Liberal mid-term troubles bring back same old political landscape

As the federal Liberal government marks its second anniversary it appears at least some of the bloom is off the Trudeau rose. Several national polls actually have the Liberals neck-and-neck with the Conservatives. The CBC’s Poll Tracker aggregation, updated Oct. 17, had the Liberals slightly ahead, but down ten points from their standing a year ago.

The drop-off in support extends to the Atlantic Region, where Poll Tracker finds a similar ten-point drop from this time last year, albeit from a much higher starting point. Despite the decline in popularity, Poll Tracker still has the Liberals more than 20 points ahead of the second place Conservatives in the Atlantic Region. Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates (CRA) found an even wider margin of support for the Liberals over the Conservatives – 39 points – in its latest quarterly survey.

But the CRA polling was completed before the uproar over Energy East and tax reform hit critical mass. Those issues were particularly hot in New Brunswick, where opposition to the proposed changes to small business taxation led to the first public crack in the region’s solid Liberal wall.

Saint John MP Wayne Long got his knuckles rapped for supporting an opposition motion calling for more consultation on the reforms. The Liberals followed up that mild punishment up with some regional troubleshooting, dispatching the Finance minister to Saint John this week to announce a retreat on the passive income part of the tax reform package. Although there are plenty of other reasons – the health deal and the stagnant regional economy chief among them[1] – that foray into damage control suggests the Liberals see a connection between the dip in the polls and the tax reform brouhaha.

Trying to attribute a drop in popularity to any particular issue is a mug’s game. However, the mid-term polls indicate an interruption in what looked a year ago like an inevitable Liberal parade to re-election in 2019. The tightening polls also provide the cue for a resumption of talk about vote splitting and strategic voting.

Singh factor

So far, the Conservatives are the default beneficiaries of Liberal ineptness. But there is also the Jagmeet Singh factor. According to several reports his election three weeks ago to lead the NDP pleased Conservative strategists who expect his appeal to ethnic and suburban voters in Toronto and British Columbia will take center-left support from the Liberals and help elect Conservatives. A poll by Angus Reid, conducted two weeks after Singh’s victory, may bear this out. It shows the NDP creeping up to 18% and the Liberals and Conservatives in a tie.

Liberals were quick to buy into the Singh-as-spoiler scenario, telling the Hill Times that “the Jagmeet Singh-led New Democrats would ‘siphon off’ a significant chunk of votes from them in the 2019 election, creating three-way races across the country that would be a ‘double whammy’ for the ruling party trying to hold off the Conservatives, and, at the minimum, could reduce them to a minority government.”

Should that potential scenario continue to show up in the polls we will cursed by the same phenomenon that has often dogged federal politics ever since the Progressive Conservatives were replaced by the current noxious brand 20 years ago: strategic voting to keep the latter from getting in – or in the case of Stephen Harper’s government, getting back in – with 30-something per cent of the vote.

Harper’s replacement, the socially-conservative Andrew Scheer, seems like a more personable sort. But the leadership campaign he won narrowly over an avowed libertarian suggests that the federal party has moved further to the right.

The unfortunate part is that the Liberals had both the campaign commitment and the opportunity to fix the problem of polarization and vote splitting through electoral reform. They chose not to. Failing to convince anyone to support the type of reform they wanted, they abandoned the whole project. It would serve them right if voters remembered that betrayal and acted accordingly the next time the Liberals come looking for their strategic vote to keep out the scary Conservatives.

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[1] As I wrote in a First Anniversary piece a year ago:

“It is quite possible that Liberal support has nowhere to go but down. Trudeau’s threat to impose a carbon price and the negative reaction from Liberal governments in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland may cost support, especially in rural areas. If the Liberals fail to deliver something more on health transfers for the next fiscal year provincial Liberal governments in the region may finally be forced to take a strong stand. And if the economy continues in the doldrums, voters may stop blaming the price of oil and focus some of their concern on a federal government that has no plan for economic development in this region beyond Scott Brison photo ops and recruitment of a few hundred well-heeled immigrants some time in the future.”

It may be that those issues are having some impact on political preferences but given their scant coverage compared with the flood of reporting on tax reform (and to a lesser extent Energy East) it is a better guess to place the drop off in Liberal support there.

 

About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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