Over a week into the campaign, Trudeau has yet to make a case for himself

Until last week, Justin Trudeau had never gone into an election with the Liberal Party leading in opinion polls. In 2015, the Liberals were running third. In 2019, the Liberals were in second, a few points behind the Conservatives.

It’s possible that Trudeau is more comfortable playing without a lead. If that’s true, Liberals might regard the last nine days of their campaign — with polls showing the party slipping back into a near-tie with the Conservatives — as a smashing success.

It was probably inevitable that Trudeau would, at some point, have to make the case directly that he should be prime minister for another two to four years. Perhaps that’s what has been missing from the Liberal campaign so far.

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Every campaign is a little bit different from the one before. In 2015, Trudeau answered questions about his readiness and defeated then-NDP leader Tom Mulcair on the question of who best represented change.

In 2019, then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer crumbled under the pressure applied by the Liberal campaign and Trudeau successfully argued that it was better to keep going with his agenda than to go back to Stephen Harper’s.

O’Toole is not Scheer

Erin O’Toole doesn’t have quite the same vulnerabilities as Scheer and the Conservative leader has tried to narrow the gap between what his party is proposing to do and what the Liberals are doing already. The Liberals also have the extra wear and tear that comes with another two years in office.

Trudeau enjoys some public goodwill built up over 18 months of leading the country through an unprecedented crisis. But that goodwill — plus the fact that Trudeau himself chose the timing of this election — set political expectations higher for the Liberals in this election than in the 2015 and 2019 contests.

Preempting questions about his decision to call an election, Trudeau tried during his remarks at Rideau Hall to frame the moment — what could be the final months of the pandemic — as pivotal. “In this important moment, maybe the most important since 1945 and certainly in our lifetimes, who thinks Canadians shouldn’t have a say?” he asked.

But Trudeau didn’t immediately move to fill in that frame with an equally stark argument about why his vision for this moment is superior to what his opponents have to offer. And some of his party’s early attempts to draw contrasts have been muddled.

Chaos in Afghanistan, blurry messaging at home

Questions about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan have overshadowed Liberal announcements, perhaps justifiably so. Two days before Trudeau went to Rideau Hall, his government proposed a vaccine mandate for the federal public service, then left the “consequences” for those who refuse vaccines unclear.

There was a brief spasm of controversy when Trudeau, riffing on a reporter’s question, suggested that he didn’t think monetary policy would be the most important economic decision his government would have to make if it retains power this fall. The Conservatives clipped Trudeau’s comment to suggest he had admitted to never thinking about monetary policy.

The Liberals then tried to make trouble for O’Toole by releasing a video of him talking about private health services. Twitter concluded that the Liberals had unfairly edited the footage.

WATCH: Erin O’Toole says premiers should be allowed to ‘innovate’ in health care

O’Toole says he would allow the provinces to ‘innovate’ in the health system as they see fit

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says he would allow provinces to “innovate” in health services by using the private sector to improve outcomes. 3:06

As for big policy announcements, the Liberals seem to have been content to keep their powder mostly dry for the first week — Tuesday’s announcement of a new housing agenda might be a sign that the Liberal campaign has entered a new phase. O’Toole quickly produced a Conservative platform and has taken every opportunity since to remind everyone that he has a “plan.”

Big issues, small messages

Liberals might still come away from the first week feeling like they have a few things to show for it.

Though a vaccine mandate’s impact on federal civil servants is less than clear, the Liberals did come away with a potentially significant distinction when it comes to air and train travel — the Liberals would require passengers to be vaccinated, the Conservatives would require the unvaccinated to take rapid tests.

Though some pundits may have rolled their eyes at the Liberals raising the abortion issue again, O’Toole did have to spend two days trying to explain his promise to allow “conscience rights” for doctors and nurses. And while the Liberal finance minister has been accused of spreading misinformation, O’Toole is now facing questions about how he would handle the health care system.

The 1945 election probably featured a similar variety of smaller skirmishes. But if this is an election about big things — income inequality, climate change, the cost of living, the future of the economy — it’s fair to say the public should be getting much more than we’ve seen so far.

In the stump speeches Trudeau has delivered in Calgary, Regina, Malpeque, Miramichi and St. John’s, he has consistently enthused about vaccination — sometimes contrasting the Liberal position with the Conservative approach or sharpening his message to emphasize the need to protect unvaccinated children under 12. He also has stressed that O’Toole would “rip up” the Liberal government’s child care deals with the provinces.

Looking backwards

But his remarks have been mostly backwards-looking. He reflects on the past year and a half and argues that a crisis reveals a person’s values. Liberal values, he says, were reflected in the support programs they put in place for Canadians. On occasion he has referred back to decisions his government made years before the pandemic — to implement the Canada Child Benefit and raise taxes on the top one per cent.

He talks about how “important” and “pivotal” the moment is — in Malpeque, he suggested that decisions made now could resonate for decades to come. But he hasn’t quite explained why or how.

Maybe Trudeau has plans to build toward that forward-looking argument over these five weeks. Even when an election campaign is only five weeks long, there’s probably something to be said for pacing yourself.

But the first week of this election campaign should remind Liberals that they won’t find it easy. If this really is a pivotal election, it probably shouldn’t be easy for anyone.

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