event because apparently the constitution, national security and the prospective cost of enforcing and prosecuting this policy (sure to be in the hundreds of millions), is slightly less important than a reporter’s Blackberry. This is a major media failing.
- I think we should all get over poll numbers. The horse race is addictive, I get it. But I don’t think partisan numbers are going to tell the story of this election.
I’ve often said that leadership numbers mean more than partisan support. In the three elections that he won, Stephen Harper thoroughly outclassed Paul Martin, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff with his personal numbers. They were a much better indicator of how the campaign was going to unfold.
Dig into regional numbers, dig into leadership numbers, dig into issues numbers and demographic numbers. What you’ll see is that, nationally, the Liberals are in a much more distant third place than they’d like to admit.
Ontario is standing between the NDP and forming government. Stephen Harper has a pretty open road to 150 seats. But it’s an avalanche-prone goat path between 150 and the 170 needed for a majority.
This is anyone’s election, folks. But your mother told you not to judge a book by its cover and you shouldn’t judge a poll by its top sheet. Look at every graph and every trend line.
Because, as an English philosopher once told us: every picture tells a story, don’t it?
Senator Alexander Campbell was campaign manager for Sir John A. Macdonald and the sixth lieutenant governor of Ontario. The actual author has asked that his name not be made public at this time and has chosen Alexander Campbell as a pseudonym in part to recognize Sir John’s 200th birthday