Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau on Sunday announced the federal election, calling it an opportunity to ‘finish the fight’ © Reuters

Canadians will go to the polls on September 20 to vote in a snap election two years ahead of schedule, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the country’s governor-general to dissolve the legislature.

In a speech outside Rideau Hall, Ottawa’s formal seat of government, Trudeau framed the election as a referendum on the government’s coronavirus pandemic response and an opportunity to “finish the fight” with a mandate for sweeping change on climate, housing, social welfare and public healthcare.

“The decisions your government makes right now will define the future that your kids and grandkids will grow up in,” he said. “We were there for you, and now it is up to you to choose.”

Trudeau’s Liberal party is hoping to capitalise on a successful Covid-19 vaccination drive to solidify its hold on power after two years of minority government. Polls showed the party was likely to gain seats at the expense of the Conservatives and was within striking distance of a majority. The Liberals hold 155 seats in parliament, 15 shy of the 170 threshold.

Canada has administered 51m vaccine doses and about 64 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the world. Those gains followed a halting early vaccination effort and supply problems from pharmaceutical companies.

The 36-day campaign is the shortest allowed by Canadian law. Elections Canada, the organising federal body, said it was ready to process potentially millions of mail-in ballots.

Trudeau’s decision is a gamble, with the country gripped by a fourth wave of infections. Canadians may punish his party for what many see as an unnecessary election and an attempted power grab at a time when many want to focus on the recovery.

“The reality is that Canadians are just getting their first break from the pandemic,” said Nikita Nanos, chief data scientist and founder at Nanos Research, a polling firm.

“Now they’re starting to think about, what does it mean to go back to work? What does it mean for the kids to go back to school? And as a result, there’s just not a lot of enthusiasm for an election at this particular point in time.”

Opposition leaders had already condemned Trudeau as news of the impending vote gathered pace over the past week. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the leftist progressive New Democrats, the fourth-largest party in parliament, described the decision to hold a vote in the midst of a pandemic as “selfish”.

Following Trudeau’s announcement, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said his party was the only one that could be trusted to manage the recovery. He had earlier pledged to balance the budget within 10 years, a sign of how difficult it will be to rein in public debt and spending.

O’Toole and Singh argued that an election would distract Canada from dealing with foreign crises, such as the unravelling of Afghanistan and the earthquake in Haiti, as well as strain relations with China over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Trudeau signalled that the Liberals would campaign heavily on their vaccine record. But the party would also outline policies on affordable housing, strengthening public healthcare, expanding childcare benefits and support, reconciliation with indigenous communities and climate change. Wildfires raging through British Columbia have refocused attention on environmental policies.

A survey by Leger this month showed the Liberals with a national seven-point lead over the Conservatives among decided voters at 36 per cent, but just 27 per cent said Trudeau would make the best prime minister. That means even Liberal voters are ambivalent about granting their own leader another mandate.

The Liberals have overseen a minority government since the last election in October 2019, a vote that was marred by scandal after old photos emerged of the prime minister in blackface. The Conservatives came in second, with the Quebec nationalist Bloc Québécois in third. National broadcaster CBC News’s poll tracker showed the Liberals at 35.6 per cent, with a 51 per cent chance of clinching a majority, and provincial elections that have taken place since the start of the pandemic have favoured incumbents.

Polls showed that Canadians overwhelmingly backed the government’s spending on unemployment support, economic stimulus and vaccines during the pandemic. But as the recovery sets in and inflation rises, concerns are likely to shift towards reining in spending.

“The Conservatives are saying, ‘We supported emergency spending, but the emergency is over, the economy’s doing better, so now let’s go back to normal’,” said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. “But the liberals are saying ‘No, we need to make permanent changes’.”

“So, these are very different narratives about the future of the country,” he added.

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