OTTAWA — The second week of the 2019 federal election campaign ended with a whimper after kicking off with a bang.
In the past week, there had been heightened emotions and clashes over issues ranging from racism to climate change. And as the third week on the hustings got underway Wednesday, a visible strain showed on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s face.
In Delta, B.C., after announcing new climate action measures to help homeowners, Trudeau again faced questions — though far fewer — about the bombshell blackface photo revealed by a Time Magazine scoop. It had been followed by others — three incidents in all.
His brow furrowed, Trudeau repeated what is now a refrain: “I’ve spoken about the incidents that I recalled. I have recognized from the very beginning that this was something I shouldn’t have done. I recognized how wrong it was; I should have known that then, but I didn’t. I will continue every day to fight against racism and intolerance because that’s what people expect of me and that’s what I expect of me.”
Several public polls suggest the impact on voters is, for now at least, less dramatic than Liberals first feared, attenuated by Trudeau’s youth at the time, by his repeated apologies, by a record of funding anti-racism and promoting diversity, and perhaps by the reaction of several leaders of racialized communities who publicly criticized his self-described “racist” acts, yet cut him slack.
The scandal had briefly derailed Trudeau’s campaign even as it galvanized the others.
Then just as quickly, it slid under an avalanche of policy promises unleashed by all campaigns.
- The Liberals vowed to tighten firearms controls short of a handgun ban; promised a tax cut targeted mainly at middle and lower income households, said they’d reduce cellphone bills; expand public health coverage for drugs, mental health and long-term care; and promised to hit far-off targets for greenhouse gas reductions that seemed unattainable under current measures.
- The Conservatives pledged cuts to corporate subsidies; tax breaks for seniors; $1.5 billion to cut wait times for medical tests; help for first-time homebuyers; repeals of the Liberals’ corporate tax measures that had angered small businesses; and offered tax breaks for “green” improvements to homes.
- The NDP highlighted some of their biggest-ticket promises: $5 billion for affordable housing; $1.9 billion to launch a public dental care plan for mid- and lower-income Canadians; a $15 billion “climate bank” and $2.5 billion for climate disaster mitigation.
- The Greens’ Elizabeth May had unveiled a platform with no price tag — and when it came, it was quickly undercut by the skeptical eye of the former parliamentary budget officer now running University of Ottawa’s Institute for Fiscal Studies and Democracy.
The week also saw Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg rip into global lawmakers for inaction at a UN conference on climate change. She is headed to Canada to march Friday as part of a wave of national climate action “strikes.”
Trudeau has bowed out of the only election debate centred on foreign policy, forcing its cancellation. After skipping two, he will do three others.
He may be asked to explain how an apologist for Syrian president Bashar Assad was approved by Global Affairs as an honorary consul for Syria in Montreal. The government revoked it, yet it’s unclear why it was ever approved in the first place.
As the third week unfolds, details are often annoyingly scarce.
There were targets without plans — the Liberals’ pharmacare and cellphone promises, and their promise to exceed 2030 cuts to global emissions.
And plans without targets. The Conservatives claim they are the “best chance” to hit the Liberals’ goal for greenhouse gas reductions, but refuse to state their own targets. And that five-year balanced budget promise remains aspirational — with none of the cuts analysts say are unavoidable outlined in any detailed way.
Robin MacLachlan, a New Democrat and lobbyist with Summa Strategies and director at Abacus Data polling, said the campaign had been “ugly” even before the blackface photos emerged, with mudslinging between the campaigns over candidates’ past racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic comments. Yet he thinks New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh seized the moment, and may benefit in a way that is not reflected in early polls. “He’s got the attention of folks,” said McLachlan, adding no one is writing the NDP’s obituary anymore.
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Liberal Ahmed Hussen, Trudeau’s immigration minister and a leader in the Somali-Canadian community, said that based on door-knocking in his riding and in other urban ridings like Hamilton, many voters are engaged in the election, but just as many haven’t tuned in yet.
“Election or no election, I’m hopeful that the conversation we had nationally around these images could also lead to a more detailed conversation about the systemic issues” of racism, Hussen said, adding most voters he spoke to are highlighting concerns about pensions, the ability of young adults to afford a home, and the environment.
Jenni Byrne, a former Conservative campaign director not involved in the Scheer campaign, said two weeks in and ahead of the upcoming debates, Scheer’s challenge now is to focus on “the ballot question for the Conservatives.” She said Scheer needs to continue to present his vision for Canada “and how families can get ahead, and that can be done from a leader who does not have any of the baggage or ethical lapses that the Liberal leader has.”