Toronto Star

Trudeau is betting you want more change. O’Toole is sure you don’t

- Susan Delacourt

One week from now, Canadians should know whether they’ve had an election about change or stability.

It’s one of the most fundamenta­l questions in any election campaign, but the pandemic has made it incredibly complicate­d in 2021 — especially for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservati­ve Leader Erin O’Toole.

If this was an election held in normal times, the changestab­ility choice would be simple: O’Toole would be the agent of change, and Trudeau, after six years in power, would be the stay-the-course guy.

But this is 2021 and the country finds itself in the middle of an election campaign during the time of COVID-19.

So Trudeau has spent a lot of time talking about how he needs a mandate for big, post-pandemic change. “Really big changes, coming in the next weeks and months,” the Liberal leader reiterated on Monday.

Meanwhile, O’Toole has pitched his campaign as the safe, “secure” place for Canadians who have had far too much change in their lives over the past year and a half. The Conservati­ve pitch to voters is called a “recovery plan,” which itself is a reassuranc­e that life can get back to stable and normal.

No wonder, then, that the outcome of this strange campaign remains up in the air with less than a week to go. What does change or stability even mean when the major change Canadians crave is the end of the pandemic, and no one can even remember what stability looks like?

On Monday, O’Toole veered more sharply into the change lane, launching an all-out attack on Trudeau’s character and arguing that the country needs a complete break from him and the Liberals.

“I’m a new leader,” said O’Toole, who likes to mention that these days. “Canadians deserve better than a leader concerned only about his own power. But this is a pattern, day after day, month after month, year after year. The only thing he and the Liberal party prioritize is their own survival, more of the same spending and debt, $424 million per day, with more of the same on its way, more of the same corruption.”

The “change” theme there is impossible to ignore.

Similarly, when Trudeau sat with the Star’s editorial board Friday, he talked about how voters were craving stability.

“People aren’t super enthusiast­ic about change, about even further disruption­s,” Trudeau said. “They just want things to get back to normal. They want to know that there is steadiness. They want to know that we’re taking the lessons of the crisis of this pandemic, and applying them to the other crises, whether it be climate crisis, housing crisis, reconcilia­tion.”

The problem for Trudeau, however, is that his leadership and legacy have become entangled with all that turmoil Canadians have seen in their lives over the past six years.

The Liberal leader came to office in 2015 promising to be a disrupter, in a change-driven election, by the way. But the past six years have been more disruptive than anything he or his Liberals would have predicted, from Donald Trump’s election to a global pandemic.

Quite frankly, Canadians don’t know what a stable Trudeau government would look like, given that nearly all of its time in office was spent reacting to existentia­l crises.

Hence the Conservati­ves’ surely not accidental emphasis on security all through their platform — called “Secure the Future” — and their presentati­on of O’Toole as a stable dad from the suburbs who will ratchet down drama in Liberalled Ottawa.

Many times in the past, it hasn’t been hard to define elections as either about change or stability.

The 2015 campaign, as mentioned, was all about change from nine years of Stephen Harper. The 2011 election, coming after the global economic crash of 2008-09, was all about stability. Harper spent day after day on the campaign trail in 2011 unabashedl­y asking for a “strong, stable Conservati­ve majority.”

Trudeau, much to the puzzlement of many observers, has not been that clear or unapologet­ic about his desire for a majority. Why not say it, as Harper did in 2011? Why not pitch for predictabi­lity in an age of unpredicta­bility?

Perhaps the Liberal leader will make that argument in the closing days of the campaign, especially if polls show that O’Toole’s vision of change doesn’t fit with what voters in crucial, swing ridings see as a “secure future.”

No one will really know until after the votes are counted on Sept. 20 whether this pandemic election finds Canadians craving change or stability. Or maybe that will remain a mystery. After 18 months of massive upheaval in Canadians’ lives, no one could be blamed for being equally wary of the choice between a major change in course or things staying the same.

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 ?? SEAN KILPATRICK THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Hadrien Trudeau hides behind his parents, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau during a campaign stop Monday in Vancouver to meet with health-care workers.
SEAN KILPATRICK THE CANADIAN PRESS Hadrien Trudeau hides behind his parents, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau during a campaign stop Monday in Vancouver to meet with health-care workers.

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