Given the terrible year prime Minister Justin Trudeau was having when Parliament adjourned in June, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer could have been forgiven for expecting victory in next month’s election.
Then along came a terrible summer for Scheer. By the time the official campaign had started, the Conservatives had lost the advantage they had in the polls at the beginning of summer.
Under new election rules, a semi- official campaign period began June 30. The summer served as a round-robin tournament leading up to the real contest that began when the election writ formally dropped on Sept. 11.
July and August could have been an opportunity for the Conservatives to road-test some ideas and maybe adjust their environmental policy, as climate change has emerged as the most important election issue among Canadians.
Instead, the Official Opposition seemed to be counting on a damning report on the prime minister’s conduct on the SNC-Lavalin affair by the ethics commissioner to sustain the Conservatives’ momentum. That report hasn’t mattered to the electorate.
The Liberals and the Conservatives begin the formal round in the campaign deadlocked in the polls. Support for the Liberals still was rising in the polls two weeks after Labour Day, even though personal support for Trudeau was not.
A big reason for this is that Scheer hasn’t caught on with the public. Even when the Liberals touched bottom in the spring, most polls showed most Canadians thought Trudeau had better qualities as a leader.
Just after Labour Day, a Nanos Research poll showed more Canadians liked Green Party leader Elizabeth May than liked Scheer.
Scheer “don’t get no respect” – to borrow from the late Rodney Dangerfield – even inside his own party.
Rona Ambrose, who served as interim Conservative leader after Stephen Harper quit, said Scheer was wrong to criticize the Liberals’ performance in renegotiating NAFTA. And Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s former communications director, wrote that Trudeau was connecting better with him than Scheer was.
This is likely because more than two years into the job, Scheer’s performance as the leader of a major party has been rather shaky.
A leader can’t promise to get rid of the deficit in two years, then walk it back to five. Or promise a tax credit to parents with children in private school, then take it back.
The Liberals laid a trap by playing a 14-year-old video of Scheer denouncing same-sex marriage. Then Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant misstated policy by saying Conservative backbenchers would not be allowed to introduce private members’ bills on abortion.
Scheer acted like a deer in the headlights, remaining silent for eight days on both issues. Ironically, Trudeau made a similar mistake in the early days of SNC-Lavalin. Yet, Scheer did not learn from his opponent’s mistake.
In fairness, Trudeau has benefited from a political landscape skewed in his favour. Although the two main parties are virtually tied in polls measuring the popular vote, Trudeau’ support is in the places rich in ridings.
The Conservatives may be polling close to 60% in Alberta. But Alberta only has 34 seats in the Commons, while Quebec, where the Conservatives trail badly, has 78. Some pollsters are projecting the Liberals will win 48 seats in Quebec.
The polling aggregator 338Canada.com projects that as of Sept. 15, Liberal support will mean the party wins 168 ridings. That’s two seats away from a majority, just as the formal campaign is starting.
Also, Trudeau has been just plain lucky, thanks to Doug Ford – whose unpop- ularity is spilling over to affect Scheer – and the hapless Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party.
For the Conservatives to do well in elections, the NDP would have to bleed seats away from the Liberals. Singh is campaigning to save the furniture this time.
The Liberals still have time to mess up. Economic indicators may point to a rosy economy, but Canadians aren’t feeling very rosy.
Discontent could be the Conservatives’ one chance to take back the lead and win. But Scheer is going have to up his game.