The Weekly Writ for June 7: Why the NDP is right not to force an election
Plus, the Ontario Liberal leadership field widens, what Canadians think about David Johnston's report and Blue vs. Purple in Manitoba.
Welcome to the Weekly Writ, a round-up of the latest federal and provincial polls, election news and political history that lands in your inbox every Wednesday morning.
There’s been some criticism and eye-rolling over the NDP’s position on David Johnston, special rapporteur extraordinaire. Jagmeet Singh wants him to resign and a public inquiry to be called to look into foreign interference — but he won’t force an election over it.
The justification, that we can’t hold an election until we get to the bottom of this, might be a little silly. There’s no reason to question the validity of the 2019 and 2021 election results. But otherwise his position is sound for three simple reasons.
Firstly, there’s no appetite for a snap election (there rarely ever is). The New Democrats would get no rewards for threatening one.
Secondly, foreign interference is not a top issue for Canadians. Only 2% of Canadians listed “national security/terrorism” as their top issue of concern in Nanos Research’s rolling poll from May , which does not prompt respondents with issues to choose from. Jobs, healthcare, inflation, environment — those registered, but Nanos did not report any results for anything related specifically to foreign interference (it might have been included in the “Other” category, but even that only amounted to 8%).
While some polls have shown a majority of Canadians support the idea of a public inquiry, I wouldn’t read too much into that. I’m sure if you polled Canadians on holding a public inquiry on, say, inflation or housing affordability, you’d probably get higher numbers than how an inquiry on foreign interference scores. (Plus, the question in this particular poll presented the options as a public inquiry or no public inquiry, rather than the alternative public hearings Johnston is proposing.)
So, forcing an election that people don’t want over an issue they care little about? Probably not a political winner.
Thirdly, the NDP shouldn’t want to go into an election. The party currently has influence over the Liberal government through its confidence-and-supply agreement (CASA) and has been able to extract measures that mean much more to the NDP and its supporters than a public inquiry.
The New Democrats have no reason to risk giving that up. In the most realistic best case scenario for Jagmeet Singh, his party makes some seat gains in a snap election. But those would largely come at the expense of the Liberals, so his gain in seats would probably mean the loss of his governing partner. Good luck extracting much out of a Pierre Poilievre government.
The New Democrats don’t have great options. But parties have to make priorities, and the priority that Jagmeet Singh has set — to keep the CASA working — makes more sense from his party’s perspective than the alternative.
Now, before getting into the Weekly Writ, a scheduling update: the Weekly Writ will be on hiatus until June 28. But don’t fret, I do have some other articles and podcasts scheduled to be published over the next three weeks while I’m travelling overseas (for the first time since before the pandemic!). I might post a snap or two to my Instagram while I’m away in Ireland and I will be keeping my eye on things here at The Writ — but remotely, with a pint of Guinness in hand.
In the meantime, here is what’s in store in this week’s instalment of the Weekly Writ:
News on a new entrant into the Ontario leadership contest and another long byelection ballot.
Polls on the damp squib that is the Chinese electoral interference issue when it comes to the political landscape, and an update on where things stand in Toronto.
The Liberals win another minority government if the election were held today.
A blue-on-purple fight in our riding profile.
The rise of Bernard Lord in the #EveryElectionProject.
Poilievre passes Trudeau in this week’s milestone.
IN THE NEWS
Yasir Naqvi makes it official
On Friday, Yasir Naqvi registered with Elections Ontario as a contestant for the Ontario Liberal leadership. He joins fellow Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith and Liberal MPP Ted Hsu as official candidates.
Others are expected to join the fray, including Mississauga mayor Bonnie Crombie.
Naqvi is the most experienced of the contestants currently running — and arguably of anyone likely to run. He served as the MPP for Ottawa Centre for 11 years from 2007 to his defeat in 2018. He then jumped to federal politics and was elected, again in Ottawa Centre, in 2021.
By comparison, Erskine-Smith has been the MP for Beaches–East York since 2015, while Hsu was the MP for Kingston and the Islands for one term between 2011 and 2015 and is now in the midst of his first term as an MPP for the same riding.
Naqvi also served in Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet, notably as attorney general. Erskine-Smith hasn’t held a cabinet portfolio in Justin Trudeau’s government, while Hsu has only ever sat on opposition benches.
With the Liberals adopting a system where ever riding is worth the same amount of points, Naqvi’s candidacy is an interesting one as he has a base in the Ottawa area that won’t be nearly as contested between multiple candidates as will Toronto and the GTA. It gives him a good starting point, but he will need to also compete where the seats are. It’s no coincidence that his campaign launch included an event in Ottawa — and one in Mississauga.
The winner of the race will be revealed on December 2.
Another record-breaking ballot
When 40 candidates were listed on the ballot for Mississauga–Lakeshore’s federal byelection last year, it set a record for the longest ballot ever. But it wasn’t because of a rush of enthusiasm for political involvement. Instead, it was a protest about electoral reform (and a bit of a stunt).
That record will be broken in the Winnipeg South Centre byelection, which has 48 candidates on the ballot. It’s the same crew, as the official agent for the vast majority of these candidates (Kieran Szuchewycz) is the same one from Mississauga–Lakeshore.
The absurdly-long ballot led to the Mississauga–Lakeshore count taking an absurdly long time. My livestream of the results lasted nearly three hours. While I’m sorry to be missing out on a byelection night, in the end my trip to Ireland seems timely.
THIS WEEK’S POLLS
Johnston Report not really registering
As wildfires raged across whole swathes of the country and Canadians found themselves living in a smoky, orange-hued world reminiscent of Blade Runner, MPs were sitting in a committee hearing yesterday grilling David Johnston over his inquiry into foreign interference and the perceptions of bias.
The survey found that 69% of Canadians say they are concerned about Chinese interference in Canadian politics. But just 29% said they were “very concerned”, and these were primarily Conservative voters — suggesting that this concern might be more partisan-driven than anything else.
Only 46% of Canadians reported they were aware of David Johnston’s report on foreign interference, with 54% saying they were not or were not sure. Partisanship wasn’t much of a factor here, with similar levels of awareness among both Liberal and Conservative voters.
But partisanship was a factor in how the report was received. Léger framed the report in a question as follows: “Johnston stated that a public independent inquiry on foreign interference in Canadian politics was not recommended due to highly sensitive information that cannot be publicly disclosed.”
Put that way, 30% of Canadians agreed with him, while 36% disagreed. The rest weren’t sure. Among Liberals, though, 54% agreed with him. Among Conservatives, 64% disagreed.
And among those aware of the report, 37% agreed and 49% disagreed — hardly a consensus.
When it comes to the reliability of Johnston’s report, there is again a split on whether “the recommendations made in his report are based on foreign policy expertise and rigorous impartial work.” While 27% said yes, 33% said no. It was 37% to 42% among those aware of the report, with a majority of Bloc and Conservative voters saying it wasn’t impartial but a plurality of Liberal and NDP voters saying it was.
If we recall that 54% of the population said they unaware of the report, we’re talking about a total of around 63% of Canadians who are unaware of the report or aren’t sure if Johnston’s findings were impartial. The share who are aware of the report AND think it wasn’t impartial is just around 19%, while 17% say it is impartial.
Put it all together, and you get a big majority of Canadians who really don’t know what to make of all this — and among the minority who do, they are largely following along with whatever their preferred party thinks.
I remain of the view that this is a textbook case of an Ottawa Bubble story — not that it isn’t important, but that the attention this issue is getting is disproportionate to (and out-of-step with) how Canadians are viewing this. Chinese interference in our democracy is a problem and it is clear that we are not doing a particularly good job about it, and Canadians are rightly concerned about that and would like some sign that something is being done about it.
But there isn’t an urgency to it. Political interference has been going on for years and will go on for years to come. The ability of the Canadian government to counteract China’s efforts is limited and, to borrow a theory of air defence strategy from before the Second World War, the bomber, or in this case the foreign interference, will always get through.
That the Liberals might have been negligent on the file is a legitimate attack against them, but the overheated rhetoric of collusion has been, to date, unproven and, frankly, implausible.
Added to that is the complicated nature of the story, the uneven reporting and the extreme politicization of it all and I don’t blame Canadians for responding with a shrug.
It certainly doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact on voting intentions. Léger found the Liberals leading with 33%, followed by the Conservatives at 31%, the NDP at 19%, the Bloc Québécois at 8% (34% in Quebec), the Greens at 6% and the PPC at 2%.
The Conservatives hold a two-point lead over the Liberals in Ontario and the Bloc is up by two in Quebec, while the Conservatives are just one point ahead of the Liberals in British Columbia. That would likely produce another Liberal minority (see below).
Not all polls show exactly these topline numbers, but they are well within the margins of error of other polls. From Léger’s perspective, the Liberals have been hovering between 30% and 34% since the beginning of the year, the Conservatives between 31% and 35%.
This issue is simply not moving the dial.
Olivia Chow still lapping her rivals
The regular trio of pollsters gauging the Toronto mayoral race (Liaison Strategies, Forum Research and Mainstreet Research) continue to show former NDP MP Olivia Chow way ahead of the pack, averaging 35% support, a gain of two points since last week. The race for second is between former police chief Mark Saunders at 13%), former councillor Ana Bailão (11%) and current councillor Josh Matlow (also 11%).
Here is how the field looks on average across these three polls, with the change from last week in brackets:
35% Olivia Chow (+2)
13% Mark Saunders (=)
11% Ana Bailão (-1)
11% Josh Matlow (=)
8% Anthony Furey (+1)
8% Mitzie Hunter (-1)
5% Brad Bradford (-2)
While Chow is benefiting from a divided field, it isn’t clear there would be a path for any other candidate to challenge her if they could consolidate support from other candidates. At least two candidates would need to step aside and throw all their support behind someone else for anyone to get up to Chow’s 35%, but the combination needed to get there requires a lot of ideological flexibility.
There are still nearly three weeks to go, but those are three weeks taking place in mid- and late-June in a municipal contest where engagement is not going to be sky-high. Chow could easily cruise to victory from here.
POLLING NEWS BRIEFS
It’s 0.2 percentage points, but the Nanos Research four-week rolling poll has put Justin Trudeau back ahead on preferred prime minister for the first time since early March. The poll gives Trudeau 26.8% to Pierre Poilievre’s 26.6%. It’s effectively a tie, but even a tie is a big improvement for Trudeau in Nanos’s polling.
IF THE ELECTION WERE HELD TODAY
The numbers from the Léger poll push the Liberals, Bloc, NDP and Greens up a tad while the Conservatives drop. While the Liberals would win a smaller minority, all other parties would be in a slightly better position than they find themselves in today.
The following seat estimates are derived from a uniform swing model that is based on trends in recent polls as well as minor tweaks and adjustments. Rather than the product of a statistical model, these estimates are my best guess of what an election held today would produce, based both on the data and my own experience observing dozens of elections since 2008.
Changes are compared to last week. Parties are ordered according to their finish in the previous election (with some exceptions for minor parties).
RIDING OF THE WEEK
Portage–Lisgar (Federal, Manitoba)
There’s a case to be made that of the four federal byelections taking place on June 19, the one in Portage–Lisgar might not be the one to watch. We could look to Oxford, where internal squabbles within the Conservative Party have led the outgoing MP, Dave MacKenzie, to endorse the Liberal candidate. In Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount, Green co-leader Jonathan Pedneault is on the ballot (and endorsed by former Conservative/current Independent MP Alain Rayes). Winnipeg South Centre is a suburban riding in which the Conservatives should be competitive if they are looking for signals that they could win the next election.
But Portage–Lisgar has a twist to it.
That’s because Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party, is running in this deep-blue Conservative stronghold.
He’s parachuting into Portage–Lisgar from his base in Beauce, where he has failed to win election twice as leader of the PPC. On the face of it, running in rural Manitoba might be an odd choice. But Portage–Lisgar was the best riding for the PPC in the 2021 election, so it’s a choice that actually makes plenty of sense for Bernier.
Candice Bergen won this riding with 52.5% of the vote in 2021. That proved to be her worst performance since she was first elected here in 2008 and well below the scores put up by her predecessor (and future Manitoba premier), Brian Pallister, in 2004 and 2006.
The People’s Party ate into Bergen’s support, as Solomon Wiebe captured 21.6% of the vote. That result made Portage–Lisgar the only riding in which the PPC cleared the 20% threshold in 2021.
The NDP took 13%, followed by the Liberals at 11% and the Christian Heritage Party at 2%.
This sprawling riding is located to the west and south of Winnipeg, stretching from Lake Manitoba in the north to the U.S. border in the south. The main communities are Portage la Prairie, Morden and Winkler.
Bergen had strong support throughout the riding, winning nearly all of the rural polls as well as the three main population centres. She won Portage la Prairie, the biggest, with 53% of the vote. Wiebe took just 10%.
But in the south, Wiebe was able to win a few polls, particularly those with Mennonite communities (the purple dots in the map above). He took 20% of the vote in Morden and 37% in Winkler. Bergen beat him by only 10 points there.
So, there is something for Bernier to work with. But it isn’t much — the PPC had just 2.6% of the vote in 2019, so it is clear that what happened in 2021 was based on circumstance. Vaccination rates in southern Manitoba were quite low during the pandemic, and undoubtedly that played a big role in Wiebe’s result. It will be difficult for Bernier to replicate it.
The simple fact of the matter is that this is a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative riding. Bergen took 68% in her first election, 76% in her second, 61% in her third and 71% in her fourth, before dropping to that 52.5% in 2021. Since 1972, the only time the Conservatives or their predecessor parties didn’t hold the entire area was in 1993, when the Liberals’ Jon Gerrard squeaked by thanks to a split vote to the right. You have to go back to 1953 to find an election in which the Conservatives, Alliance/Reform or PCs didn’t hold at least part of this region.
Branden Leslie, who has worked as a Conservative staffer, will be carrying the blue banner. He defeated, among others, a Manitoba PC cabinet minister for the nomination.
Bernier might give him a bit of a test, but the test will really be for Bernier and the viability of the People’s Party. The most interesting aspect of this byelection isn’t who will win — if Bernier pulls it off, the Conservatives would be right to freak out — but the score the PPC will put up.
Other candidates include Lisa Tessier-Burch, a teacher, for the NDP, Kerry Smith, the senior director of the Manitoba Métis Federation, for the Liberals, and Nicolas Geddert for the Greens, who finished third in the provincial Green leadership earlier this year.
ON THIS DAY in the #EveryElectionProject
The bell tolls for the New Brunswick Liberals
June 7, 1999
You can’t go anywhere but down after a perfect sweep.
That’s what happened to the New Brunswick Liberals in the 1987 election when the party went 58-for-58, ousting (and humiliating) Richard Hatfield’s PCs.
Under Frank McKenna, the Liberals lost a few seats in 1991 and held their own in 1995. But by 1999, McKenna was gone and the Liberals had been in power for more than a decade.
It was up to Camille Thériault, McKenna’s replacement as party leader and premier, to keep the Liberals afloat. The polls augured well for his party, so Thériault set the date for his first test with voters for June 7, 1999.
But Thériault was not exactly a household name in New Brunswick. Despite being in McKenna’s cabinet, the former premier was not one for sharing the spotlight. It levelled the playing field somewhat for the new leader of the Progressive Conservatives, a young lawyer from Moncton named Bernard Lord.
Perfectly bilingual and equally at ease among anglophones and francophones, Lord was trying to have the party move on from the divisive debate over bilingualism. It had contributed to Hatfield’s collapse in 1987 and the rise of the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions to official opposition status in 1991. The grassroots, populist outfit couldn’t keep itself together, though, and by 1995 it had fallen back significantly in popularity.
By 1999 it was a spent force, and Lord went about bringing former COR supporters back into the fold. His stance for official bilingualism in New Brunswick with an emphasis on “fairness and justice” made both Acadians and COR voters feel at home in Lord’s PC Party.
While there were some grumblings within PC ranks over welcoming the COR elements that had abandoned the party, the Liberals made a misstep when they tried to make an issue of it. It was an attempt to shore-up their own francophone base as well as to divide the PCs in two, but their efforts received some blowback from a population that had grown tired of division over language.
A bigger problem for the Liberals, though, might have been a highway toll.
During McKenna’s tenure, the Liberals had signed a contract with a private company to build a much-needed highway between Moncton and Fredericton. News that it would be a tolled highway outraged locals. Lord promised to re-negotiate the contract and get rid of the tolls, but Thériault refused to budge and his campaign events would be greeted by angry protestors.
The issue fit perfectly with Lord’s overall focus on the bane of high taxes under the Liberal government. Thériault tried to make the campaign instead about the economy and health care, and criticized the PC plan to scrap the tolls and cut personal income taxes as fiscally irresponsible.
There were some weaknesses in the Liberal strategy, though. Thériault wouldn’t explicitly distance himself from his predecessor, but he tried to present a more compassionate approach than the one under McKenna, which included austerity measures that closed schools — much resented in the Acadian Peninsula — and cuts to hospital beds.
The Liberals might have also gotten complacent and lazy. Robert Pichette, an Acadian columnist writing in the Globe and Mail, said the Liberal campaign’s “slogans are as trite as their posters are amateurish; in fact, their entire campaign so far looks as if it were devised by rank amateurs.”
When mid-campaign polls suggested the Liberal walk had turned into a competitive race, suddenly Bernard Lord and the PCs looked like a legitimate alternative to voters who had previously been concerned with making sure their MLA was sitting on the government benches. Accordingly, the Liberals and Thériault sharpened their attacks against Lord — perhaps too little, too late, and the attacks also reinforced the PCs’ standing as a potential government.
Expectations were that it would still be pretty close. Instead, the PCs won a huge majority of 44 seats with 53% of the vote, a gain of 38 seats and 22 points since the previous election in 1995.
And it wasn’t just the southern English-speaking parts of New Brunswick that backed the Tories. The PCs gained five seats in northern New Brunswick and swept the eight seats in the Moncton area, in addition to sweeping Fredericton, gaining five seats in and around Miramichi and 10 more in the south.
The seats along the toll highway? They all went PC.
“Our province has voted for change,” Lord told the cheering crowd at his victory rally. “Today New Brunswickers forged a new beginning for a new century.”
The Liberals were reduced to just 37% of the vote, winning seven seats in the francophone regions in the north and east and a few more in the west.
The New Democrats under Elizabeth Weir retained her seat of Saint John Harbour, but otherwise the NDP was only competitive in two other ridings across the province. The Confederation of Regions all but disappeared, failing to register even 5% support in any riding in New Brunswick.
For the next few election cycles, New Brunswick’s political map would not be so riven by linguistic divides as it had been before. But the re-alignment achieved first by Hatfield and then by Lord would be short-lived. Not much more than a decade after Lord’s 1999 breakthrough, New Brunswick would revert to its Liberal-north and Tory-south divide — and another party critical of official bilingualism, the People’s Alliance, would re-emerge. It, too, would be re-integrated into the Progressive Conservatives, though without the same linguistic sensitivity as under Bernard Lord.
Poilievre beats Trudeau
On Saturday, Pierre Poilievre will out-rank a Trudeau.
That’s because he’ll pass Pierre Trudeau as the 36th longest serving Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons. It’s not so much an achievement on Poilievre’s part as a statement on how little time Pierre Trudeau spent on the opposition benches.
Trudeau served in that capacity for only a few months during Joe Clark’s short-lived PC minority government. While Trudeau technically held the title for nearly a year between his defeat in May 1979 and his re-election in February 1980, the 31st Parliament sat for a little more than two months. Trudeau père only had to squirm in his seat for a very brief period.
If the next federal election is held on schedule in October 2025, though, Poilievre will have gotten quite comfortable in his chair — and reach 18th on the all-time list.
That’s it for the Weekly Writ this week. The next episode of The Writ Podcast will be dropping on Friday. As always, the episode will land in your inbox but you can also find it on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting apps. And don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube Channel, where I post videos, livestreams and interviews from the podcast!