by Bruce Campion-Smith

OTTAWA-It was a year ago when Justin Trudeau, then leader of the third-place Liberals, marched in Vancouver’s pride parade.

It was one of his first acts of the marathon election campaign. Just hours earlier that day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had gone to Rideau Hall to visit with the Governor General and set in motion the 2015 election.

Pundits were certain Trudeau would win more seats but still considered his chances of winning
government slim. Some polls put his odds at victory in the single digits.

Trudeau was back in Vancouver on Sunday to again march in the pride parade, this time as prime minister leading a majority government – capping a year of dramatic political change in Canada.

One political player is gone and another is on his way out. Stephen Harper stepped down as Conservative leader after the election and is leaving politics. Thomas Mulcair, though stung by a disastrous electoral showing, wanted to stay but opted to quit after New Democrats voted non-confidence in his leadership.

And today, Trudeau, the long-shot candidate a year ago, is riding high.

“People are welcoming this more active, bolder form of federal government,” said Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates.

Graves said that the Liberals have been consistently polling above 40 per cent in popular support. His firm’s most recent survey had the Liberals at 46 per cent, the Conservatives at 26 per cent and the NDP at 15 per cent.

And he said that trust in government is running at levels not seen in a quarter century.

“This is more than a honeymoon. We haven’t seen this in a really long time,” Graves said in an interview.

Trudeau defied critics in the election and since taking office has redefined public expectations of political leaders, said David Coletto, a founding partner and CEO of Abacus Data.

“He’s often criticized by some of his opponents . . . for being almost too out there. It’s been almost a paradigm shift. I think the opposition parties need to realize they need to compete on those terms now,” Coletto said.

“That’s what a large and growing number of Canadians want from their leaders. They want someone who appears to be open and accessible,” he said.

The election brought several other important changes that will continue to reshape Canadian politics. More people voted in the election – overall turnout increased to 68.5 per cent, its highest level in two decades – and, significantly, many more young voters cast ballots.

The number of voters aged 18 to 24 jumped 18.3 percentage points to 57.1 per cent, the largest increase for that age group since Elections Canada began reporting demographic data on turnout in 2004.

“The electoral market has changed … that means the political parties also have to take that into consideration when they are thinking about policy, when they are thinking about leadership,” Coletto said.

Still, in the face of buoyant support for the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats can take heart from the examples of past elections, when voter preferences produced big swings in the results.

“It’s hard to predict in politics. That’s the take-away in this, and how quickly public opinion and people’s preferences can change,” Coletto said. Here’s a look at where the parties are today:

New Democrats

Having been on the doorstep of government and fancied the possibility of a first-ever NDP prime
minister, New Democrats were left shell shocked and demoralized by the result that knocked them back to third place. A bitter convention that abruptly ended Mulcair’s tenure as leader did little to heal the wounds.

Coletto notes that the NDP went into the election with a popular leader, strong support nationwide and a stranglehold on Quebec.

Today, those advantages are gone and the party seems stuck in an “existential crisis,” Coletto said.

Indeed, over the last year, the New Democrats have gone from 35-per-cent polls and a plausible shot at government to 15 per cent and the prospect of “rump party status” in the next election, Graves said.

“Things can change but I don’t see any evidence that they are about to turn it around,” he said.

On the upside, the New Democrats still have 44 seats, their second biggest ever. But to hold those seats – and grow – they will need a new leader and new policy offerings that can reclaim the progressive agenda that has been seized by the Liberals.

Conservatives

The Conservatives are in a better place. Though defeated in the election, they returned with almost 100 MPs, a mix of veterans and newcomers. Rona Ambrose has proven to be popular and effective as interim leader.

But after more than a decade with Harper at the helm, the challenge is to rebrand the party to broaden its base beyond the traditional core, while also hoping for an NDP resurgence to help divide the centre-left votes.

“For the Conservatives, it’s about determining how they grow their tent, their support and expand beyond that core base that has served them well but is not enough to win an election,” Coletto said.

“I think it starts with the leader. The leader sends the message … and the policy follows it,” he said.

Graves said the Conservatives stand to capitalize if economic worries mount. But in addition to a new leader, he said the party will have to choose how it moves on the policy front – adapting a progressive agenda or opting for a conservative stance.

Liberals

A prolonged honeymoon has evolved into general satisfaction with how the Liberals are running
government, both Graves and Coletto say.

“He seems to be the champion for bolder, more active government right now and a more open, cheerful type of government. People are sick of grumpy,” Graves said.

Arrogance now is the big risk for the government. So, too, is the economy, given weak performance so far this year. While the Liberals are the toast of Canadians now, that approval could quickly sour if financial worries grow. “That’s their major exposed flank. The public will be patient but they will look for this government to actually deliver on the promise to restart middle class progress,” Graves said.

While the Liberals have moved on a middle-class tax cut, a new child benefit and pension reforms, Graves said more is needed.

That help could come over the fall as the government reveals more about its innovation agenda and makes further moves on promised investments in infrastructure.

The political challenge for the Liberals will also get tougher in the coming year as both the Tories and New Democrats each get a new leader.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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