If 2013 saw a rebound in the Liberal brand nationally, how will 2014 fare for the ruling Conservatives on the federal scene? A year ago, the Conservative government, despite some good economic numbers, was facing a resurgent Liberal party in the midst of a leadership race with the emergence of the charismatic and likeable Justin Trudeau leading all other contenders. By the end of 2013, Trudeau had established his standing in the polls leading both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and official opposition leader Tom Mulcair.
The Canadian Senate scandal erupted in the spring of 2013, where three Conservative senators were accused of spending irregularities. They eventually left the Conservative caucus and were suspended from their duties. However, the scandal, along with the Trudeau leadership victory, marred what could have been a good year for the ruling Tories.
With the economy undergoing modest growth, most seemed appreciative of Harper’s economic management. And just a few weeks ago, Canada concluded a free trade agreement (yet to be ratified) with the European Union. Still, by the end of 2013, the Tories were facing disapproval numbers hovering over the 60 percent mark, and had 29-30 percent voter choice number (voter intention).
The Tory prospects for 2014 may rest with how the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals perform with their respective bases (generally progressive), and their appeal to disenchanted voters.
If 2013 was Trudeau’s year in terms of polling, 2013 was opposition leader Tom Mulcair’s year in terms of leadership in the House, credibility with the Parliamentary press, and overall impact within “official” Ottawa. The Senate scandal gave Mulcair new wings as he regularly bested the sitting prime minister during question period. The media took note in the end of the year assessments. He ultimately made question period interesting and fun again.
The problem for Mulcair’s NDP seemed to be outside Ottawa. While Mulcair was outperforming everyone in the House of Commons, Justin Trudeau was making headlines ably resisting Tory attack ads, leading the discussion about legalizing marijuana and succeeding in numerous fund raising events. Even his so-called political gaffes seemed to be considered a “work in progress” by the electorate, which is expecting the fixed-date election in October 2015.
The Mulcair-Trudeau battle for the progressive vote and unhappy voters is actually making Tory strategists hopeful for their own rebound in 2014, as a split between the NDP and the Liberals could work to the Conservative advantage in some key ridings. However, the governing Tories will need to do better since they seem to have lost control of the agenda.
The other theaters of interest for Canada’s 2014 politics are in its two major provinces—Ontario and Québec. Both provinces have minority governments, and it is possible that both will face their respective electorates as early as the spring of 2014.
In Ontario, the ruling Liberals are faced with issues inherited from their years as a majority government. The choice of a new leader, Premier Kathleen Wynne, has not resulted in a jump in the polls. In a minority situation, the key is who makes the election call—the governing party or an opposition, non-confidence motion. As we speak, neither scenario is a guarantee of real success for either the governing Liberals or the opposition Conservatives.
In Québec, the ruling Parti Québécois (PQ) is trying to forge a pathway to a majority government by playing to the nationalist fervor of the predominantly French-speaking province. It is proposing a charter of secular values aimed at removing visible religious symbols from the public sector. The charter has gotten some traction with nationalist voters in key ridings (provincial electoral districts) but the government was still in minority government territory in polls at the end of 2013 with no real certainty as to which party would form the government.
The fact that the economic picture in Québec is less than encouraging may be the major factor preventing the incumbent PQ government from going to the polls. The provincial budget due this spring, however, may well be the determining factor in an election call or not.
As we begin 2014, the political picture in Canada promises to be exciting, and in some cases decisive—but still highly uncertain as to its outcome from this vantage point.