The longest election campaign in modern Canadian history started relatively quietly – the first few weeks seemed to be a case of each party trying to find it’s footing.
The Harper Conservatives were facing a barrage of bombshells from the testimony of Ben Perrin and Nigel Wright at the Mike Duffy trial.
The heartbreaking death of three year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi had started an important discussion around Canada’s immigration policy and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander badly bungled the situation. It looked like immigration could be the defining issue of the campaign.
The Liberals were dealing with the blowback of their support for Bill C-51. Their untested leader had a tendency to walk headfirst into embarrassing gaffes when he strayed off message and seemed ripe to be embarrassed by his opponents at the leaders’ debates.
Polls consistently placed the NDP ahead of the pack. It seemed poised to make historic gains in the campaign. Thomas Mulcair had the NDP’s largest war-chest in it’s history, a massive lead in Quebec, and was facing two parties that seemed to be going nowhere fast. They seemed primed to capitalize on the “Anybody But Conservative” campaign – like their Alberta counterparts were able to do in the May provincial election.
And then things changed.
Notorious (I think it is the nicest word to describe him) campaign strategist Lynton Crosby was shipped into Canada by the Harper team. He is known for his ability to divide and conquer and has few scruples about using racially charged issues to achieve his end goals. Crosby has talked about a “dead cat” strategy – namely when a party is losing on the issues to throw an ugly issue (aka dead cat) onto the table as a means to change the focus of the debate.
Harper’s “dead cat” was the niqab. It seemed unbelievable that a piece of fabric at a citizenship ceremony could possibly impact the election in any significant way. But it did. It shook up Canada’s political snowglobe.
Quebec had just had a serious debate about entrenching secularism in it’s politics. The Marois-led Parti Quebecois government tried to bring in the “Charte des valeurs québécoises” which would have banned public workers from displaying any religious symbols and make it mandatory for people to uncover their face when providing or receiving a public service. Marois’ government was turfed from office after running a campaign focused on the Chartre and the bill died after the defeat of her government.
The issue of face covering is seen as a classic wedge issue for progressive voters. To many progressives, the burka and niqab represents oppression. Other progressives believe that the debate on face covering is a form of “dog whistle” politics that appeals to the baser instincts of voters.
The Conservative calculus was likely that the NDP would be hit the hardest with this wedge issue. Quebecois – the NDP’s newly established base of support – were massively in favour of the banning of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
The NDP was stuck between a rock and a hard place. They had always fought to build a more inclusive and welcoming Canada for Muslims. However, they had to fight for their own base of support in Quebec which seemed to support the niqab ban. A party that is looking to grow their support can’t afford to spend time trying to fight to protect their base. They need to trust that their base is behind them 100% so that they can broaden their support. To make matters much worse, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois seemed to be re-invigorated by the issue and joined with Harper in his calls for the ban. Many of the newly minted NDP supporters had, at one point or another, been Bloc voters and the NDP couldn’t afford to lose them.
Tom Mulcair and the NDP did yeoman’s work in trying to move the public debate forward and shift the attitudes about the niqab. However, it was a serious distraction from his message. Every day that Mulcair was defending the niqab was a day that he was off-message and unfortunately for the NDP, the issue was dragging on and on. The immediate impact of the niqab debate was that the Conservatives seemed to be able to create a “dead cat bounce” as they saw a jump in the polls. The NDP, on the other hand, were dropping in the polls – particularly in Quebec. A four party race emerged that also included the BQ, Conservatives, and the Liberals.
In comparison, the Liberals were able to skate past the issue. The Quebec Liberals had survived the Chartre debate in the provincial campaign and Trudeau didn’t face the political risk that the Mulcair did in taking a stand against the ban – many Liberal supporters in Quebec come from minority communities and were against the Charte. While Mulcair and Harper engaged in battles based on the niqab, Trudeau was able to move beyond the issue and get a positive and optimistic message out while appearing above the fray. Furthermore, it allowed him to move past the C-51 issue that had previously crippled his poll numbers.
The Conservative “dead cat bounce” receded as public’s temperature dropped on the niqab issue.The NDP had staked a tremendous amount of their political capital on the niqab issue but the Liberals were the beneficiary of the change in the Canadian mood on the issue. As the Liberals moved up in the polls, they became the vessel of change in Canada – the choice of voters who wanted anybody but the conservatives.
The Harper Conservatives had always benefited from a split “anti-Harper vote” between the NDP, Liberals, and Greens. Their “dead cat strategy” was a stark reminder of how far the Conservatives will go to win an election and created an urgency to ensuring that they weren’t election. Furthermore, combined with C-24 and C-51, the strategy undid a lot of the work done by Jason Kenney in building a base of Conservative support with immigrants. As such, in the couple of weeks in the campaign, the anti-Harper vote rallied en masse behind Trudeau and propelled the Liberals to an unexpected majority government.
The NDP was buried by the red wave as they lost much of their base in Quebec as well as some of their strongest MPs. Although the Bloc Quebecois was able to benefit from a four way split in Quebec and elected 10 MPs, their percentage of the vote went down from the 2011 election and their leader lost in the riding that he was running in.