Jagmeet Singh touts affordable housing during a campaign stop at the Coast Bastion Hotel in Nanaimo on Sept. 26, 2019. (Nicholas Pescod/NEWS BULLETIN)

Spotlight on B.C.: Setting the agenda on key election issues

The latest in our four-part series looks at climate change’s role in the Oct. 21 vote

By Bruce Cameron

Former federal Conservative leader and PM-for-a-minute Kim Campbell once said, “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.”

That quote came to epitomize her ill-fated 1993 campaign, which saw a 156-seat Conservative majority reduced to just two seats, neither of which was her riding of Vancouver Centre.

Campbell claimed her words had been taken out of context, and what she meant to say was that 43 days is not enough time to resolve complex issues. The clarification fell flat, but that episode highlights the tricky task facing all party leaders in 2019: articulating their visions on the campaign trail.

As American Democratic Party pollster Stanley Greenberg recently said: “Those who figure out what the fight is actually about are able to set the agenda and motivate voters to get involved and choose a side.”

So what is Canada’s 2019 election campaign all about? Are voters motivated by pocketbook issues, such as taxes and the economy, or will they focus on character and look to elect their preferred prime minister? My bet is that other more intangible issues, like dealing with climate change, will eventually decide the outcome.

Leadership

At the core of most campaigns is the image and name of the leader, and polling suggests the Conservatives are struggling.

Even during the Liberals’ worst days of the campaign so far, polling showed the Liberal vote dropped by a few percentage points, but the preference for Justin Trudeau over Andrew Scheer remained.

Leadership-based elections, such as the 2015 vote that focused on defeating Harper, revolve around assessments of “character.” But do the Trudeau blackface incidents speak to Canadians about his alleged hypocrisy, as the Conservative attack ads claim? Not according to the polling data.

Motivation

The Conservative Party of Canada could not have hoped for a more embarrassing revelation, because it ties into a central part of their election strategy: to keep the Liberal turnout low and motivate their own base. If the CPC gets out the same level of vote as in 2015, but Liberal turnout is lower by about 10 per cent, Scheer wins.

Yet three out of four Canadians surveyed recently by Abacus Data said they were content with Trudeau’s apology or didn’t care about the issue and wanted to move on. Of the one-quarter who felt it was unacceptable, most of them were already Conservative supporters.

So a majority of Canadians want to “turn the page” and move on to other issues.

Party platforms

This election offers a clear choice in platforms and policies, but only two parties can realistically form government: the Conservatives and the Liberals.

The CPC has stressed the importance of personal advancement, while the Liberals have framed the vote as a collective choice about which direction we want to go.

Is the 2019 election about you getting ahead?

Or is it about choosing a direction for the country?

The economy

So far, the message about Canadians needing to get ahead is resonating in some parts of the country where the economy has struggled, like Alberta. But in B.C., where the provincial economy has been quite strong, that message gets a mixed reaction.

Yes, cost of living is a concern for everyone, especially in a fast-growing economy with very high housing costs, but those concerns have declined over the past few years in B.C.

So in this crucial battleground, the outcome on Oct. 21 will likely be decided less on economic issues and more on a host of other intangibles.

It’s the environment, not the economy or Trudeau

In most polling conducted so far, the environment sits at the top of voter concerns, in some cases mentioned by twice as many Canadians as economic concerns.

Yet many analysts, to their detriment, try to explain away the high number of unprompted mentions of environmental concerns as an aberration.

In B.C., the environment is intimately tied with the economy and never far from the top of any conversation among voters. Its importance partially explains the early rise of Green Party support here at the federal and provincial levels.

Thus, once the page is turned on the blackface incident, all parties will have to face the challenge of crafting a credible environmental plan.

Climate strikes, school walkouts and the instant celebrity of advocates like Swedish 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg suggest we may have reached a tipping point in public consciousness. If so, how each party intends to tackle climate change could in fact decide who governs Canada.

If an election is actually a time to discuss serious issues, how much more serious can you get than the future of the planet?

Read the first piece in our Spotlight series: How will B.C. affect the federal election?

Bruce Cameron, Black Press Media’s polling analyst, is the founder of Return On Insight. Follow him on Twitter @roitweets

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