Matt Gurney: The Liberals needed 36 days without a crisis. They didn't even get one.
Afghanistan won't be what determines Justin Trudeau's fate. But it's not a great start for this risky campaign.
By: Matt Gurney
The greatest danger to the federal Liberals is not the opposition (though more on them in a minute). It’s the fact that they have now locked themselves into a five-week countdown during the most turbulent period in geopolitical happenings since the end of the Second World War. You’ve all heard the expression about "events, dear boy, events." Ten years ago, maybe you could have counted on making it through five weeks without something terrible occurring. Or at least made that bet with reasonable confidence. Today? It’s hard to go 36 hours without something new and horrifying coming along.
Consider what we saw on the first day of the campaign, not here in tranquil Canada, but half a world away. If there was any perceived threat to Trudeau's prospects in an early election, even just a few days ago, it was the pandemic — would a surge in cases make the Liberals look more opportunistic than normal? That could still happen, but it wasn't the first terrible surprise: while the Liberal leader stepped out in front of Rideau Hall to explain that this was a historic moment for Canadians, in Afghanistan, other kinds of historic moments were unfolding. As the U.S. continued its announced drawdown of forces, the Afghan National Army, hundreds of thousands of well-armed and trained men who'd been tasked with holding the Taliban back, completely dissolved as a fighting force. The Taliban seized control of the entire country, facing virtually no resistance, in a matter of days. A few weeks ago, pessimists might have warned that the country might fall in weeks, not months. As this column is written on Monday morning, it seems like everything outside of the confines of Kabul International Airport has already fallen. It didn’t take weeks. It took hours.
What happens in Afghanistan probably won’t be what determines the fate of the Trudeau Liberals. But it is, if nothing else, a warning to them — and a warning they should not have needed. Things are falling apart in unpredictable ways faster than we are used to. And yet here in Canada, we still tend to move at our own placid, lackadaisical pace. We have not gotten any better at moving faster to keep up with events. Neither have governments, nor political parties.
Afghanistan is the most current example of this — there are now reports that locals who worked for Canada could not be evacuated because of Canadian bureaucratic hurdles that really ought to have been waived in the face of imminent massacre. (Kevin Newman wrote about this problem for The Line more than a week ago.) But it’s not the only example of this; we live in a country that never figured out how to secure its borders against a viral pandemic, and took 18 months to realize that — maybe — some sort of vaccine passport, if only for international travel, might be something we should have.
We are a year and a half into this thing and still playing catchup, for those keeping score at home. The federal government, ably and tragically matched by some of the provinces, yes, has never been able to move into a proactive response to the pandemic — we are consistently caught flatfooted by things that were not only foreseeable here, but were already happening elsewhere. But this astonishing “It won’t happen here” kind of Canadian exceptionalism remains stubbornly intact — indeed, it barely seems to have been scratched.
Afghanistan likely won’t last as a campaign issue for more than a few weeks. But it will last longer than the Liberals would have guessed as recently as Saturday! Many Canadian journalists have personal ties to Afghanistan, and worked closely with people there … people who are now desperately calling and texting them, begging for help and salvation in the face of likely violent revenge by the Taliban. This connection to Afghanistan and its people is not broad across Canadian media, but it is deep, and those Canadian journalists with such personal connections will not be easily knocked off their anger and anxiety for Afghan friends by the campaign issue du jour. Consider as well the horrific videos now emerging from Kabul, including people falling to their deaths from the sides of departing Allied transport aircraft. These videos will continue for as long as Western forces hold the airport. That will be days or maybe weeks. Which means a constant livestream of panic and human suffering in a place our government claims to care about.
But yes, Mr. Trudeau. It's a very historic moment for us and all that.
Look, the Liberals are still near certain to win this. We've all seen the polls. Further, if you're the Liberals, you know it's only going to get harder from here — the happy glow of a warm Canadian summer and freshly jabbed arms will fade with time, and be replaced by the fears of sending unvaccinated kids off to school this fall. Further, once things are stable enough to begin a full review of what happened, the many failures of the federal response to COVID-19 will be laid bare in commissions and reports, just as the fiscal bills come due for our warranted but still massive emergency spending. If you're Trudeau, of course you want to go now as opposed to later. Later is harder. Now is easier.
But not necessarily easy. On top of the danger of wildcard events such as a country collapsing in days, the Liberals are not guaranteed an easy walk over their opponents. The NDP seems in much better shape than it was in 2019, both in terms of its standings in the polls but also its election readiness. There is a real threat to the Liberals on the left, something they haven't had to worry about in years. Meanwhile, the Conservatives seem a bit of a disaster, alas, but in what has got to be a disquieting development for the Liberals, are proving more adept than they've been of late.
Still not adept enough to avoid dumb mistakes, like the party's choice to pretend not to hear questions about whether leader Erin O'Toole supports the Liberals' proposed federal vaccine mandate, which would require the federal service be vaccinated (how, they haven’t said, since that’s not necessarily, you know, legal), and would require vaccination for plane, train and cruise ship passengers. But adept enough to recognize that avoiding the question and praying no one notices wasn't going to work for an entire 35-day campaign. On Sunday night, quite late in the evening, the party rolled out an actually totally solid and workable plan, only two days after the Liberals announced theirs, and only 10 hours after O’Toole’s cringe-worthy attempt to avoid answering questions about it. If this was still the Conservatives under Andrew Scheer, they'd have spent weeks refusing to accept the inevitable and adopt a more coherent, sellable position. This is progress — only relative to a low-starting place, sure, but progress all the same.
It would be great if this country had a more competent right-leaning party, because God knows it needs one, and there's tonnes of opportunity there just waiting to be seized. As it is, the Canadian voter might have to settle for a Conservative party that is still kind of a disaster, but observably less so than last time ... and that last disaster still won the popular vote.
It's way, way too early to make any predictions for the final result, but even on day two, we have some signs that the road ahead might be more difficult than the Liberals were expecting. And now, they, and we, wait to see what the next 34 days will bring, and hope it will be less horrific than what's happening right now in Kabul.
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