Liberal Party takes narrow lead ahead of Canada polls

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau greeting supporters during a campaign stop in Laval, Quebec. As the 11-week election campaign enters its final days, the Liberals are on the attack, pursuing formerly safe Conservative and New Democratic Party seat
Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau greeting supporters during a campaign stop in Laval, Quebec. As the 11-week election campaign enters its final days, the Liberals are on the attack, pursuing formerly safe Conservative and New Democratic Party seats. Canadians will go to the polls in a federal election next Monday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Party leader Justin Trudeau is winning points with stand-out policies, despite initial stumble

OTTAWA • On Monday, Canada's Thanksgiving, so many crowded the main drag in Port Hope, Ontario, for a political rally that the police parked cruisers at the end of the street and closed it to traffic.

This may be the ruling Conservative Party's bastion - it has won the electoral district by successively higher margins in each election since 2006 - but it was the Liberal Party's Mr Justin Trudeau who the throngs were coming out to see.

As Canada's 11-week election campaign enters its final days, Mr Trudeau and his party are on the attack, pursuing formerly safe Conservative and New Democratic Party (NDP) seats.

On the campaign trail, Mr Trudeau draws large crowds. That he would spend part of the final week in Port Hope - which Prime Minister Stephen Harper's candidate won by 33 percentage points in 2011 - underlines how radically things have shifted in the run-up to the Oct 19 vote, with the Liberals running four to seven points ahead of the Conservatives in recent polls.

"This government is out of ideas, this government is out of touch, and the good news is that if we stay focused and work hard for just a few more days, this government will be out of time," Mr Trudeau told the crowd of about 300.

Mr Trudeau seemed out of gas when the campaign began. His Liberals reached a historic low of 18.9 per cent of votes and 34 seats in 2011. The 43-year-old son of former premier Pierre Trudeau seemed wounded from a barrage of ads saying he was not up for the top job. He had no experience leading a campaign and looked like a child compared with Mr Harper, 56, and NDP leader Tom Mulcair, 60.

Expectations were low at the first debate. But Mr Trudeau performed well and did not falter in the subsequent four debates. His policies also stood out, particularly a promise to cut taxes for middle-income earners and raise them for the top 1 per cent, and a rejection of balanced budgets in favour of deficit spending to stimulate the weak economy.

Starting from behind, the Liberals pulled even with the other parties before breaking away and, in recent days, taking a narrow lead.

Pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research says the odds now point to a Liberal minority concentrated in urban areas. Interest is high, with voting in advance polls registering a 71 per cent spike above 2011.

After becoming leader in 2013, Mr Trudeau stumbled over revelations he had smoked marijuana and earned hefty speaking fees even after becoming a lawmaker. He also committed a series of gaffes, such as stating admiration for China's efficiency. All this played to an onslaught of Conservative attack ads saying Mr Trudeau was "just not ready" to be prime minister.

In the months before the election call, the NDP surged on the back of a surprise election win in oil-rich Alberta. The Liberals tumbled to third, trailing by 10 points or more, but the inner circle did not panic.

"I don't think we should change the plan at all," Liberal candidate and businessman Bill Morneau said in an interview. "I'm absolutely of the view Justin Trudeau will be seen as someone who has the best vision."

The turnaround began on the campaign's first day, said Abacus Data's Mr Bruce Anderson, when the NDP leader refused to take questions from the media, creating "some room for Trudeau to draw attention by presenting himself as somebody who wasn't afraid to take questions, somebody who wanted to mix it up with everybody".

Mr Graves sees two major turning points: Mr Trudeau's pronouncement he would run three years of deficits, separating himself from his rivals; and Mr Harper's decision to make a major issue out of a court ruling allowing Muslim women to wear a niqab face covering when swearing a citizenship oath.

While the issue energised Mr Harper's base, it allowed Mr Trudeau to attack the Prime Minister for being out of sync with Canada's pluralistic values. "It's had the ironic impact of shifting the election from one about the economy to one about values, and that seems to have engaged a lot of the moderate majority," Mr Graves said.

Back in Port Hope, Mr Kevin Narraway, 53, said he wasn't all that big a fan of the elder Trudeau, but liked what the son had to say. "He's talking about Canadians working together and ending the divisiveness Harper seems to have brought to the country," Mr Narraway said. "People are voting for change."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'Liberal Party takes narrow lead ahead of Canada polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe