Every narrative has a counter-narrative that subverts, inverts, distorts, or parodies it. In politics, the counter-narrative to a political leader’s heroic narrative may be developed by their opponents or may be the result of their own behaviour. Examples of the latter include the proponent of family values carrying on an extramarital affair or the proponent of fiscal austerity spending public money on a lavish office. Counter-narratives embody swift-boating because they attack a politician’s strength, the image they create for themselves.
In this post I will argue that both Erin O’Toole and Justin Trudeau are facing powerful counter-narratives due to their opponents’ attacks and their own behaviour.
No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy
The Conservatives unveiled Canada’s Recovery Plan the day the election was called, and Erin O’Toole invariably refers to it when campaigning and answering questions. He is literally the man with a plan. But, as the German military strategist von Moltke said, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and this is especially the case with O’Toole’s plan.
O’Toole has had to modify his positions on firearms, vaccinations, and “conscience rights” for medical professionals. Not only the Liberals, but also the media, have taken him to task for this. To quote the headline-writer for Globe and Mail columnist Robyn Urback: “If you don’t like Erin O’Toole’s position on something, just wait a few minutes.” In addition, the plan’s costing was released just before the English-language debate, and it became clear that some of O’Toole’s promises were underfunded (child-care support) or back-end loaded (health transfers to the provinces).
I can’t see how this hasn’t shredded O’Toole’s credibility and trustworthiness. For example, his evasion when asked why he won’t require his candidates to be vaccinated is obvious. Thinking historically, Jean Chretien’s red books, particularly in the 1993 election when he was running as Opposition Leader, never were so controversial nor had such an unfavourable reception.
A Needless Election from a Faux-Feminist
The two main counter-narratives against Justin Trudeau are that he called an election for no reason other than the polls were telling him he could easily win a majority and that, as evidenced by the resignation of Jody Wilson-Raybould and other female members of the Liberal caucus, he is not the feminist he claims to be.
Trudeau’s repeated argument that the election is needed to determine the country’s directions as the pandemic ends has failed to convince Canadians. And excerpts from Jody-Wilson Raybould’s new memoir certainly fuel the faux-feminist accusations.
Where will it End?
There is a week until the election and, as Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics. Jody Wilson-Raybould’s accusations have just hit the media and could damage Trudeau with female voters, a group that have tended to vote Liberal. With that disclaimer, I will hazard a guess that the counter-narratives are hurting O’Toole more than Trudeau.
In Trudeau’s case, the Jody Wilson-Raybould story is old news and had its impact on the 2019 election. I doubt it will have an additional impact this year. The argument that Trudeau called an unnecessary election is not necessarily a reason to vote against Trudeau. Even if you think the election is unnecessary, if you like Trudeau’s policies better than the alternatives, you are likely to hold your nose and vote Liberal.
As discussed by The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason in his lengthy analysis this weekend, Canada’s Recovery Plan is an effort to move the Conservatives towards the political centre while retaining the support of the base. The plan has been attacked precisely on elements (the Firearms Act review, no vaccine mandates, conscience rights with respect to abortion for medical professionals) that cater to the base. In addition, the Liberals have cleverly promoted this counter-narrative by using footage of the “take back Canada” message O’Toole used in his campaign for the Conservative leadership last year.
The public opinion polls show that the Conservatives jumped into the lead when the “man with a plan” narrative was fresh. As the counter-narrative has gained currency their lead has diminished, and the CBC’s Poll Tracker now gives the Liberals a small lead in the popular vote and a considerable lead in the predicted seat count. In addition, support for the People’s Party of Canada has dramatically increased from 1 percent in the 2019 election to 6.5 percent today, and it will come at the expense of the Conservatives. The Conservatives’ shift to the centre as of today hasn’t gained centrist “purple” voters but has lost support among the Conservative base. Poll tracker shows this clearly in Ontario, where the Liberals have 37 percent of the popular vote, the Conservatives 32 percent, and the People’s Party 7 percent.
Burnt orange voters, long accustomed to strategic voting, have had many years of experience calculating whether they can more effectively defeat the Conservatives by voting Liberal or NDP in their constituency. Many in the Conservative base, perhaps because they are unaccustomed to voting strategically or perhaps because they are voting ideologically, appear to be ready to vote for the People’s Party of Canada, even if it will contribute to a Conservative defeat.
The counter-narrative against Erin O’Toole is more powerful than the one against Justin Trudeau, and Trudeau and the Liberals will form the next Government.