Skip to content

On the Campaign Trail: Afghanistan, Liberals down in polls, mudslinging

Our Newmarket-Aurora federal election pundits talk about international crisis, the latest polling and negativity in the campaign
Election Canada 0133
Stock photo

The second week of the 2021 federal election campaign saw parties grappling with a crisis in Afghanistan, aggressive demonstrations and rolling out promises to win voters.

Each week, NewmarketToday is interviewing local political insiders and analysts with different affiliations for their opinions on developments on the campaign trail.

Here is what they had to say about how things went last week:

Liberal riding association president Matt Gunning 

Gunning said the Liberals have been thrown off at the start of the election due to the Afghanistan crisis.

The government has had to try and help Canadians and refugees get out of the country as the Taliban has swept into power, garnering criticism as the Liberals run an election campaign at the same time.

“It’s had some impact on the Liberals, and negatively on (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau, in terms of their handling of it. Although I think it’s caught every government in the world that’s been involved in Afghanistan by surprise,” Gunning said. 

It has not helped the Liberals polling fortunes. Although well ahead going into the election, the Liberals now find themselves trailing the Conservatives in many polls. 338Canada has the Conservatives about two per cent ahead of the Liberals as of Aug. 30. 

“Low expectations, maybe to some degree of (Conservative Leader Erin) O’Toole’s start of the campaign, have kind of put him in a good position,” Gunning said. “They've really come out of this first week without mistakes, and if anything, they’ve helped themselves with some of these more progressive policies they’ve come forward with.”

Gunning said Trudeau and the Liberals could still turn things around. He said Trudeau could lean on his experience, initiatives like child care funding, and his record leading the country through COVID-19 on the debate stage.

“A five-point swing one way or another is certainly a possibility when those kinds of issues become the focus of the conversation, and it’s less about Afghanistan,” Gunning said.

On how Afghanistan will impact the campaign going forward

Gunning said it is dependent on what happens as the U.S. completes its withdrawal from the country.

“The hardest part will be if there’s ongoing tragedies in Afghanistan that make the national news over the next three weeks,” he said. “Ultimately, it still probably doesn’t help Liberals in any way if that kind of tragedy is ongoing.” 

On social media, negativity

Both the Liberals and Conservatives have had issues with social media attacks at the start of the election. The Conservatives pulled a derided parody of a Willy Wonka song featuring Trudeau, while Twitter flagged a Liberal video about O’Toole’s position on health care as manipulated. 

Meanwhile, the campaigns have experienced negativity, with the Liberal campaign facing demonstrations nationally, and anti-Semitic graffiti locally, actions condemned by party leaders and local candidates.

Gunning said the Conservative video was “pretty disgraceful,” but he said the video from his party was also disappointing.

“I don’t think there’s any need for that. I think that the policy and the truth should speak for itself, and there's no need to be trying to lie and cheat and steal. I don’t think any of that is above board.”

Highlights from the trail 

Gunning said housing policy has been a focus of the early campaign. 

The Liberals have put out a housing plan with loans and grants for first-time buyers and a two-year moratorium on foreign buyers. But Gunning said as a real estate agent he is not fond of the plan.

“I don’t think you can really fix demand if you’re going to have 300,000 new immigrants in the country every year,” he said. “I think all the parties need to leave real estate alone and let the market sort itself out.” 

He said the NDP’s plan to help renters, including an annual supplement of $5,000 per year for them, was “market-destructive” and “ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, he said the Conservatives are trying to be more progressive than they have in years past.

“They recognize trying to appease their base in central Canada or the Prairies only gets them so far, and if they want to make a breakthrough, they got to get more progressive,” he said. 

Public affairs and policy manager Darryl Wolk, Conservative

Wolk said Conservatives are very happy with how the polls have shaped up with them in the lead early in the campaign.

He said though a majority government still does not look likely for any party, that could still change.

“O’Toole has come off as a reasonable Conservative, and perhaps doesn’t seem to be as divisive or scary as Conservative leaders in the past,” Wolk said. “(It's a) moderate campaign, discussing issues like mental health, the opioid crisis, sick days.”

Meanwhile, he said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is winning away a lot of young and progressively minded voters from Trudeau.

“Liberals have really started off with a tough campaign, their platform seems to be falling flat. Trudeau’s image seems to have taken a hit.”

On Afghanistan

Wolk said the Afghanistan crisis has exacerbated the issue of people questioning the Liberals for calling for an election campaign amidst a pandemic.

Meanwhile, he said it is a chance for leaders to show how they would handle a foreign crisis, and he said O’Toole did well in speaking on the subject.

“It’s an opportunity to highlight his military experience and what he would do differently,” Wolk said. “(He) released a very strong statement." 

On social media, negativity

Wolk said social media tends to get “pretty nasty” on partisan accounts during elections. But he said there has been less of that in this election so far compared to previous ones.

He said both the Conservatives and Liberals erred with their videos, but said the Liberals' video was most damaging.

“It gave Chrystia Freeland a (Donald) Trump-like moment. It really impacted their brand, it threw them off message for three days,” Wolk said.

Highlights on the trail 

Wolk said parties are paying attention to child care and affordable housing early in the campaign, and there has not been as much attention paid to ideas for economic recovery.

“One thing I’d like to see more of, certainly, is talk about a vision for a full economic recovery that’s inclusive,” Wolk said.

He added he is surprised some progressive issues like climate change and Indigenous justice are not taking hold early in the campaign.

Wolk said the party leaders' personalities are also a focal point, with Singh and O’Toole having a chance to define themselves to Canadians. Meanwhile, he said Trudeau lacks a controversial candidate to point at.

“This time around, he seems to be the controversial candidate, which puts the Liberals in a bit of a different position,” Wolk said.

Longtime labour activist Ed Chudak, NDP

Chudak said no party is within a majority position, and it is clear Trudeau made a miscalculation in his election call based on the polls.

“Quite a few people are not happy with a pandemic election to begin with, and then you have to overlay what went on in Afghanistan, which I think lies squarely on the feet of the government,” Chudak said. “They knew about that situation quite a while ago and should have reacted.”

On Afghanistan 

Chudak said he is unsure how long the Afghanistan situation will capture media headlines, but it will have an impact if the stories continue.

“Having said that, it’s almost an impossible situation for anyone. You have the Taliban, you have ISIS, you have the tribal society with all kinds of conflicts and no strong central government,” Chudak said.

On social media, negativity

“It’s become more of an American-style politics with the attack ads,” Chudak said. “I have an aversion to it. I think many people have an aversion to that sort of thing, and I know some things were withdrawn fairly quickly. Whether they are effective or not, I guess time will tell.”

Meanwhile, he ascribes some of the protests the Liberals are facing to the influence of Donald Trump’s campaign style. He said much of it is from the anti-vaccine crowd and gave party leaders credit for speaking out against the demonstrations. 

“I don’t think there’s any room in politics for that kind of intimidation,” Chudak said. “I don’t think it’s a good reflection on politics, the way things are being carried out.”

However, he said such actions from demonstrators could benefit the Liberals.

“Most people sympathize with the other side on this stuff,” he said.

Highlights from the trail

Chudak said affordable housing is a big issue and not one that any party can solve immediately. But he complimented the NDP’s plan to charge a 20 per cent foreign homeownership tax to deal with the speculator market.

“A lot of people would support that,” he said.

He said polls are going Singh’s way and indicating he is the most liked of the leaders of the three biggest parties.

Chudak said O’Toole is speaking progressively on issues like climate change, but faces issues in his base, with most of the party voting against recognizing climate change as an issue.

“Who knows what will happen once an election is over,” Chudak said.

He said the NDP message of taxing the wealthy should resonate well with people who need help.

“It’s been years where both the Conservatives and Liberals have said 'hey, we got to make sure corporations who aren’t paying their taxes and are finding tax havens pay their taxes,'” Chudak said. “But they’ve done nothing about it.”

Former Green Party candidate Walter Bauer 

Bauer said his party’s support is steady, around four per cent, but Newmarket-Aurora remains a toss-up between Conservatives and Liberals.

He said strategic voting hurts parties like the Greens. He said they polled at 10 per cent locally in 2019 but ended up at 5.6 per cent on election day.

“There’s a contingent of strategic voters that care about climate, but they’re afraid the Conservatives are going to get in, so they tend to vote Liberal,” Bauer said.

On Afghanistan

Bauer said he is unsure the issue will have a lasting impact on the election campaign going forward.

“Because of the news cycle, it’s all going to be forgotten in a week,” Bauer said. “I don’t think it will have any impact on the election results, other than perhaps the Afghan population in Canada.”

The Green Party has focused on the issue, with leader Annamie Paul calling last week for a one-day suspension of campaigning from all parties to focus on rescue efforts for people left in Afghanistan.

“I’m glad she’s thinking about it. I don’t really think it’s going to do much for us,” Bauer said. “The deed is done. The last flight has gone on.”

On social media, negativity

Bauer said attacks have been an issue since the start of social media.

“I don’t like it but it seems to be the new norm. There’s a lot of anger out there,” he said.

Bauer said anti-vaxxers are vilifying Trudeau.

“I’m not surprised by it,” Bauer said. “I’m not sure how to fix it.”

Highlights from the trail

Bauer said he is surprised by the progressiveness of the Conservative platform so far. 

“All of a sudden, they’ve got socialist elements in their platform,” Bauer said, adding he is unsure if the Conservative would walk back those promises over time. “We’ll see how that plays out.”

He also highlighted Elections Canada deciding not to have voting booths on campuses at post-secondary schools. He said that could drive down voter turnout among youth.

“We’ll see about how much, but that could be a problem,” Bauer said. “They (young voters) tend to be more progressive.”