Trudeau denies it, but signs point to early election in Canada

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OTTAWA — Covid-19 cases are down in Canada and some are interpreting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cross-country travel this week as a surefire sign of an imminent election.

Trudeau’s whistle stop in Calgary on Wednesday started with a blunt question from RED FM host Rishi Nagar, who noted the prime minister’s back-to-back pit stops in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to make a C$420-million funding announcement to help Algoma Steel phase out coal and create jobs.

“All this shows that you are in an election campaign mode,” Nagar said. Trudeau rejected the characterization.

“Actually, it doesn’t. It shows that we are getting things done,” Trudeau said in this first in-studio interview in 16 months. “I've been taking advantage of the fact that our case loads are now lower that people are getting vaccinated, to be able to travel a little bit more and make the announcements on things that we've been working on for many, many months.”

Nearly 78 percent of eligible Canadians have so far received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Forty-four percent are fully vaccinated. Growing in parallel to Canada’s vaccination rates is speculation about the timing of a federal election — and anxiety over how it could be as early as late summer.

Political watchers have been viewing everything through an election lens: the return of Trudeau's clean-shaven look, inflation climbing to its highest rate in a decade, the anticipated timing of the Canada-U.S. border reopening, a free one-time check for seniors timed for the week of Aug. 16, an increased number of in-person funding announcements, and, according to former Liberal strategist David Herle, the fact Liberal MPs have been nudged to take their vacations in July.

The country’s attention is split. Many in Canada are focused on securing second doses and family reunions, grief over the discovery of more than 1,000 remains in unmarked graves on the grounds of former Indian residential schools, and the extreme heat that saw hundreds of “sudden and unexpected deaths” in the western province of British Columbia, triggering renewed focus to climate change.

On Thursday, the prime minister’s plane landed in British Columbia where he announced a new C$3.2-billion agreement with the province to cut child care fees in half by the end of 2022.

“We're making your life easier and more affordable,” Trudeau said in the campaign-style announcement. He said the agreement would see the creation of 30,000 high-quality spaces over the next five years. “This is what it means to be a feminist government.”

Trudeau is teasing news about the promise of a national child care and early learning system. It’s an anticipated update to a marquee proposal from this year’s federal budget that will have the attention of parents across the country, especially in vote-rich southern Ontario where there are 45 seats to be won. Annual child care costs in Toronto are the country’s highest, topping C$21,000, according to the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives.

“I'm very much looking forward to making big announcements on child care in the coming weeks,” Trudeau said Wednesday.

Trudeau wields power in a minority government, which means he needs the support of opposition parties to pass legislation. As prime minister, it also means he has the power to call an election.

Recent polls have placed the Liberals in single to double-digit leads, throwing open a window for Trudeau to dissolve Parliament in an attempt to turn his minority government — which has been functioning throughout the pandemic — into a majority.

The next fixed election date is Oct. 16, 2023. But under Canada’s constitutional monarchy system, the prime minister can request to dissolve Parliament at any time to trigger an election. For an incumbent government, that ability to choose a date and prepare is an advantage.

“For the Liberals, it's the question of whether the current trends will hold into the fall,” veteran polls analyst Éric Grenier told POLITICO. Grenier, who recently launched The Writ, said Liberals will have to take stock of the political environment as the pandemic subsides.

The longer the Liberals wait, the more they risk squandering the opportunity to take advantage of the Conservatives’ polling numbers, which Grenier said are lower than those pulled by former leader Andrew Scheer in the lead up to the 2019 federal election.

“There are also some municipal elections in fall, that could complicate things,” Grenier said. “I don't think that would be enough necessarily to prevent them from calling an election.”

Conservatives lead with confirmed candidates

Having a full or nearly complete roster of candidates confirmed in all 338 federal ridings either before an election call or within the first two weeks of the campaign also helps. The notable exception is the Bloc Québécois, a Québec nationalist party that only runs candidates in the seat-rich province’s 78 ridings.

There is a legal cap for the length of federal elections in Canada. They can range from a minimum of 36 days or a maximum of 50. Candidates can be nominated weeks into a campaign, but a shorter election risks less face time with voters.

POLITICO’s survey of federal parties’ recruitment efforts so far reveals the Liberals have more work to do to fill a full slate of candidates.

The federal Conservatives lead with 230 official candidates confirmed as of Tuesday. The Liberals follow with 184 candidates, the New Democrats are next with 95 candidates nominated and the Bloc Québécois have 37 confirmed. The federal Greens have nominated 38 candidates.

Should a snap vote be called, a spokesperson for Elections Canada, the independent agency responsible for administering elections, told POLITICO they’re ready to go.

“We are confident at this time that we will be able to deliver a relatively safe election,” spokesperson Natasha Gauthier said, reflecting on the agency’s experience administering two federal by-elections in Toronto earlier this year.

The results of five provincial and territorial elections provide a hopeful trend for Trudeau’s minority government. Elections in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador produced majority governments for incumbents. Yukon’s election ended in a draw between the Yukon Party and the incumbent provincial Liberals.

Though the Covid situation may vary province to province and between local regions, Gauthier said masks and physical distancing will be required at every polling station. Another small anticipated change for those who show up in-person at the pandemic polls: single-use pencils will be offered to electors who don’t bring their own.

Gauthier said the “easiest and most straightforward” way to vote is in person. But Elections Canada is readying for a bump in demand for voting by mail, forecast by the pandemic voting trends seen in the United States, by looking to hire more staff to count ballots.

“It’s a longer process, you have to open the envelope, you have to check your envelopes, you have to open the envelopes,” Gauthier said. Unlike the U.S., automatic ballot-counting machines are not used in Canada. Every vote is counted by hand.

Changing election speculation seasons

Election speculation has been simmering since January after a winter Cabinet shuffle was interpreted by some as a sign of the government jostling toward a campaign. That cloud of speculation has moved from spring to late summer and fall.

Trudeau has been sending hot and cold messages about his desire for an election. He has repeatedly said his focus is on the pandemic, not an election — but also floated that Parliament could use a hard reset.

“We’re in a minority parliament right now and that means working together,” said Trudeau after making an affordable housing announcement last week in an Ottawa suburb. He decried the “toxicity” and “obstructionism” that threatened his government’s agenda a week earlier, despite working with opposition parties to pass legislation approving record pandemic spending.

When a reporter asked the prime minister to commit to not calling an election before the House of Commons’ scheduled return on Sept. 20, Trudeau dodged the question — fueling further election speculation.

What history portends

The Liberals under Trudeau first came into power in 2015 with a majority government, knocking some incumbent Conservative Cabinet ministers out of their ridings. The Liberals painted all of Atlantic Canada red.

Trudeau was re-elected in 2019 with a weakened minority government. Conservatives broke through to win seats in Atlantic Canada and wiped out the Liberals in the prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

By law, the date of federal elections in Canada are fixed on a four-year cycle, but a general vote can be triggered anytime in between. Another way an election can be launched is if the federal government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons.

Election speculation has ramped up because of history: minority governments typically do not last long. The Library of Parliament has explained this phenomenon: minority governments don’t last four years “because they are defeated on a major policy issue, or because the governing or opposition parties believe that they have a good chance of winning an election and therefore precipitate one.”

The life cycle of a minority Parliament typically lasts 18-24 months in Canada.

New governor general makes history

The appointment of Mary Simon as Canada’s new governor general on Tuesday cleared an obstacle if the government has its sights set on an election. Simon, an Inuk leader and former diplomat, is the country’s first Indigenous person to serve in the role.

Eyes are now on Trudeau if one of his first asks to the new governor general will be a request to dissolve Parliament, which would trigger Canada’s next federal election.

Simon and Trudeau tempered election speculation Tuesday, telling reporters they have yet to discuss an election in their conversations so far.

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