Get ready for the fall election

With the 42nd parliament now just weeks away from its final curtain call, even the most risk-averse political prognosticator can feel reasonably comfortable tracking trends on the pre-campaign messaging circuit.

Before diving in, let’s get this on the record: For a journalist, publicly predicting the outcome of an election is a dicey undertaking a week before voters head to the polls; to throw out your fantasy seat projections more than five months before the writs drop is downright bonkers, not that it stops a fair number of us from doing so on a regular basis.

(Nor, it should be noted, does it deter editors from begging those of us with a keener sense of self-preservation from offering up our best bets, even as we know, with agonizing certainty, that they’ll almost certainly be rendered almost comically inaccurate long before the ballots are in.)

That said, with the 42nd parliament now just weeks away from its final curtain call, even the most risk-averse political prognosticator can feel reasonably comfortable tracking trends on the pre-campaign messaging circuit as the parties and their leaders turn the House of Commons — and, more specifically, its audience — into an ad hoc focus group for their future stump speeches.

On that particular front, it is, somewhat surprisingly, the New Democrats who have made the most headway in using the parliamentary arena to test out their campaign themes, even as the polls continue to show them running a distant — at times, long-distant — third in what would seem, at least at the moment, to be a tightening two-way race between the Liberals and the Conservatives. 

In the weeks since party leader Jagmeet Singh finally managed to secure that much-needed front bench spot in the Chamber, the New Democrats have been pushing out more policy proposals than their two main political rivals combined.

Some are clearly big-picture, front-and-centre-in-the-platform pilot announcements, such as the budget-conscious pharmacare plan that would stop “big pharmaceutical and insurance companies” from “charging Canadians some of the highest drug prices in the world,” limiting the influence of corporate executives and their army of lobbyists, and closing those perennial tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy while working Canadians pay the full tab.

Others, like a newly launched backbench bid to abolish Crown copyright, might have a smaller target audience, but is still very much on brand: This is classic New Democrat progressive-populism aimed directly at the Liberals’ oft-neglected left flank.

The Conservatives, in contrast, are facing a very different set of political logistics: With the exception of one-time party maverick turned fledging People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier, they’ve got the right-of-centre market pretty much all to themselves, which presents both an opportunity and a challenge.

If they go all in to capitalize on the rise in anti-establishment rhetoric on the right, there’s a good chance they may end up with more than they bargained for as far as appealing to those whose views on immigration, climate change and other hot-button issues range outside the bounds of what is generally considered acceptable within mainstream small-c conservative thought.

The Liberals are clearly expecting just such a clash of cultures to break out within the big blue tent, which is why they’re already doing their best to draw attention to any apparent ties between Andrew Scheer’s party and Canada’s nascent far-right movement.

But if the Conservatives go too far in weeding out potentially problematic supporters, they could end up sending otherwise desirable voters into Bernier’s camp, which could ultimately lead to the sort of vote splitting that can, in certain situations, allow the Liberals to sneak up the middle to take the win.

That, in a nutshell, is why Scheer and his House troops are focusing so much of their political attention on what they’re making every effort to frame as a chronically incompetent — and occasionally possibly downright corrupt — government led by a prime minister who, just like the party warned voters back in 2015, simply isn’t ready (and, in their view, likely never will be).

This, of course, also the major stumbling block in what Team Trudeau still wants to believe is its road to re-election: While incumbency is often viewed as an advantage when heading on to the campaign trail, it comes with a full set of baggage, particularly given a restless electorate that, judging from the recent series of provincial electoral upsets, seems to be hankering for a changing of the guard.

At this point, the best strategy for the Liberals would be to reset the narrative — not only from ongoing controversies such as the SNC-Lavalin affair, which, while not currently dominating the headlines, could roar back into the news cycle at any moment and has already done enormous damage to the credibility of both the party and the prime minister.

Even if you leave aside the many unanswered questions and still-active allegations on the SNC-Lavalin front, the Liberals were already going to have to devote a considerable chunk of the next campaign to explaining why they were incapable of living up to the sky-high expectations laid out in the platform that brought them into office.

After all that, though, it’s probably wise to circle back to that opening caveat: Once the writ drops, every election takes on a life of its own, and it rarely ends up being decided on whatever the political punditerati predict the ballot question will be, which is why the sneak previews that we’re getting in the Commons should be viewed as simply a snapshot of just one of a near-infinite number of possible future timelines.

Take note, file it away for reference, but don’t be surprised if it all goes exactly not according to plan.

Kady O'Malley is a member of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa and writes about politics, procedure and process for iPolitics. She also appears regularly on CBC television and radio.

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