Opinion: Not wanting election isn’t the same as not being ready for one

Justin Trudeau said this week that he is “certainly” not looking to provoke a snap election in the near future.

But that doesn’t mean the Liberals have pushed all thoughts of an election to the back burner. Unwanted is not the same as unready, and the governing party appears to be making sure that it has its act together in case it has to go back on the campaign trail sooner rather than later. How soon remains a political guessing game in Ottawa, though few Liberals expect an election to be kicked off before the end of this year.

Trudeau’s government has been busy in recent days, though, ticking off boxes next to promises left over from the last election campaign. In addition, the prime minister has been doing some virtual politicking, as the Liberal election machine gets some adjustments for pandemic times.

Twice this week, cabinet ministers have gone before the cameras to do a little followup on leftover to-do items from previous Liberal campaign platforms – both related to Indigenous people. Both had firm deadlines.

On Thursday, Justice Minister David Lametti and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett announced new legislation to bring this country’s laws in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

That act had been specifically promised “before the end of 2020” and that day is looming, regardless of the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced with regret that the government could not meet its promise to end all boil-water advisories in communities across Canada by 2021, though he stressed the government wasn’t abandoning the goal altogether.

This isn’t the only deadline from the Liberal platform that the Trudeau government isn’t going to meet, however.

The election promise to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 – which was supposed to come in force by 2020 – has fallen by the wayside and didn’t make it into this week’s big economic statement.

So too has the promise to double the annual payments made to parents with disabled children, which was supposed to happen “immediately” after the Liberals won re-election.

Spokespersons for the government say these items haven’t been scrapped forever and may turn up among the other items pushed over for consideration in next year’s budget.

But a glance back at the 2019 Liberal election platform, which was titled “Forward,” is like viewing a time capsule from another era. The title now seems oddly prescient. Little did the Liberal platform writers realize how much forward they were going to have to push some of their ambitions of 2019, thanks to the unwelcome disruption of 2020.

Fundraising, candidate searches and all the other normal election-readiness activities are reportedly still under way – including major improvements in digital campaigning – though it’s expected that total contributions to the Liberals will be well down from the $20 million raised in the 2019 election year.

Party spokesperson Braeden Caley says the party has conducted nearly one million volunteer calls since May and has had 10,000 volunteers active throughout this past year. He also points to the two Toronto byelection wins in October as evidence that the pandemic hasn’t dulled Liberal campaign skills.

As well, Caley adds, the party continues to set new highs for the numbers of active monthly donors.

Trudeau, meanwhile, has also been quietly been getting out on the road – the online road – practising the art of cyberspace campaigning.

On Wednesday night, he and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland did two “virtual town hall” meetings with Liberals; one in English, one in French. Party officials weren’t saying exactly how many people actually tuned in, but more than 6,000 questions were sent in advance, according to Caley.

Many of the questions that made it to the broadcast were related to COVID-19, naturally, and Trudeau and Freeland used the forum to talk up highlights of the economic statement released earlier in the week.

The best moment, though, was in reply to an entirely non-pandemic query about favourite punk rock bands. Trudeau doesn’t much like punk music, it turns out, and Freeland doesn’t know much about music at all.

The deputy prime minister recounted how her sister packed her off to university several decades ago with a cassette tape of then-current music and instructions to study it, so Freeland could disguise how “uncool” she was and maybe meet some new friends.

She didn’t, alas, say how that worked out. No one would describe this week’s virtual town hall as cool – and the Trudeau-Freeland duo may have lost the votes of some punk rock fans.

But it was a sign that Liberals are trying to keep current – and maybe even cool – with how to make new friends in a pandemic and mindful that even unwanted elections demand campaign readiness.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.

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