2020 is a year that just keeps delivering or disappointing, depending on your point of view. We’re into the last week of July and in normal times things are quiet on our national political front. In normal times, it takes a lot for anything political to break through with the public consciousness because normally we’d be more worried about camping, heatwaves, barbeques, kids going off to camp or working a summer job to pay for the falls tuition.
Normally once MPs head home for the summer, Ottawa goes quiet and whatever chatter around political matters dies right down. It takes a lot for something to breath through with people at all, let alone in a big way. Now add a global pandemic on top of that and it should be that much harder to pull off. Yet 2020 has proved time and time again that it’s not a normal one, with the WE scandal being the latest manifestation of that. There has been a lot of discussion about what’s going on here, most of which has involved some over the top partisanship from Conservatives and Liberals alike.
Predictably some Conservatives are calling for the police as a kneejerk reaction while some Liberals are calling this all an opposition contrived nothing burger, saying that it’s all about hatred for the Prime Minister. In that sense, this been very normal for lots of Ottawa stories that don’t break through. But also at that same time both the blue and red teams are completely off the mark in this moment, which evidence both firm & anecdotal is proving. First with an interesting piece of evidence out this morning, in the form of a new poll from Angus Reid on this topic:
There is a lot of good information coming out of this poll, some of which should put the notions that this is nothing to bed. There were a few numbers in this poll that really jumped out at me as noteworthy. The first stat shows the level of engagement that those surveyed has had with this issue, and people are engaged. The WE Scandal came in with a score of 66 on their scale, which for context puts it right behind the SNC Lavalin Scandal, which scored a 67. Also for further context, Coronavirus comes in at 77. Add to those numbers the fact that this WE Scandal came in at that number in the dead of summer, compared to the SNC Scandal which happened right at the business time in the political calendar. That’s not a nothing burger folks.
The second number that jumped out in this poll revolves around how people perceive what happened here so far, which also should end the notion that this story is nothing. Of those surveyed, only 12% saw this as “a simple mistake” and nothing more. 43% said it was unethical but not criminal while 37% feel it’s possibly a criminal act that should be reviewed by the police. Although those two last groups differ on the matter of criminality, that’s still 80% of those respondents agreeing that something unethical happened here, which is the kind of consensus that you just don’t normally see.
The final number that jumped out at me here was the approval ratings for the Prime Minister, which are now firmly in the negative. Back in May the PM had a 54% approval rating and 44% disapproval, and in July, those numbers have now flipped with a 44% approval rating and a 54% disapproval rating. That’s a big swing to take place in two months and an amazing reversal, especially when you consider how this PM was getting good reviews for his response to COVID-19. Due to those reviews, last month the rumours were out there that the Liberals would go to an early election (which wasn’t going to happen). Now in the space of a month or two, there are rumours of the opposition looking to take down the government to force an early election (which also isn’t going to happen).
Now that same poll comes away with the conclusion that people aren’t changing their votes today on this, but this is where my anecdotal evidence comes into the conversation. I just spent the last month far outside the Ottawa bubble, back home in Northwestern Ontario. And without fail, about 75% of the people who I got into conversations with brought this scandal up. What’s more, unlike the SNC Lavalin Scandal, which was more difficult to get your heads around, the WE Scandal is very straightforward for people.
People get this not just because of the details themselves, but because of how they fit into the old stereotypes created by old Liberals scandals from the past. That’s connection with the past has been helped by the fact that the Liberal government today reacted with many of the same kinds of language and approaches. While with AdScam we were told about how the Liberals were trying to save the country and convince Quebeckers to stay, in the WE Scandal we were being told at the start that it was all okay because of the “jobs” that were being created for students. In both cases, we were told that this was all for the greater good, that the ends justified the means and that if you questioned that you were the problem here.
For all that’s happened in this case so far, this isn’t over yet. We don’t know if the police need to be called in yet and to call for them now (or earlier) is just over the top. At the same time, this isn’t a nothing burger and there is a lot of smoke here because there is a fire. That fire is not going out anytime soon, with big testimony coming this week at the Finance Committee. On Tuesday we’ll hear from the former Chair of the WE board, who told the Globe and Mail today that she resigned over ‘concerning developments’ at the organization. And right after her? We’ll have both of the Kielburger Brothers testifying, which means Tuesday will be an interesting day to watch house committees.
But after that, we’ll still have the Prime Minister himself, his chief of staff and others who will testify, each bringing new details to the public eye. As a result, the “drip, drip, drip” of this story will continue for weeks to come, each new drip bringing the potential to land serious blows against this government. And with each new blow that lands, it will get harder and harder to continue without some kind of real punishment for this government.
For me, that’s the part of this story that I’m watching because let’s face it; we’ve seen ministers resign for far less than what both the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister have admitted to on the public record. And for both of those people, these aren’t their first incidents that have required the Ethics Commissioner to investigate. At some point here there needs to be some consequence for this government, doesn’t there? So today the polls may say that people aren’t ready to vote the Liberals out on this, but they do show that people have noticed, they’re watching, and they see plenty wrong with what they’ve seen. Now it’s just a matter of if the next drips to come will push Canadians too far and will tip them towards giving this Liberal government the ultimate political consequence at the next election, whenever it comes. Until then we watch because this week promises to be a drippy one.