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How the 2019 federal election became a vote for nothing

At various times, the election seemed to be about climate change, infrastructure or Indigenous rights. But nothing cohered into a specific ballot question

The first drinking straw known to archeology was reusable. True story. It is a glamorous gold thing encrusted in blue lapis lazuli, buried in the tomb of a Sumerian queen at Ur in modern Iraq, the reputed birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, but long before his time.

Three millennia later, Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May was having a drink from a disposable cup when she was photographed. This was a problem for her 2019 election campaign. To solve it, her party digitally altered the picture to show instead a reusable cup with a metal straw. This indicated May’s ideological rejection of plastic straws, which are no longer a symbol of royal affluence, as in ancient Sumer, but an environmental menace as numerous as the stars in the sky, like Abraham’s descendants. Caught out by a reporter, the party lied about it, and was caught out again.

That may seem like nothing to get worked up over, but this was an election where nothing was the whole point.

For a few days, the Greens’ ridiculous self-own and own-goal of a pseudo-scandal was the temporary focus of a general election campaign that never actually found a permanent one. And not for lack of trying.

It could have been otherwise. In Canada, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, was a flurry of high-spirited national activity, quite unlike the solemn day of remembrance and reflection it was in America.

Andrew Scheer, the former Speaker of the House of Commons about to fight his first campaign as Conservative leader, had his morning flight from Ottawa diverted by nasty weather to Quebec City, then carried on to Trois-Rivières, Que., by bus.

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Jagmeet Singh of the NDP was in London, Ont., where he once studied undergrad biology, and where on this day he observed to his supporters that his Liberal rival Justin Trudeau “is not who he pretends to be.” It was a run of the mill political dig from an underdog about campaign trail idealism and the realities of governance, but it was soon to become a lot more poignant.

For his part, Trudeau had official duties as prime minister in Ottawa, walking up the lane to Rideau Hall to advise Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament, where his Liberal Party then held a 177-seat majority, compared to 95 Conservative, 39 NDP, and a few others.

Holding hands with his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, he was trying his best to evoke optimistic memories of his cabinet swearing-in day at this same spot all those years ago, when he so wryly told everyone that half his ministers were women because it was 2015.

Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau arrive at Rideau Hall on Sept.11, 2019., to ask Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament, and mark the start of a federal election campaign.

REUTERS/Patrick Doyle

Not anymore. The National Post’s John Ivison noted that Trudeau’s eyes on this final day of Canada’s 42nd Parliament “radiate broken glass.”

At the beginning, the campaign seemed to have a clear focus. Trudeau was saddled with an Ethics Commissioner ruling that his campaign of pressure on former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to cut a deal on corruption charges with SNC-Lavalin was improper. This affair, which led her to resign from cabinet after Trudeau demoted her in a shuffle, tarnished his image with constituencies she represented, both women and Indigenous people.

Contrary to his hair-trigger apology instinct for national crimes, however, Trudeau had been uncharacteristically stubborn in accepting anything resembling blame. He claimed to accept responsibility, but did not apologize, nor admit he did anything wrong. Quite the opposite. His chief of staff Gerald Butts had resigned for his central role in the affair, and to protect Trudeau. As the campaign started, though, Butts was back in the hot seat, running the show.

It was the first clue that, in the campaign of 2019, nothing mattered. Things briefly seemed to matter, until they did not. People would talk about them until the next thing came along, and then that too would fade to irrelevance.

By the end, the whole thing would have a carnival feel, all flashing lights and calliope music, with well-dressed grifters barking for attention in what was preposterously promoted as a leaders’ debate. The earnest curiosity of voters about platforms and issues melted away like soft-serve ice cream.

The campaign was at times such a fun-house freak show that the Rhinoceros Party found another guy called Maxime Bernier to run against Maxime Bernier, leader of the upstart alt-right People’s Party of Canada.

It was not that people did not care about political issues, like health care or the economy. It was just that the parties offered so many other things to not care about instead.

As a result, an election about Justin Trudeau’s political corruption morphed into an election about his history of blackface, then kept on morphing. At various times, the election seemed to be about climate change, abortion, same-sex marriage, infrastructure, and Indigenous rights.

Near the end, in Toronto at least, it was briefly about subway construction, which meant it was really about Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who had been hiding from the media in remote Kenora, Ont., because, despite his niche popularity, most people dislike him and the Conservatives wanted this election to be about Scheer instead. But if it was about Scheer, that meant it might also be about a surging NDP stealing Liberal votes on the left, which because of the prospect of a coalition minority government, risked making it about Trudeau again.

As National Post columnist Chris Selley observed on Twitter, the campaign eventually cycled into reruns.

Like billboard ads on station walls flashing past a subway window, these issues and scandals grabbed attention and lost it in the same instant. They never cohered into any specific ballot question. It was the consumer’s dilemma. What do I want? What do I fear? What is on sale? Oooh, what’s this over here?

Canadians were not voting for or against anyone or anything, exactly. We were browsing.

“It’s time for you to get ahead,” said the Conservatives. “Choose Forward,” said the Liberals. “In it for you,” said the NDP.

.

Postmedia photo illustration

In the election about nothing, these slogans were the empty vessels into which Canadians were invited to pour their hopes, resentments, affections and biases. They meant whatever you wanted them to mean.

As George Costanza once put it on Seinfeld, when asked by a television executive why anyone should watch his proposed show about nothing: “Because it’s on TV.”

That was one thing you can say for sure about Campaign 2019. It was something to watch.

***

The campaign went ugly fast.

Right from the start it was clear that there was mud to be slung, and the two front running parties were eager to sling.

An early theme was white supremacy, and the connections of various politicians to Faith Goldy, a former journalist, failed Toronto mayoral candidate, and far-right anti-immigrant provocateur.

The Liberals went first, drawing attention to a video Goldy made about a proposed television show with Ontario Conservative candidate Justina McCaffrey. They also flagged Conservative campaign manager Hamish Marshall’s role as a director of Rebel Media, where Goldy was an on-screen personality before being fired for appearing on a neo-Nazi podcast.

It might have been a forgotten episode of petty sniping that did not amount to much, except that the Liberals had their own special vulnerability to Goldy’s toxic reputation.

A woman came forward to confirm Goldy’s story that Trudeau bought them several rounds of drinks one night in 2012 at the Château Laurier in Ottawa, during a Liberal convention, on the last day before he shaved off his Captain Morgan beard for charity. By itself, this might not have been news, except that the Liberal party specifically denied it ever happened.

Someone was lying, but most Canadians struggled to care. Many were not yet paying attention, but the gossip was flying. Old worries were being summoned. New conspiracy theories were being trotted out. There were dark whispers of bad behaviour, dangerous ideologies, hidden agendas, skeletons in the closet.

The Green Party, for example, has often had trouble with the politics of abortion, given the otherwise progressive leftist slant of environmentalism. May herself has stumbled over the issue several times, trying to articulate the subtleties of her own view, which includes support for access to abortion.

In September, she said no Green MP would be prevented from pursuing private member legislation on abortion because the party does not whip votes. Scrambling to backtrack, the Green Party clarified that candidates had been screened for anti-choice opinions, but then announced that some candidates would be “re-vetted.”

Later in October, the Greens would drop a candidate for this reason.

In hindsight, the early mud-slinging, scandal-mongering and name-calling would come to seem almost quaint, because a revelation was at hand.

It had been lying in plain sight on the internet for years, but took a Vancouver businessman to hand an old school yearbook photo to American magazine Time so it could be revealed to the world.

Their story and the picture went online the evening of Sept. 18, and it briefly set the country aflame. It was all anyone could talk about.

Liberal candidates contorted themselves into moral pretzels, trying to find a way to praise their leader for such blatant racism, or at least for his many subsequent apologies, which continued for several days on the campaign trail. These apologies often ended on a theme of reconciliation and blame-sharing, in which all of us must strive to be better, not just the guy who blacked up for a party (several times, as it later turned out, more even than Trudeau was able to confidently recollect).

Liberal Judy Sgro, for example, told a radio show: “Those in the Black community have told me how much more love they have for the prime minister, that he wanted to have a black face. He took great pride in that too, and that it’s the media that have blown this into something that it shouldn’t be.”

That does not even make sense as an excuse, let alone a reason to “love” him, and Sgro herself was forced to apologize. After a week passed, however, pollsters were reporting something curious.

Liberal support had been already falling when the pictures came out, and it continued to fall, slightly. But strangely, so did Conservative support. What seemed to be happening was not a tanking of the front-runner, but a kind of convergence as both parties’ numbers deflated.

By the end of this second week, the Conservatives and Liberals were effectively tied in the low 30s, and would stay that way for the duration.

Nothing was gaining strength. It would not be diverted by anything.

Not even hundreds of thousands of young people marching in the streets could shift the relentless emptiness of this campaign.

The day after Trudeau appeared in Sudbury, Ont., paddling a canoe to a press conference where he announced a camping subsidy, he met in Montreal with the charismatic Swedish child activist Greta Thunberg.

She was a unifying force behind a massive protest against climate change held that day in cities across Canada.

“He’s, of course, obviously not doing enough,” Thunberg said of Trudeau. “This is such a huge problem, this is a system that is wrong. So my message to all the politicians is the same: to just listen to the science and act on the science.”

“I agree with her entirely. We need to do more,” said Trudeau.

As with his response to his blackface scandal, Trudeau had subtly shifted his contrition from “me” to “we,” from his failures to the communal failure of Canadians.

By the following week, the campaign was on to something else entirely.

***

It is hard to say when, exactly, Jagmeet Singh started his rise.

But a strong candidate for this momentous shift in the campaign dynamic was in his hastily arranged response to Trudeau’s blackface scandal.

As the only non-white leader, he had a unique place in this unanticipated national conversation about casual racism.

Until then, the NDP campaign had seemed, as it often does, reactive, playing the games set out by Liberals and Conservatives, responding to the issues the front-runners forced onto the agenda.

But the yearbook photos changed that. Singh was at a small event in Toronto the night it broke. His public statement a few hours later was a rushed affair in a badly lit hotel room. It was also a masterclass in sensitivity and political optimism.

“You might feel like giving up on Canada. You might feel like giving up on yourselves,” he said in comments specifically directed at people for whom this image brought up memories of being mocked, insulted or hurt because of who they are.

“I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, and you are loved,” he said.

Over the following days, Singh would resist Trudeau’s efforts to use him for his own redemption, to single out the only leader of colour as a foil for performing his trademark apology.

So they spoke in private on the phone on Sept. 24, and said little publicly about it.

But something had changed. Even more than Singh’s various dignified endurances — on Oct. 2 he was told by an old man in Montreal to cut his turban off — his handling of Trudeau’s shame elevated him.

Singh punched racists — itself not a bad campaign slogan — but his schoolyard scrapping days are done, he said. Fists convey a certain attractive moral clarity in some circumstance. But so does love and acceptance.

So by the time the campaign moved on and the Liberals announced the government would appeal a new ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that Indigenous children deserve the maximum $40,000 compensation for discriminatory child welfare practices, Singh’s place in the mix had shifted.

He was better able to set his own agenda, to keep focus where he wanted when the front-runners would prefer to turn the page. When a reporter asked whether his pledge that an NDP government would abide by the ruling amounted to a “blank cheque” to First Nations, he was again able to present himself as a voice of compassion, in revealing contrast to Scheer and, especially, Trudeau.

By the time the English leaders’ debate came around, Singh was able to score the most memorable point with his dig at Trudeau and Scheer about climate change, that Canadians do not need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.

Urgency rose as September gave way to October, and people took note of how little time remained to make up their minds.

Things started coming into focus, and for once, this did not favour Trudeau.

People started to notice glimmers of personality in plain old Scheer, a newfound ugliness in the famously beautiful Trudeau, and a geniality and resolve in Singh, despite his occasional flubbing of interview questions.

Elizabeth May was campaigning as well as anyone, earning admiration for sometimes seeming like the only one of the party leaders who has ever been anything but a politician. (The others were only ever briefly in their profession: a lawyer, a teacher, a cabinet minister, an unlicensed insurance broker.)

Despite very low polling numbers for his People’s Party, Maxime Bernier won a key battle when former Governor General David Johnston, now head of the Leaders’ Debate Commission, decided his seat in Parliament and broad slate of candidates meant he and his party should be included in the debate.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet invited controversy with his message that Quebecers should vote for candidates “qui vous ressemblent,” which means “who resemble you.” It was widely criticized for being overtly racist, which allowed Blanchet to claim his words were being twisted because another plausible meaning is candidates “who are like you.”

Double meanings can go far in an election where nothing matters. As Canadians looked forward to the main English leaders’ debate, the two way race had narrowed. Liberals and Conservatives were losing ground, Singh’s NDP was gaining. The Bloc was strong in Quebec. Canadians were leaning in every which direction.

Nothing made sense.

***

The final bombshell was that Andrew Scheer is American, something he never revealed because, as he put it, no one asked him. He has dual citizenship, which he said he is in the process of renouncing, and he said he has not renewed his U.S. passport as an adult.

This was curious, given that U.S. law requires Americans with dual citizenship to use their American passport when travelling to America, as Scheer has done frequently as an adult.

He refused to explain, and was supported in this by widespread indifference to what, in another context, might have seemed like a scandal of divided loyalties.

Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was not even American when he lived in the U.S., and still it dogged him throughout his ill-fated adventures in politics. Scheer himself criticized the former Governor General Michaëlle Jean for holding French citizenship as well as Canadian.

But no one seemed terribly bothered about Scheer’s nationality. Even his rival leaders came to his defence, in a way. Trudeau said dual citizenship is not a bar to politics. Singh called it a distraction.

Other distractions in the home stretch included a Globe and Mail report that blindsided the Conservative campaign by reporting a backroom effort to install former Harper cabinet minister Peter MacKay as leader in the event of Scheer losing.

The main source, Conservative organizer and public affairs executive John Capobianco, later apologized, saying he “mistakenly speculated” to a reporter.

“In no way did I intend to suggest anything other than my full support to our party and my leader,” he said.

Distractions continued. On Oct. 12, in response to an unspecified danger, Trudeau appeared at an event with a bulletproof vest under his shirt, and surrounded by serious-looking security men in tactical backpacks concealing their own weapons.

Typically for an expression of vulnerability by a politician, this immediately spawned conspiracy theories that he was faking the threat.

Nothing was coming together. People started talking about coalition governments. Simplistic and false talking points proliferated about who gets first crack at forming a government with the confidence of the House. The campaign had moved into its constitutional law phase.

Surely there were other things to talk about, rather than petty nonsense. Would we make it to election day with an actual sense of purpose or direction? Or would we be swallowed into a kaleidoscopic nightmare of petty whataboutism?

As it happened, pettiness put up a determined fight, and barely stumbled when one of the finest orators of modern politics — Barack Obama — publicly praised Trudeau’s Liberals. Rather than giving pause to undecided voters, this endorsement instead spawned arguments over whether it constituted foreign interference.

That same day, Oct. 16, Trudeau acknowledged things were not going as well as he might have hoped. The CBC headline said he “conceded” that Scheer could win, although “strategically declared” seems more likely. In this campaign, even expressions of weakness and uncertainty are aggressive attack lines.

“We know that the Conservative Party is running one of the dirtiest, nastiest campaigns based on disinformation that we’ve ever seen in this country,” Trudeau said.

He was not entirely convincing, because at the exact same time, Liberal MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau took a page from the Donald Trump playbook and tweeted video of Scheer. He was barely visible, and the video included a helpful arrow, but there he was, sitting in the House of Commons during singing of O Canada, evidently in protest at the recent inclusive lyric change.

At the time, Scheer had not yet declared his candidacy for Conservative leader. He had just written an op-ed endorsing Brexit before the United Kingdom’s referendum. “Taking a knee” had not yet entered political discourse. The lyric change was not even official yet.

Then came Gerald Butts tweeting about a Conservative ad showing Scheer shaking hands with a worker dressed in a yellow reflective vest, which has lately become a symbol of an alt-right ideology.

“Well, this is subtle. Sometimes a yellow vest is just a yellow vest?” Butts sneered.

In return, the Conservatives put the word out, to Chinese Canadians especially, that the Liberals were fixing to legalize hard drugs. There was also another round of abortion rights fear-mongering.

This was the spaghetti moment, when parties throw everything they have at the wall until something sticks.

It was the first good indication that there would not be a final bombshell, no October surprise. It was all just billboards flashing by your eyes.

Who would want to talk politics in a time like this? Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell was right when she said an election is no time to discuss serious issues.

Consider Stephen Stewart, a Conservative candidate in Prince Edward Island, who told a reporter that his 30 years in business gave him the common sense Ottawa needs now.

“I don’t want to share those issues until I get elected,” he said, worryingly. “They’re good ideas, I believe, but maybe they’re not the greatest ideas. I still want to get there, get elected, and table those ideas, and see why they won’t work.”

That’s the kind of campaign Canadians got — a blank slate.

Canadians have an instinct for two kinds of campaigns. One sort involves a convergence of opinion. Sometimes the knockout blow stands out most, as in Brian Mulroney over John Turner in 1984. Sometimes it is the image, as in Robert Stanfield dropping the football before losing to Pierre Trudeau in 1974. There is something heady about tossing the bums out in unison and bestowing a majority on the other party, as in Justin Trudeau over Stephen Harper in 2015, or Jean Chrétien over Campbell in 1993.

The other kind of campaign, of which the recent one was a prime example, is when the electorate diverges.

This happened when Harper beat Paul Martin in 2006, with the narrowest minority ever, in which 36 per cent of the popular vote got the Conservatives 40 per cent of the seats, and eventually a decade in power. But that at least had a memorable theme of Liberal corruption and entitlement after Adscam.

Although 2019 had similar ingredients, it never came together. You could forget about it before it even ended.

Some people agreed with some others, but only in isolated little galaxies of partisan opinion. This was a cosmic election. It exploded from a narrow point of intense pressure and heat into a vast emptiness, cooling off as time went on.

In the end, we are likely to get a minority government. It is nothing we don’t deserve.

• Email: jbrean@nationalpost.com | Twitter: josephbrean


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