'Their hearts are not in it.' Liberals in Atlantic Canada accused of being unfocused

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HALIFAX — At the start of the election campaign, the polls were suggesting Justin Trudeau's Liberals could hold most of the 32 seats in Atlantic Canada after they won every riding in the region in 2015 and lost only six seats in 2019.

But political pundits in the region say the Liberal campaign is in trouble. They say Trudeau has failed to explain the need for a vote on Sept. 20, leaving the party unable to properly defend its East Coast fortress.

"It's almost as if Justin Trudeau himself is trying to figure out why we're in an election campaign," Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University in Sydney, N.S., said in a recent interview. "I'm starting to get the sense that the Liberals are realizing they may be vulnerable, at least in certain seats."

Don Desserud, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, says the Liberal campaign is unfocused.

"It's bizarre that there is no coherent message," he said. "The ministers are all over the place. Their hearts are not in it."

The Liberals' big-spending, feel-good campaign appears aimed at capitalizing on Trudeau's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the strategy isn't working, Desserud said.

"I think Liberal support is ebbing, and I don't think Trudeau is going to get a pandemic bump," the professor said in a recent interview, adding that the region's premiers and their chief medical officers have received most of the credit for keeping the pandemic in check.

"They don't see Trudeau as having had that role, though he has been handing out a lot of money."

In July, Trudeau signed multi-year affordable child-care deals worth a total of more than $1 billion with P.E.I., Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Later that month, he signed a $5.2-billion deal to help Newfoundland and Labrador cover the cost overruns that have plagued the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.

In Nova Scotia, however, the surprising results from the provincial election on Aug. 17 should serve as a warning for the federal party, Urbaniak says.

Like their federal cousins, the provincial Liberals started their midsummer campaign for a third term in office by highlighting their stewardship during the pandemic. And like the federal campaign, the provincial version lacked focus.

"The Nova Scotia Liberals went into the campaign without a clear narrative and without a bold road map," Urbaniak said. "They thought people would reward past performance … (Liberal Premier Iain Rankin) thought this would be enough to coast through, and that was an historic miscalculation."

Rankin's minority government was swept from power by a decisive Progressive Conservative majority victory.

The Nova Scotia election race, however, was decidedly different on several levels, including the fact that Rankin had been premier for only six months, and he proved to be an awkward campaigner — unlike the seasoned and smooth Trudeau.

As well, the provincial Progressive Conservatives, led by Tim Houston, campaigned on a decidedly moderate, big-spending platform that stood in contrast to the Liberals' tight-fisted, deficit-averse approach — a reversal of the roles typically seen at the federal level.

"The Nova Scotia example doesn't translate to the national stage," Donald Wright, chairman of the political science department at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, said in a recent interview. "Houston ran from the left as a progressive … to distance himself from the social conservatives. I don't know if that's going to translate into votes for Erin O'Toole's Conservatives in Nova Scotia."

On another front, Wright said, the perceived momentum behind Jagmeet Singh's New Democrats could siphon votes from the Liberals in urban ridings in Atlantic Canada, where Conservative candidates could find themselves the prime beneficiary.

"And there is a very strong provincial Green movement in New Brunswick, and in Fredericton in particular," he said.

Meanwhile, the federal Conservative campaign on the East Coast has been helped by the fact the Liberals have failed to demonize the party or its leader, as they did in the previous two elections.

"In Atlantic Canada, you need a right-wing bogeyman to frighten people," Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said in a recent interview. "In Atlantic Canada, it comes down to the question of, can the Liberals paint Erin O'Toole as somebody to be afraid of?"

Last week, Trudeau accused O'Toole of planning to privatize Canada's publicly funded health-care system. "We will continue to stand up for a public, universal health-care system, unlike Erin O'Toole," Trudeau said Tuesday.

Part of the problem for the Liberals is that Trudeau is no longer the fresh face of change he used to be, said Marland, author of "Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada."

"It's not a particularly exciting government anymore."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2021.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

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