Justin Trudeau apparently views the prospect of a fall election in the same way he views COVID-19 – as something to be avoided at all costs, but not feared.
For a moment on Wednesday, the prime minister got carried away with his own enthusiasm for democracy, giving a spirited defence of Canada’s ability to juggle a pandemic with the logistics of an election campaign.
“We want to see our democracy thrive not in spite of difficult circumstances, but because of difficult circumstances,” Trudeau said.
“I think it’s a little irresponsible to be talking about recklessness when it comes to elections. We all should have tremendous confidence in Elections Canada to be able to bring forward strong measures to keep us safe and allow for the expression of the democratic will of the people.”
When Canadian Press reporter Joan Bryden pointed out that this sounded an awful lot like an endorsement of a fall election, Trudeau abruptly changed tacks.
“I do not want an election. I don’t think Canadians want an election,” Trudeau said, insisting he was just standing up for the idea of it, not the imminent implementation of one.
All he meant to say, he insisted, was “if there has to be an election, we’ll figure it out.”
It may be true that we can “figure it out.”
New Brunswick did, as the prime minister pointed out, and Saskatchewan will do the same in a few weeks. So will the United States this fall, somehow.
Trudeau surely hasn’t missed the fact that New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs turned his minority government into a majority in this week’s provincial election – something that Trudeau would certainly like to do, too.
But if “figuring it out” goes anything like the constantly evolving calculations on reopening Parliament next week, the process would be long, complicated and uncertain. Pandemics tend to take the snap out of a snap election, or even the much less complicated choreography of a throne speech.
Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet have each been hit in the past few days with positive COVID-19 tests in their immediate circles. Both are now forced to hunker down in isolation that guarantees Parliament won’t be resuming in any condition close to normal next week.
That makes the House of Commons a perfect mirror of what’s going on in the larger country this September – the strong desire for return to normalcy colliding with the harsh reality of a virus that seems to be on the upswing again.
It’s also a reminder that pandemics, like elections, are extremely democratic: Everyone gets a vote, and everyone can catch a coronavirus.
Trudeau went through his forced isolation at the outset of the pandemic in March; now it’s two opposition leaders who are similarly confined to doing their work virtually.
In normal times, Trudeau would have been accused of crass cynicism if he tried to engineer an election so soon after the Conservatives chose a new leader. The prime minister might have weathered that criticism, even in a pandemic.
But add the new reality of two rivals literally locked down in self-isolation and there’s no way to call that a responsible – or fair – way to plunge the country into another election, less than a year after the last one.
Even if one assumes that Trudeau did have election prospects dancing in his head when he prorogued Parliament last month, setting himself up for a confidence vote, there’s no question that things have changed since then.
The lofty declarations about the throne speech “building back better” have recently given way to a flood of Liberals dampening expectations.
Now, it’s more like “getting ready to build back better at some unspecified date in 2021,” which makes a very lousy title for a throne speech – or an election platform, for that matter.
We have finally stumbled onto a set of numbers that are even more compelling to government strategists than poll figures, if anyone is contemplating the odds of an election.
Reasonably healthy opinion standings for the Trudeau Liberals fade sharply in comparison to the unhealthy COVID-19 numbers now coming in daily from across the country.
Any Liberals dreaming of the magic 40 per cent needed to win a majority government need only glance at the increasing numbers of people lining up for COVID-19 tests in Ottawa and other hot spots this week.
“Weíll figure it out” is not really a plan – for an election or a second wave of COVID-19. That probably tells us that Trudeau has decided that any prospects for a fall campaign, like the coronavirus, need to be contained.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.