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The shuffle and the cabinet retreat didn't work. Now what?
Perhaps the biggests surprise is that a government spending half a trillion dollars a year could seem so trapped. I used to tell myself that control over a federal government gives a prime minister immense political advantage against his opponents, because a government is a possibility machine. Outsiders can only demand; a prime minister can make things happen. Lately this feels like something I used to know that is no longer useful, like how to get free calls from a payphone.
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Tax credits to fuel a green transition were easier said than done. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will cost someone $30.9 billion. On the promise to plant 2 billion trees, Jonathan Wilkinson has gone full Baghdad Bob: the government now insists it never promised 2 billion trees. That’s the tweet. The premier of the Northwest Territories would like some infrastructure. To know whether such a thing would be useful, it would be handy to have a national infrastructure assessment, promised in the 2021 budget. There has been no news of progress on the assessment in nearly two years. Maybe one day Canada will have a new ambassador to Germany. Maybe one day the RCMP will account for its response to the worst mass murder in Canadian history. Maybe the first ministers should sit down to discuss housing, crime, social precarity and other big messes in Canada’s cities, but somehow that doesn’t seem likely because the last time Justin Trudeau “met” with the premiers he broke federalism.
The good news for Team Trudeau is that sometimes new inertia pushes old inertia off the front pages. In June, the apparent decision to stall on an inquiry into foreign election interference seemed bold to the point of recklessness. Now the conventional wisdom barely notices it’s happened. Perhaps one explanation for Pierre Poilievre’s rise in the polls is that he is now complaining about things more Canadians care about.
Did somebody mention polls! For many more reasons than this, the polls are dire for the Liberals. A cottage industry sprang up over the weekend, consisting of Liberal sympathizers pointing out that polls have often been lousy at predicting the future: Dan Arnold and Tyler Meredith; Gerald Butts; David Herle. They all have this much of a point: polls don’t predict the future, opinions can change, campaigns matter. Neither you nor I know what the future holds.
And yet. If Brian Mulroney managed to overcome John Turner’s polling lead in 1986-88, it’s partly because Mulroney’s government was still new, Mulroney was much less of a known quantity than Turner, and Mulroney was able to turn Turner’s chosen issue, free trade, into a huge advantage. If Trudeau has won three times while his share of the popular vote declines, it’s partly because he was less of a known quantity in earlier elections. There’s a reason why the last leader to win four consecutive elections was Wilfrid Laurier. It’s hard.
What Trudeau used to have was agility. He was a critic of the status quo. Stephen Harper needed to have jets in the air over Iraq; Trudeau didn’t. Harper had a low cap on the number of Syrian refugees he could accept; Trudeau didn’t. Harper and Mulcair were obsessed with balanced budgets. Trudeau was less of a fuddy-duddy. He’d change everything, from the electoral system on up.
This sort of stuff is simply easier for the young leader of a third party than for a prime minister nearing a decade in office. But as their manoeuvring room and novelty wear off, incumbent leaders can usually offer compensating virtues: their experience and wisdom. Sure, he’s less exciting than before, but now he’s a surer hand.
Unfortunately, for that to work you need to be a surer hand.
A senior Liberal campaign strategist told me during the 2019 campaign that they’d learned something surprising: when they pitched their economic credibility, a typical strength of incumbent Liberals, voters weren’t impressed. So they had to find something else to run on. Which helps explain why Trudeau in re-election mode is so eager to run on gun control, reproductive choice and vaccine passports. Did this change after 2019? It sure did: The senior campaign strategist stopped telling me what wasn’t working.
It’s a bit of a mystery why the polls have moved so decisively in the late summer of 2023. You might chalk it up to a quirk of methodology. I have no rebuttal, except to note that the same quirk didn’t jolt the polls in the previous seven summers. I don’t think it’s entirely due to a feel-good Conservative ad campaign, or to any of the specific examples of stasis and delay I mentioned above.
I think it’s more of a gestalt sense that this government’s actions are increasingly distant from the country’s preoccupations. Even when they act, it’s hard to notice a difference. How many years have they been saving the media now? When does all the saving start to feel like anything’s been saved? How’s the boundless economic opportunity of the green transition coming along? After the big $196 billion health-care deal, do more of your relatives have access to a general practitioner?
Each year at the end of the summer, among people who aren’t in the full-time business of defeating the Liberals but who have been underwhelmed, there’s always room for hope that Trudeau might switch up his game. A staffing change or a new Throne Speech or an unusually high-powered transition team or some other opportunity for the PM to show that he’s capable of accepting a critique or administering his own, and adjusting. That in some way, he’s a better prime minister this year than he was in 2016. Each year the latest process or moment or event comes and goes with no perceptible change.
This year it was a “major cabinet shuffle” followed by a two-day meeting in Charlottetown. Seven people who were cabinet ministers in June are no longer cabinet ministers in August. So… I mean, now at least those seven have an excuse. The rest are forever ready to stand behind the prime minister and nod while he tells you how hard they’re working. I absolutely believe they’re working very hard indeed. But as long as they seem impervious to inputs from the external universe — sound, light, data, information shared by other governments or by stakeholders — it’s less clear what ends the hard work serves.
What’s left to do? The prime minister could prorogue the House, I suppose, although that would buy him three months, and he just had three months. He could have Mary Simon deliver a new throne speech, although to his credit, he seems to have realized this is not the sort of thing that usually sends a jolt of energy through the land.
He could quit, although he must know that none of his successors seems likely to invigorate the party. Perhaps some day he’ll decide that’s no longer his problem, but I suspect he’ll stay. If he lasts another year, he’ll have passed St. Laurent, Borden and Mulroney in longevity, to become Canada’s seventh longest-serving prime minister. Another year after that and he’d pass Stephen Harper. You know, the longer he’s prime minister, the longer he’s prime minister. Somebody should write a book about that.