Hear that? The Liberal election train is getting closer, and picking up speed

July 08, 2021

The Editorial Board, The Globe and Mail

There is much speculation afoot about the prospect of the minority Liberal government calling an election at the end of the summer holidays, and sending Canadians to the polls in late September or October.

Honestly, where do people come up with these ideas?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself, coyly shorn of his pandemic beard and sporting a new haircut, downplayed the likelihood of a fall election just last week.

He plans, he said, to use the summer break “to consult Canadians” – and what better way to do that than by flying to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to make a $420-million climate change investment in a steel mill, and profit from the occasion to take jabs at the Conservative Opposition?

It looks like many more Canadians can expect to be “consulted” this summer by Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet ministers, with “consultation” defined as a swing through your hometown, taxpayer-financed chequebook in hand.

Okay, but what other evidence of a fall election is there?

Some point to the fact that 19 MPs of all parties, including Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, have discovered the urgent need to announce they will not be running in the next election – which is not scheduled until October, 2023.

And, yes, there’s the fact that the Liberals lead in the polls and, if the election were held now, the current minority government would stand a fair chance of winning a majority.

And, sure, the vaccination rollout that started out so badly has turned out to be a major win for the Liberals, with Canada now among the most vaccinated countries in the world.

We suppose there’s no need to even mention that the Conservatives under Leader Erin O’Toole don’t seem able to gain traction, that the NDP are polling too low to be a threat, and that other progressive party, the Greens, are imploding.

And it would just be stating the obvious to recall that the Liberal Party convention in April was almost entirely focused on election planning.

But other than campaign-style spending announcements, those 19 MPs thoughtfully giving their riding associations 2½ years’ notice, the polls consistently favouring the Liberals, the success of the vaccination campaign, the weakness of the opposition, the naked election planning by the Liberals (and, at this point, by the other parties, too), and Mr. Trudeau’s obvious desire to regain his majority in Parliament, what other evidence is there of an election?

Three words: high-frequency rail.

Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra “consulted” Canadians this week when he travelled to Quebec City to re-announce his party’s previously stated commitment to build what it calls ”high-frequency rail service” (not, note well, high-speed rail) between Toronto and the Quebec capital.

After teasing its support for the project in the 2019 election campaign, the Liberals have trotted it out again, this time with a promise to “[take] the first steps in preparing for the procurement process.”

That includes consulting with “Indigenous groups and communities,” and “engaging with the private sector to determine capacity, and seek perspectives on the best possible delivery model.”

That’s hardly a ripping endorsement of an ambitious project that would reroute most of Via Rail’s Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City traffic away from tracks it doesn’t own, and which it has long shared with freight trains, and put it on dedicated tracks that would allow passenger trains to operate more frequently and at higher speeds.

It’s a project whose cost will run into the heady billions of dollars without a private-sector partner, which is why Ottawa is still looking for one, and still trying to determine how much risk that partner would be willing to take on (“the best possible delivery model”).

And there is a veritable chasm between the assertion that “the request for proposal for the procurement process is expected to launch in fall 2021,” as the government puts it, and actually, you know, building something.

Yet Mr. Alghabra this week earned his party headlines about a tantalizing rail megaproject – the kind of announcement you don’t waste halfway through a term lest people forget it, or, perhaps worse, remember it and hold you to it. And he made his pitch in Quebec, where the Liberals need to pick up seats if they are to win a majority.

Brace yourselves. There’s an election coming down the track. It’s picking up speed. Scheduled arrival: Fall.