Hackneyed commentary about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic seemed inevitable last week with the simultaneous shuffling of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet and release of a poll showing the Liberals trailing the Pierre Poilievre-led Conservatives by double digits.
The shuffle itself was ho-hum, except perhaps for those closest to the action – the trio of ministers given the boot and the newbies getting their first shot at a cabinet post. The poll, on the other hand, was a bit of a shocker.
The unprecedented 10-point lead for the Conservatives comes with the usual caveats. The Abacus Data poll claims a margin of error of plus or minus two per cent 19 times out of 20, so there’s a slight possibility the poll could be wrong or a 50-50 chance the Conservative lead is only single digits.
But the numbers – 38 for the Conservatives, 28 for the Liberals and 18 for the NDP – are just slightly off those from Leger and Mainstreet, the only other federal horse race polls published in July. And they are consistent with most polling data going back many months.
But it’s not the numbers that are so dumbfounding, it’s the timing of the survey and what it reveals about the political landscape. The survey was conducted between July 20 and 25. Smoke from hundreds of Canadian wildfires was covering much of North America. Southern Europe and the U.S. were experiencing devastating heat waves. And Nova Scotia was flooded by torrential rains.
Nevertheless, a mere 28 per cent of those taking part in the Abacus survey identified climate change and the environment as one of their top three concerns. They judged the economy, housing and health care to be ahead of climate change in importance, while “the rising cost of living” was by far the top issue, chosen by 72 per cent of respondents.
Results like those will no doubt have the climate action deniers (CADs, if you will) atop the Conservative party doing high fives. Not only do they have no climate policy of their own, they are gleefully attacking carbon pricing and the clean fuel standard, centrepieces of what passes for Liberal climate policy. And based on the Abacus poll, current public opinion indicates Conservatives are on the right track to political success, destructive as that may be.
While Trudeau was fiddling with his cabinet, Poilievre was doing a series of “Axe the Tax” rallies in northern Ontario. On Thursday he was in Sault Ste. Marie. There he blamed carbon pricing for the rising cost of living, while stigmatizing those concerned with the environmental impact of extractive industries like oil and gas. As reported in the Globe and Mail, Poilievre declared that Canada’s resource economy “is under attack by hard-left woke ideologues that are determined to destroy the livelihoods of our workers.”
Apparently, the only thing heating as fast as our climate is the rhetoric of demagogues intent on preventing any corrective action.
It’s truly sobering to realize that in a summer during which climate chaos dominated the news, a party committed to reversing one of this country’s few climate action initiatives is increasing its lead in the polls. Unless the chaos gets way worse very soon – and nobody wants that – it seems that Canadians’ desire for change, combined with politics as usual, will put that party in power.
On the question of change, it has become a largely unexamined assumption in this country that after a certain number of years voters will vote rationally for change for the sake of change. After three elections it is deemed only natural that it’s time for a change from Justin Trudeau and his gang. This conventional wisdom seems to be having strong influence in the current political context.
According to the Abacus poll, an impressive number of Canadians – eight in ten – want a change in government. Of those, five in ten feel there are good alternatives to the Liberals, with three of those five seeing the Conservatives as the good alternative, and only one in five choosing the NDP. Hence the current Conservative lead, which according to some projections, could produce a Conservative majority hell bent to “Axe the Tax.”
If that majority happens, it would be thanks to politics as usual in the shape of “first past the post”, the outdated electoral system that Trudeau promised in 2015 to fix, then didn’t. Philippe Fournier’s 338 Canada, based on a compilation of polling data, gives the Conservatives, at 37 per cent in the polls, a 90 per cent chance of winning the most seats and a 39 per cent chance of achieving an outright majority with 170 seats. The Liberals, NDP and Greens, despite a combined 52 per cent support in the latest compilation, are projected to win only 152 seats between them.
We can likely expect that before the election the Conservatives will do what they’ve done before and concoct some flimflam green plan that will do nothing to reduce fossil fuel emissions. But the party’s base is in oil and gas producing provinces and rural Canada, and winning an election means attracting more support from commuter-heavy suburban ridings. Poilievre may need to tone down the polarizing rhetoric – if he can – but don’t expect any serious climate action from a government he leads.
About the only positive in all of this is time – we are two years away from the next election. It’s probably too late to get rid of first past the post, but the Conservatives may lose momentum, destined once again for opposition. In the meantime, however, the parties that recognize the climate emergency should not leave that to chance – they must respond to the Conservative challenge by changing the way they do business.
The supply and confidence agreement between the Liberals and the NDP has demonstrated that the two parties can work together in Parliament to achieve specific goals. It’s time to extend that co-operation to the hustings, temporarily giving up on politics as usual to work at the riding level to defeat as many Conservatives as possible. If successful in doing that, the parties would then co-operate in Parliament to reform the electoral system.
These are not new ideas. In 2012, when both the Liberals and the NDP were choosing new leaders, the platforms of serious candidates in both parties proposed co-operation to defeat the Harper Conservatives. More than a decade later, climate chaos and the emergence of Poilievre make the need for co-operation much more urgent.