Terry Prone: Take a look behind you in the polls before you go demonising your opposition

Canada's PM and Fianna Fáil are belatedly realising the bogeyman trope doesn't work. Oh, and spoiler alert — no electorate is ever grateful for your achievements in government
Terry Prone: Take a look behind you in the polls before you go demonising your opposition

The one bright moment in Justin Trudeau's election campaign came when he responded robustly to an anti-vaxx protestor who uttered disgusting sexist epithets about the Canadian prime minister's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. Picture: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press/AP

Today, around about lunchtime in this country, early-bird Canadian voters will start the process of selecting their next government, and in the process making a statement about prime minister Justin Trudeau that will be significant for his career.

They’re going to the polls despite the fact that their last election was only in 2019, leaving the current government with roughly two years to go, had Trudeau not decided to call a snap election just over a month ago.

Prime ministers sometimes call snap elections long before they theoretically have to, because they long for a “strong mandate”.

Let's all learn from Theresa May. No, really

Two recent British prime ministers who may have regretted going to the country — Theresa May who sought a renewed majority (the electorate told her to take a running jump) and her predecessor David Cameron who committed to the Brexit referendum. File picture
Two recent British prime ministers who may have regretted going to the country — Theresa May who sought a renewed majority (the electorate told her to take a running jump) and her predecessor David Cameron who committed to the Brexit referendum. File picture

The UK’s Theresa May is the classic example. She had a majority and time on her hands, yet called an election to give the electorate the opportunity to affirm her Conservative government. The electorate told her to take a running jump. They nearly always do, because, unlike mainstream media, which loves the very idea of an election, the electorate doesn’t, and the electorate particularly doesn’t like a snap election called way before a government is due to finish its term. The electorate feels they gave a job to a bunch of politicians and those politicians should go off and do the job, not be coming back wanting a redefined job. 

The people who push for early elections tend to be close to the leader and pretty sure of gainful employment even if their predictions of triumph fail to come through. 

Theresa May’s two key advisers epitomise this syndrome. Other people who like early elections are those with safe seats, and those who want ministerial office and hope that some of the older holders of such offices will choose to retire rather than face the electorate one more time.

Having only a small majority in parliament, or no majority at all, can also be a precipitant. If you’re stuck in a coalition with few ministerial positions for your elected members and little capacity to deliver on what you promised the electorate last time around, it’s easy to convince yourself that kicking over the traces and asking the public for a “strong mandate” is the way to go. 

It looks as if this is what happened in Canada.

Oh, Canada

Trudeau’s Liberals hold 155 of the seats, the opposition 183, and 170 constitutes a majority. But, because the Liberals did relatively better than Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil did in our most recent general election, Trudeau is running a minority government, rather than a coalition or rainbow government.

The key difference is that a coalition starts with an agreed programme for government, into which all involved have bought, so passing legislation isn’t that hard, whereas Canada’s Liberals are dependent upon the support of opposition parties to pass any legislation and their leader decided he’d had enough of this constantly unstable situation, calling an election with the aim of adding at least 15 Liberal seats.

Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Canadian prime minister and Liberal leader seems not to have considered the direction his party's support has been going over the last two elections before calling today's election. Picture: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/AP
Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Canadian prime minister and Liberal leader seems not to have considered the direction his party's support has been going over the last two elections before calling today's election. Picture: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/AP

If that were achieved, a majority government would be in place. The problem is that the Liberal leader, in common with many politicians, seems to have looked at the figures, but not at the trends. If he had considered the trends, that might just have tempered his electoral enthusiasm a little.

Trudeau considered the figures, but not the trends

The first election he won in 2015 gave Trudeau a majority. The second, in 2019, gave him a minority. See the trend? He didn’t. Which led him to an election campaign wherein opinion polls show the 49-year old’s rockstar status going down the tubes right across the electoral landscape. But Trudeau, in calling the snap election, seems to have bought into another woeful trope. Let’s call it the  Bogeyman Trope.

Fianna Fáil, doing a little self-examination, have rightly identified one of their counter-productive habits as painting Sinn Féin as bogey-people. Those in Fianna Fáil who came up with this are right. Leading Government politicians feel great when they throw shade at Sinn Féin, but it actually doesn’t work. At all.

Demonising your opposition doesn't work

Constantly turning the spotlight on Sinn Féin runs counter to every principle of good communication, but those who do it can’t break the habit because of the instant gratification, followed by the virile headlines. They miss the damn-all-results part.

Over in Canada, Trudeau and his Liberals have been doing the same thing to the main opposition party, the Conservatives; demonising them. They’ve been trying to terrify the electorate with the prospect that the new leader of the Conservatives, Erin O’Toole, ex-air force officer, ex-corporate lawyer, would be a dangerous right-winger on social issues. The only problem with that was when the new guy (a year younger than Trudeau) responded to the snap election being called by stating his support for LGBT rights and his pro-choice stance on abortion. He’s also gone to considerable trouble to make trade unions less fearful of and hostile to his party. Last week, he was neck-and-neck with the prime minister in the polls.

The Bogeyman Trope has failed, as has the Liberals’ campaign slogan, which is so boring in the generality of its liberal goodwill, it might have been dreamed up by a comedian as a parody. “Forward — For Everyone,” it dully exhorts. 

Don't expect gratitude from the electorate

Things look quite different today from how they looked when the election was called. Canada’s management of the pandemic might have been expected to serve Trudeau’s party. That they’ve had roughly — and proportionately — only as many deaths as Ireland may have led the prime minister to believe Canadians would be grateful and appreciative. Spoiler alert: No electorate is ever grateful and appreciative. 

In addition, as soon as the election was called, Covid infection rates went up 25% and the death rate by 66%, pulling the rug right out from under pandemic management as a good government claim.

All of this has encouraged the anti-vaxxers who are disrupting Trudeau’s public appearances, which they have done to such effect that within the last week, an election rally had to be cancelled for safety reasons. Trudeau tried to be empathetic about it: 

Those folks out protesting, they had a difficult year too, and I know and I hear the anger, the frustration, perhaps the fear.

In so saying, he perpetuated another error frequently made by politicians, which is to believe that voters will be mollified by a statement of understanding.

But voters know that whenever a Government politician says “I get it”, they demonstrably don’t.

The best thing about the Trudeau campaign happened a few days ago when a heckler gave him the finger and called Trudeau’s wife a name which denotes a sex worker. When the heckler insulted Sophie Trudeau, her husband yanked off his mask and demanded: “Isn’t there a hospital you should be going to bother right now?” 

It’s not a killer riposte, but it gave Trudeau a boost in the opinion polls. The question today, on polling day, is whether that boost comes near to digging him out of a hole he dug himself when he called the election.

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