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There’s more to this election than SNC-Lavalin

MPs say climate change, the economy, and housing affordability come up at the door more often.

Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Conservative MP Dean Allison, Liberal MP Hedy Fry, Conservative MP John Barlow, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May say there are plenty of issues on the minds of voters these days besides the SNC-Lavalin affair, writes Andrew Cardozo. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade, file photographs

OTTAWA—To listen to much of the news coverage these days, one would think this fall’s election is only about SNC-Lavalin. But in reality national elections are never about one thing, and rarely is there a single ballot question that all voters are agreed upon.

SNC, to some, is the biggest scandal to erupt on the Canadian scene since Confederation, and to others a rather small transgression that is not uncommon among governments. A new poll from Abacus Data suggests that most Canadians had made up their minds in early spring, and the recent report by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is not going to change many opinions. Perhaps the issue is turning just slightly better for the Liberals, as they are seen as having intervened to save jobs.

Nevertheless it would be too early for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to rest easy. His reputation took a big hit over this matter. It is not over and it could come back any time, in any way.

Who decides what the issues are? The political parties, the media, or the voters? Well voters are, as always, all over the map, and the trick for the parties is to craft a platform that bears allegiance to their own political philosophy and reflects what the voters want. The media try to read the tea leaves, and sell their services.

What are MPs and candidates hearing at the door? A survey of 10 representatives from various parties suggests that the issues at the door relate to people’s lives, such as affordability and jobs, and concerns about the larger world such as climate change and international affairs.

As veteran Conservative MP Dean Allison from Niagara West put it: “I think this election will be a question on, who do you think is better to help you get ahead and manage a difficult and chaotic world.” Perhaps the closest thing to a broad ballot question, albeit with two parts.

Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry, who has held the riding for the Liberals since 1993, says she does not hear about SNC in her riding, which is next to Vancouver Granville, the riding of Jody Wilson-Raybould. In fact, after boundary changes, Fry’s home ended up in Granville, and she noted none of her neighbours have raised SNC with her.

Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion issued a report Aug. 14 that said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by trying to further the private interests of SNC-Lavalin. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Fry says the local issues in her own riding are housing affordability, both for ownership and rental accommodation, and ocean protection, poverty, and pharmacare. Price on pollution is not controversial in her province, since they have had such a system for over 10 years, brought in by Gordon Campbell.

In Don Valley East, Toronto, Liberal Yasmin Ratansi noted the issues in her riding are the environment, jobs and the economy, pension security, and housing affordability—it is a suburban riding with a large number of rental apartments. Health care cuts coming from the Ford government are also a frequently-raised issue.

Ratansi notes she was prepared to discuss SNC when she went door knocking on the Saturday after the Dion report, but it was not raised by a single resident.

Environment and Climate Change minister Catherine McKenna in Ottawa Centre is hearing about the environment and climate change, the economy and jobs—especially for young people—political polarization, and Doug Ford’s cuts in Ontario. For a local issue, the future of the extension on the Chateau Laurier gets raised.

Liberal Greg Fergus from Hull-Aylmer in Quebec also notes that one of the top issues that comes up is polarization and the fear of extremism coming to Canada, along with the environment. Local issues include getting a tramway connecting to Ottawa, the next generation to the phoenix pay system for public servants, and health care services in the province. Surprisingly SNC is not on the radar in this national capital riding.

Liberal Yvonne Jones from the sprawling riding of Labrador on the east coast noted that pensions and affordability for seniors is a big issue, along with moving children out of poverty (as in the Canada Child Benefit), pharmacare, infrastructure, and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. No SNC.

Dean Allison says the economy and the concern about people getting ahead is an issue connected to affordability. The deficit is a concern, in addition to ensuring that government is not wasting money. He is concerned about the prime minister’s ability to manage international relations on many fronts: Trump, India, China, trade, and tariffs.

Conservative Karen Vecchio from Elgin-Middlesex-London, Ontario, notes that support for seniors is important to constituents, as is affordability and the increase in the cost of living. With regard to SNC, she is concerned about ethical leadership and Canada’s global leadership.

John Barlow, a Conservative from the rural riding of Foothills in Alberta, takes a harder line on a number of challenges facing Albertans and his constituents, which he lays at the feet of Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals. He assails the “Liberals’ determined effort to shutdown Canada’s energy sector. Trudeau has stated he wants to phase out Alberta’s oilsands, and by passing crippling legislation like C-69 and C-48 and cancelling Northern Gateway, he is well on his way to doing so.” SNC is a big issue in his riding, along with the carbon tax. He says the future of Confederation is at stake in this election, as western alienation is at a boiling point.

Emilie Taman, the NDP candidate in Ottawa Centre, says the top issue in the riding is climate change, with people telling her that “the current approach is unduly incremental and does too much to protect the fossil fuel industry.” Other issues she is responding to include housing and income inequality, electoral reform, and reconciliation.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, running in Saanich-Gulf Islands in B.C., has a wider take on SNC-Lavalin. She says the issue is that “major trans-national corporations have too much influence over government. Government is too subservient to big corporations, big oil, and big pharma.” She feels too much government policy gets written by corporations, or at least with their well-being in mind, rather than with Canadians in mind. Not surprisingly, climate change is a top issue, along with electoral reform, pharmacare, housing affordability, and public transit. On climate change she makes the point that 2023 will be too late to meet the target of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees, which makes this election critical to her.

SNC still provides a useful narrative for the non-Liberals in this election, but they have to be careful not to overreach. At the same time Liberals cannot pretend it is a non-issue. For the media, the guessing game continues.

Among the other MPs who were asked for comments were Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, who are central to the SNC issue. Philpott’s assistant said she would not provide comment by the deadline for this column, and no response was received from Wilson-Raybould. Several of the emailed responses received before Monday from respondents are posted verbatim on the Pearson Centre website this week: www.thepearsoncentre.ca

Andrew Cardozo is president of the Pearson Centre.

The Hill Times