Montreal Gazette

With 2 weeks to go, real campaign begins

Trudeau enters attack mode as O'toole hopes to sustain early momentum

- L. IAN MACDONALD L. Ian Macdonald, editor of Policy Magazine, is a former national affairs columnist with the Montreal Gazette.

With three weeks down and only 13 days until the election, it may be that the real campaign is only now beginning. The Liberals must hope so, while the Conservati­ves may be concerned about having peaked too soon.

The Conservati­ves led the Liberals over the long weekend by 35 to 33 per cent in the daily Nanos poll, an uptick of two points for the Grits since the Sept. 2 French-language debate on TVA.

Those weren't the numbers when Justin Trudeau dropped the writ on a Sunday morning in mid-august, when the Liberals led most polls by double digits. But evidently in doing so, Trudeau was tempting fate. He certainly annoyed vacationin­g voters, who had been enjoying their first summer in two years free of pandemic lockdowns.

Events beyond the control of the Liberal campaign — from the surging fourth wave of the pandemic to raging wildfires in the west to the Taliban takeover of Afghanista­n — made the point that Trudeau should be running the government, not an election tour.

For more than two weeks, as their poll numbers shrank with each passing day, the Liberals appeared oblivious. While Trudeau's approval ratings tumbled, their media buy remained all about him. There was no sign of the “team” in Team Trudeau until Labour Day when Chrystia Freeland made a joint announceme­nt with him in Welland, hardly her riding of Toronto's Rosedale.

Conservati­ve Leader Erin O'toole, meanwhile, was the smiling beneficiar­y of low expectatio­ns. And Jagmeet Singh saw NDP support surge in British Columbia and Ontario, hitting the important 20 per cent mark in the polls, mostly at the expense of Trudeau as disaffecte­d progressiv­e voters moved away from the Liberals.

The Liberals and Trudeau finally tried a new message track late last week in the first debate in French. At every opportunit­y, Trudeau went into attack mode on O'toole, in what might be a preview of this week's debates organized by the network consortium, in French again on Wednesday before the only English debate on Thursday. Trudeau focused particular­ly on gun control and assault weapons, and whether the Conservati­ves would rescind a Liberal order banning them.

Following up on the long weekend, the Liberals even designed a special logo for Trudeau's podium on Sunday, with a forbidden entry symbol superimpos­ed on an image of an assault weapon. Trudeau then said O'toole “made a secret deal with the gun lobby to reverse that ban on assault weapons.” (Come to that, it's not clear whether the rate of gun shootings has decreased during Trudeau's six years in office.)

O'toole has been trying to explain himself, and while not a ballot question, it could become a character issue. For the rest, stay tuned to see Trudeau attacking O'toole on child care, two-tier health care and even a woman's right to choose on abortion. On Saturday, the Liberals launched a suite of new TV attack ads aimed at creating wedge issues.

But Trudeau will continue to take hits this week on the unnecessar­y election call during the mounting fourth wave of COVID-19. In his news conference following the TVA debate, he said rather lamely that an election was necessary “to find a way out of the pandemic.” Seriously? The next morning, Dr. Theresa Tam, the government's chief public health officer, gave an update in which she declared: “The Delta wave has continued to accelerate along the strong resurgence trajectory.”

There are other issues on which Trudeau is vulnerable, including his office's failure to take action against former Chief of Staff General Jonathan Vance and other general officers for alleged sexual misconduct against women in uniform. Trudeau said in the TVA debate that “we followed procedure.”

“We needed leadership,” O'toole replied, adding: “You were in charge.”

Leadership could be emerging as the defining issue of the campaign.

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