Canadians face down a tumultuous fall

As the days gradually get shorter and the breeze cooler, Canadians are returning from their summer vacations to find a much-changed political scene and revved up election speculation.

The governing Liberals spent the early part of the summer wrestling with a formidable ethical scandal that derailed an otherwise strong spring. Their puzzling decision to give a $900-million student aid grant to a high-profile charity best known for celebrity-led youth gatherings, despite the organization’s lack of capacity to deliver the program, spun out into a full-blown crisis when the Prime Minister and Finance Minister’s personal ties to the group hit the headlines. In quick succession, the grant was cancelled and the Ethics Commissioner launched an investigation. The fallout continued into August as the embattled Finance Minister resigned and the Prime Minister shut down Parliament until September 23.

The Conservatives, currently sitting in Official Opposition, also had an active summer. Their leadership race was suspended in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, and in late August Erin O’Toole pulled off an underdog win to lead the party. The eight-year veteran of federal politics is now busily laying out a kinder, gentler Conservative narrative for voters. His message that Conservatives care about ordinary Canadians left behind by the Liberals’ elite global trade agenda will likely find an audience as families grapple with pandemic job loss and unprecedented financial insecurity.

Canada’s social democrats (the New Democratic Party) are well-positioned as the dust settles from this summer’s fights. Leader Jagmeet Singh spent the summer laying out a series of carefully crafted demands for expanded supports for Canadians, from investments in child care to overhauling employment insurance and fixing Canada’s dire long-term care crisis. New Democrats have also been tending to party matters, and fundraising numbers are higher than they’ve been outside of an election year since 2015.

The Liberals are betting the house on a bold Throne Speech that will launch a green economic recovery plan. Rumours of massive spending are swirling in Ottawa, and the government is practically daring Conservatives to call for fiscal restraint. While the official line is that the Liberals don’t want an election, everything points to a high-stakes showdown when the House resumes sitting at the end of September.

The New Democrats are the Liberal’s most likely dance partner in this minority government, creating an opportunity for Singh to extract significant concessions from the Liberals – and a better social safety net for Canadians living through the Covid-19 crisis. Should things go the other way, Singh’s polling numbers have been steadily creeping up all summer, and the party has made it clear that they are not afraid to go to an election if necessary.

With the Conservatives now shifting their narrative to “helping regular people”, and the Liberals setting up for historic investments in social programs, this fall’s political debates may well take place on the political terrain where New Democrats are strongest. If voters are asked to choose who they trust most to deliver the help Canadians need during this crisis, there’s every reason to think that New Democrats will be top of mind.

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