Ken Boessenkool: Keep the planes parked — there's no chance of a snap federal vote this fall
No leader will want to be in the middle of an election campaign while cases are spiking and schools are at risk of being shut down again.
Will there be a federal election before next spring? In a word, no.
Recent challenges for the Liberals, plus the selection of Erin O’Toole as the new Conservative leader, has ramped up speculation about a snap election. Liberals and Conservatives can both make cases for why an early vote is to their advantage (and, for what matter, why one would be too risky). But the real issue isn’t one of simple electoral strategy or partisan preferences. The timing of our next election will not be purely political. The COVID-19 pandemic, as much as any political calculus, will set the schedule. Buzz and speculation can’t change the reality on the ground: the virus is still with us, and will be for months (at least!). And this will mean some very specific things to any war room advisors pondering whether to go now or wait.
First, schools returning in the midst of a pandemic raises the spectre of a substantial spike in COVID cases among school-aged children similar to the spike in cases that opening bars has created among adults. I’m no epidemiologist, but I’m making this comparison because the rise in COVID cases among adults has not produced an immediate follow-on spike in COVID hospitalizations and deaths. What it has created is uncertainty about whether that spike will happen, and when it will happen if it does. This uncertainty has resulted in a second shutdown of bars in numerous U.S. states, and will likely be seen here, too.
If, as seems likely, a large-scale return to schools in the fall produces a similar rise in cases among students, the result will cause a surge of anxiety among parents. Already, between a quarter and a third of parents aren’t sending their kids to school at all. A rise in cases among students will drive these numbers higher or potentially result in a second shutdown of schools. And then the wait will be on to see whether this wave of cases among students drives up hospitalizations and the death rate among vulnerable populations.
Of course, none of that is certain. It could all go smoothly. Still, no leader will want to be in the middle of an election campaign while cases are spiking and/or schools are at risk of being shut down again. And no opposition will want to be in a position of forcing one in those circumstances either. Uncertainty alone will prevent an election.
Second, the fall flu season may coincide with a second wave of COVID cases. We are much better prepared to deal with the second wave than we were with the first. We may not have to shut down the economy to the same extent, though that will depend on how big the second wave is and how severe this year’s seasonal influenza surge proves to be. A tsunami of cases of both diseases, triggering a spike in hospitalizations and deaths, means all bets are off.
None of this is certain. That’s the point. No politician will call an election with the real possibility of the campaign unfolding a rapidly worsening public-health emergency.
Third, Canadians are well aware of the insanity developing south of us. Every day the U.S. and its disastrous, unfit-to-serve president, are drawing closer and closer to an electoral quagmire, if not a full-blown constitutional crisis. Every day we have an example of why holding an election this fall is a terrible idea. This is true even if we stipulate — as I would — that every Canadian political leader is fit to hold the office they aspire to. And still true if we stipulate that Canada’s experience holding elections is flawless, which is close enough to being true.
Fourth, and this flows from the others, no leader in their right mind will call an election if there is a reasonable prospect of un-calling that election. Let’s go month to month. In September there is a prospect of student cases spiking. In October there is a prospect of follow-on hospitalizations and deaths from those student cases. November will bring the month from hell in the United States. December marks the beginning of flu season.
There aren’t any other months this fall in which to call an election. And flu season typically lasts through to February.
So the earliest any sane politician will trigger a trip to the polls is March. Count on it.
Ken Boessenkool is a research fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and a consultant. He has advised various Conservatives.
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