This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on October 29, 2017.
Both the Conservatives and NDP, finally with new leaders, failed to gain traction with voters in a Quebec byelection. They need to find some issues with traction or the Liberals stay in power.
The summer and fall have certainly not been breezy for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He has faced ministerial mishaps, legislative breakdowns and accusations of an increasingly centralized PMO.
An article last week declared that Justin Trudeau was Stephen Harper 2.0. That is, without a doubt, in the mind of the media, the worst insult they could throw at the prime minister. After all, Trudeau was elected mostly because he wasn’t Harper.
Indeed, based on the apparent furor that has been going on in recent weeks, one would expect a government that was facing significant political headwinds with the voters. But recently, signs have emerged that suggest the outcry may be more of a tempest in a teapot.
The recent byelection in the Quebec riding of Lac-Saint-Jean was a surprise victory for the Liberals, who garnered 39 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives – who were the incumbents – had a dismal showing, with just 25 per cent of the vote. The NDP ended up with only 12 per cent of the vote.
We know that byelections often favour opposition parties. So much for the theory that nails were being pounded into the Liberal coffin.
Even though the Conservatives and the New Democrats now have leaders in place, those parties failed to gain momentum in the Quebec byelection, and support for the Liberals in Quebec has only grown since their surprisingly large margin of victory in La Belle Province in 2015.
The problem is that Quebec now holds 78 seats – a significant portion of the House of Commons. It can be a stumbling block for many political leaders. Indeed, the government of Pierre Trudeau should serve as a warning for the opposition parties.
With only marginal popularity in much of English Canada, his government was kept afloat in successive elections by resounding support in Quebec paired with mixed-to-middling results in the rest of Canada.
The map does not look all that different today.
Simply put, to have any chance of success in 2019, the Conservatives and New Democrats will have to break what could be a Liberal stranglehold on Quebec.
What is going on here?
First, the opposition is making a lot of noise, but has been largely focused on issues that aren’t as important to Canadians. The criticisms they have been lodging regarding Trudeau’s tax changes and deficits simply aren’t moving the dial.
The government’s fiscal update centred around a projected deficit cut from $28.5 billion to $19.9 billion. In response, the Conservatives focused on talk about the evils of running a deficit.
This was just what the Liberals wanted to happen.
If the 2015 election campaign taught us one thing it was that, right now, opposition to deficits simply doesn’t move votes.
The Conservatives should have ignored the deficit chat and asked Canadians if they personally felt economically stronger today than they did two years ago. Instead of wading into a numbers game, they should have positioned themselves as tax-cutting, money-saving champions.
Second, the Ottawa echo chamber – where journalists and opinion leaders talk among themselves about the issues they deem worthy of attention – is getting louder and louder.
To be fair, it’s a democratic echo chamber. Anyone with a Twitter account can engage a journalist, celebrity or member of Parliament.
But the problem is that most Canadians simply aren’t interested in the minutiae that consumes political Twitter. Canadians don’t care about the proceedings of a committee or the amendment process on legislation.
In order to affect voters, an issue must be easily explainable and have resonance in the lives of Canadians.
Evidence suggests that the accelerated news cycle, our hyper-shortened attention spans and the relentless focus on micro-issues turns Canadians off.
Canadians especially don’t seem to care about a more centralized PMO or a poorly disclosed villa in France.
There are serious implications here. Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh both have challenging but possible paths to 24 Sussex Drive in the next election.
But to get there, they must find those issues, those pocketbook issues, that matter to hardworking, everyday Canadians. The kind of issues that make a difference, a direct difference, in everyday life.
What’s more, they will need to find issues that have particular resonance in Quebec.
On top of that, they need a little luck to find issues that not only wedge the Liberals, but also wedge the other guy.
If either one succeeds, the next election will be one to watch. If they don’t, their view from the opposition benches in the House of Commons won’t change.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.