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JIM VIBERT: Trends running against Trudeau Liberals, eyes on Newfoundland and Labrador vote

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney during a meeting in Trudeau’s office on Parliament Hill on Thursday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney during a meeting in Trudeau’s office on Parliament Hill on Thursday.

A Tory upset in Newfoundland would leave just three Liberal governments in all the land — in Nova Scotia, the Yukon and the feds — where just two years ago there were nine

Every province has its own issues, political culture and dynamics, so looking for national voting trends in provincial elections is a bit of a mug’s game.

At least that’s what Liberals keep telling themselves along with anyone within hailing distance as they ponder the disappearance of four Liberal provincial governments inside of 12 months. 

While they’re correct that a provincial vote does not necessarily predict a federal vote, there’s another trend in those provincial results that’s much harder for Grits to dismiss. That’s the trend against incumbent governments who’ve gone oh-for-five over the same period. Three of those incumbent provincial governments were turfed after just one term, a fate that awaits Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals unless they can turn it around before Canadians vote in October.

There is a sense of unease in the land. It is rooted in economic or environmental anxiety, and it threatens to squeeze the Liberals from both the right and the left.

Next Wednesday, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can end the Liberals’ losing streak and, at the same time, get incumbents off the schneid by re-electing Dwight Ball’s government. But Ches Crosbie’s Tories are giving the NL Liberals all they can handle and, while Ball’s still favoured, close observers say it’s a tight race.

Ches, of course, is a scion of the famous Newfoundland family and eldest son of former federal cabinet minister John Crosbie. He was rejected as a federal Conservative candidate in 2015 by Stephen Harper’s team, who refused to say why. The speculation at the time was that there were some Conservative snouts out of joint in Ottawa over Ches’s role in a satirical twist on a Shakespearean play. Ches reportedly played McHarper.

A Tory upset in Newfoundland would leave just three Liberal governments in all the land — in Nova Scotia, the Yukon and the feds — where just two years ago there were nine. But again, even as the Liberal brand seems to be waning, Trudeau’s national campaign team needs to be at least as concerned about the anti-incumbency trend.

The federal Liberals’ slide in the polls, and the damage to Trudeau’s personal popularity began with, and accelerated through, the SNC-Lavalin affair, but as the controversy fades from national attention, there’s still no sign of recovery for the Liberals.

An Abacus Data survey of 4,015 Canadians conducted in the last week of April found that the coalition that swept the Liberals to power just four years ago has fractured. Abacus found that barely half (51 per cent) of Canadians who voted Liberal in 2015 now believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 30 per cent of past Liberal voters think it’s on the wrong track.

Overall, just one in three Canadians feels that the country is heading in the right direction and 45 per cent say it’s not. If there’s any doubt about the volatility of the electorate, consider that when this election year began, those numbers were reversed.

So, while Liberals can trace their precipitous fall in the polls to the SNC-Lavalin controversy, they are kidding themselves if they believe they will naturally recover as the affair fades from memory.

The Liberals’ historic advantage — owning the centre in Canadian politics — may be less advantageous in our increasingly polarized political climate.

The Conservatives own the right, with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party just nipping at some of that support on the extreme right.

On the left, the NDP are stuck at about 17 per cent of voter support nationally, but the Green Party, fresh off a byelection win in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, is polling in the double-digits in Atlantic Canada and Quebec, where the Liberals need to win big if they have any hope of retaining power. The Greens’ strength in British Columbia also threatens to cut into the Liberals’ hold on 17 seats on the left coast.

Voters who are most concerned about so-called affordability issues — 57 per cent according to Abacus — are receptive to the Conservatives anti-carbon tax policy. And voters who identify climate change and the environment as their primary concern — roughly one quarter of the electorate — are dissatisfied with the Liberal government’s modest progress on that file.

Just five months ago, the federal Liberals appeared headed for certain re-election, and five months hence they could be right back there.

But with a tarnished brand and leader, with economic and environmental anxiety on the rise, and with more Canadians then ever before willing to consider a non-traditional alternative, like the Greens, reassembling the progressive coalition that took them to power in 2015 will be a formidable task.

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

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