OTTAWA—The kickoff of the 2019 federal election campaign saw the country collectively shrug while six party leaders threw themselves into a frenzy.
The past seven days had an unfocused feel, after a summer-long precampaign campaign of ads, government spending and politicians popping up everywhere on the barbecue circuit.
Now there was more of it. For politicians, so much more.
Plane trips. Bus trips. A bus trip into a plane.
Photo-ops with babies, schoolkids, parents, autoworkers, builders, clean tech entrepreneurs.
Selfies. Social media blitzes. Announcements. Promises. Speeches. Speeches interrupted by hecklers.
The first debate and a no-show. The Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau chose instead to campaign in Alberta while his main rivals met onstage in Toronto.
Then there was a surprise invitation to allow the People’s party Leader Maxime Bernier into the next one.
There were resignations, and runners — a Conservative candidate fled cameras.
Half-apologies by and for candidates (from all parties) who once posted racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim comments. Half-hearted defences of those who didn’t resign or, in the Liberals’ case in advance of the campaign, didn’t do so quickly enough. They were potentially damaging revelations meant to paint the competing leaders as unworthy because of the unsavoury company they keep. Or a backdrop that became the white noise of the early campaign.
We saw pep rallies that were all politics, and one that wasn’t, and shouldn’t have been: the Mississauga love-in for tennis champ Bianca Andreescu, the first Canadian to win the U.S. Open.
And we heard tepid responses to tragedy: the day after a group of shooters sprayed semi-automatic handgun fire in Mississauga and left a 17-year-old dead and five injured, none of the leaders wanted to talk about, or unveil, new tighter gun control measures.
Nobody had what you’d call real momentum. Nobody seized the imagination of voters.
New doubts about Trudeau’s commitment to transparency dogged him as the RCMP ran into a cabinet secrets roadblock in its SNC-Lavalin queries.
The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh surprised by exceeding low expectations in the debate and looked like the only one really having a blast out on the hustings. Singh rode the bus, seated behind reporters.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer scrummed at the back of his plane, and had an off-the-record drink with a handful of reporters.
Trudeau appeared briefly in the back of his plane, but avoided any unscripted encounter with media covering his tour. His campaign is disciplined, and taking little for granted.
Yet as Week 1 ended, the federal leaders and political operatives sharpened their messages and honed in on household budget challenges for a vast swath of Canadian voters — the (vaguely-defined) middle class, and families struggling to get ahead.
Scheer slapped a big proposal on the table, one his organizers feel is the showpiece of his first week.
Along with reviving tax credits first offered by Stephen Harper’s government for public transit, children’s fitness and arts programs, and boosting Ottawa’s contribution to RESPs to help cover university and college costs, Scheer pledged to bring in a universal tax cut — a campaign promise that echoed the simple appeal of Stephen Harper’s original GST cuts. Scheer says a Conservative government would reduce the income tax rate for the first $ 47,630 of income for all taxpayers, dropping it over time from 15 per cent to 13.75 per cent.
That means a big chunk of lost revenue for the government treasury, roughly about $ 6 billion less a year for government operations that will have to be found somewhere. Scheer dodged questions about how he’ll find the savings, saying only we should stay tuned for the full platform. The Liberals accuse him of having a hidden austerity agenda.
But it was a big play for voters who have been nurtured by the Liberals in government.
Trudeau travelled the country from centre to west to east and worked back again in the first week — the only federal leader to do so. The Conservatives say they’ll reach the east this week, what they consider the first real week of the campaign after a mid-week launch on Sept. 11.
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The Liberals sprinkled around promises for expanded aid for first-time homebuyers, especially in the hottest housing markets and political battlegrounds of Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria; pledged a national foreign “speculation” tax to deter non-resident owners, and lower or eliminated fees for small business owners.
Then he too dug into the “affordability” challenges of middle-class families, promising Monday to create 250,000 more child-care spaces for before- and after-school needs, and on Tuesday, Day 7, Trudeau upped a Conservative pledge to ease the tax burden on new parents.
Scheer had already pledged a non-refundable tax credit on maternity and parental EI benefits, to reduce the taxes of families at the end of the year. Trudeau says he’d make the benefits tax-free from the get-go. He’d give families the money when the cheque arrives in the mail.
Trudeau said the Liberals would boost the Canada Child Benefit payment by 15 per cent for families with children under the age of 1, and introduce a 15-week leave for adoptive parents — a move that will help gay and lesbian parents who often grow their families through adoption.
Yet the Liberals and the Conservatives didn’t own the conversation about the concerns of ordinary Canadians.
The New Democrats’ untested and cash-strapped leader, Singh, elbowed his way in, a happy warrior who stood before Quebecers suspicious of his turban with a Quebec-oriented suite of promises to respect distinctiveness and provincial autonomy.
And though Singh had already released the NDP election platform in June, well in advance of the election launch, he took to the road in Ontario and Quebec in a painted bus, touting pledges of universal pharmacare, dental and vision care, billions for affordable housing and big investments to tackle climate change, all paid for by going after the super rich.
Singh says the NDP will slap a new 1 per cent tax on wealth exceeding $ 20 million — a pledge that could bring in as much s $ 70 billion over a decade (as long as the superwealthy didn’t flee Canada or stash their money in offshore accounts).
Green party Leader Elizabeth May unveiled her ambitious platform with a wide range of promises, but it and its centrepiece — to double the cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and shift Canada to a renewable energy future — have no price tag yet. The parliamentary budget office, the independent agency that is assessing political platforms, is to provide its costing next week, says May.
The People’s party Leader Maxime Bernier counted a victory in being invited to attend the next official leaders’ debates.
Yet after a week of campaigning, national polls still showed a very tight race between Liberals and Conservatives, the NDP still well behind, and the Greens dipping slightly, with Bernier barely registering.
It was Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who until now stayed out of the federal campaign (denying Scheer asked him to do so), who capped the first week that was with the frankest political statement of all.
“No matter what government gets elected, it doesn’t matter who it is, we’re going to work well with them. And to be very frank, we’ve worked well so far with the Liberal government,” Ford told reporters at the Verner, Ont. plowing match. “We’ll work well with the Liberals moving forward or the Conservative government and we’re there focusing on Ontario and we’ll make sure that we work with them for instance on infrastructure projects.
“I don’t want to interfere in the federal election. I want them to go out there and have a good race and let the best party win.”