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Pandemic federal election campaign produces little enthusiasm for any party

OTTAWA — A campaign that started with anger over Justin Trudeau's decision to call an election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is ending amid anger over conservative premiers' handling of the health crisis.

OTTAWA — A campaign that started with anger over Justin Trudeau's decision to call an election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is ending amid anger over conservative premiers' handling of the health crisis.

The first wave of discontent appears to have sunk Trudeau's hopes for a Liberal majority and even put in jeopardy his chances of eking out another minority.

The second wave may yet save him.

When Trudeau pulled the plug on his minority government on Aug. 15, he tried to frame the ballot question as: Who do you want to finish the fight against COVID-19 and lead the country into a robust, greener, more inclusive recovery?

Canada, he argued, is at a pivotal moment in history and Canadians deserve the chance to decide how they want to proceed, and under whose leadership.

Instead, the campaign quickly became more of a referendum on Trudeau himself, with opposition leaders relentlessly pounding away at his "selfish" choice to put his personal quest for a majority ahead of the national interests in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

The tenuous lead the Liberals had enjoyed in the polls heading into the campaign — as well as Canadians' general satisfaction with the Trudeau government's handling of the crisis and the direction of the country — evaporated almost immediately.

"I think many of us misread what was an optimistic country in terms of where we're going, the vaccines and everything, and we just mistook what was a really grumpy, anxious, kind of tired electorate that had no real desire at all to have an election," says pollster David Coletto, chief executive at Abacus Data.

The fact that Afghanistan's capital of Kabul fell to the Taliban the very day Trudeau called the election — leaving thousands of Canadians and Afghans who had helped Canada's military mission stranded in the country — only exacerbated anger over his timing.

As Liberal support slumped, Erin O'Toole's Conservatives picked up some momentum.

Largely unknown before the campaign, O'Toole jettisoned the "true blue" image and policies he'd crafted to woo his party's large contingent of social conservatives during last year's leadership race, instead presenting himself to Canadians as a moderate centrist in a bid to win over disillusioned Liberal voters.

The strategy seemed to work, at least initially. Liberal attempts to drive a wedge over issues like abortion, private health care and mandatory vaccinations for federal workers didn't stick to O'Toole.

Jagmeet Singh of the New Democrats, meanwhile, was able to capitalize on his standing as the most popular federal leader and the apparent collapse of the troubled Green Party to give the NDP a bit of momentum as well.

By mid-campaign, however, the Liberals had rebounded slightly, Conservative and NDP momentum seemed to stall and the two main parties were stuck in a virtual tie, neither within reach of a majority.  

And that's pretty much where things still stand heading into Monday's vote, suggesting the 2021 election result is going to wind up looking a lot like the the one that emerged in 2019.

Beyond the timing of the election call itself, Coletto says his polling suggests there have been no real pivot points during the campaign, no big issue or gaffe that has registered in a lasting way with those grumpy Canadians.

O'Toole got no discernible bump from Quebec Premier Francois Legault's virtual endorsement.

He took a bit of a hit after flip-flopping on his platform promise to repeal the Liberals' ban on assault-style firearms.

The Bloc Québécois' listless campaign got some wind in its sails after Leader Yves-François Blanchet took umbrage over a question asked by the moderator of last week's English-language debate that he claimed suggested Quebecers are racist.

Trudeau got a bit of a boost for standing up to profanity-spewing protesters, mainly opposed to vaccinations and public health restrictions, as they became more aggressive and even pelted him and his entourage with gravel at one campaign stop.

Ordinarily, Coletto says those are the kind of events that can change the trajectory of elections. But this time, they were more like brief blips.

Coletto thinks that's because people have remained largely disengaged from the campaign, only making up their minds shortly before casting their ballots, be it by mail, at advance polls or at local polling stations on Monday.

"It feels like people, once they tuned in at least enough that they felt they could make a choice … they kind of landed on where they were in 2019, for the most part," he said.

The only party to show any sustained momentum in the latter half of the campaign appears to be Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada, which has embraced the anti-vaccination, anti-mask fringe.

The PPC remains unlikely to win any seats but could bleed enough support from the Conservatives to rob them of victory in close riding fights — hence O'Toole's end-of-campaign warning to right-of-centre voters that a vote for unnamed small parties is a vote for Trudeau.

Trudeau is similarly warning progressive voters away from the NDP and Greens, arguing that the only way to prevent a Conservative government is to vote Liberal.

Singh, meanwhile, is urging progressives to vote with their hearts, arguing that electing more New Democrats is the best way to force a minority government of whatever stripe to pay heed to issues the NDP champions, like taxing the ultrarich or universal pharmacare.

It's far from certain that anything can move the needle in the final days of the campaign.

But Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's quasi-apology Wednesday for how he has handled the raging fourth wave of COVID-19 in his province has at least refocused the federal campaign in its final days on Trudeau's preferred ballot question.

And it's put O'Toole's hesitation about vaccine passports and mandates, along with his past praise for Kenney's handling of the pandemic, back in the spotlight. 

Alberta and neighbouring Saskatchewan have the lowest vaccination rates in the country and their health systems are now being overwhelmed by the highest COVID-19 case rates. This week Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe both belatedly imposed tougher public health restrictions, including proof of vaccination policies they'd long resisted.

"What's going on in Saskatchewan and Alberta might signal to voters … actually what the prime minister has been saying all along, which is this is a high stakes election and the choice you ultimately make will have consequences, it could lead to life and death," says Coletto.

"And maybe that gets people to pay a little more attention and to think more closely about their choices, as opposed to it just being them disciplining the Liberals for doing something they didn't want them to do."

It might also conceivably give a late-campaign boost to the People's Party, Coletto adds, leaving Bernier as the lone bearer of the anti-restrictions torch.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press