Trudeau's back-to-school list
What might change between September and June? Oh, a lot
Summer’s done. The Liberal cabinet meets in Vancouver this week, the caucus in New Brunswick next week, to plan for a new season in Parliament or in front of their home webcams. In between, they’ll learn the name of their main adversary, the new Conservative leader.
It’s one of those times when everyone starts leaning forward to find out what happens next. Including the prime minister. Liberals who talk to Justin Trudeau say he’s in no mood to retire soon. “Still full of piss and vinegar,” one said over the weekend.
This source and another confidant of the Prime Minister say he still sees himself as his party’s best hope. This is a comparative evaluation, not an absolute. The likely successors are less sure-footed as retail politicians than Trudeau. Most don’t have his built-in advantage as an approximately francophone Quebecer. He’s held a plurality of seats in Quebec for three consecutive elections. Anyone who might lack that advantage would have to show where, elsewhere in the country, they could make up for it.
But uneasy lies the head that plans to keep wearing the crown. The prime minister is said to be aware of obvious things: that he’s shaky in polls, that consumer prices are rising, that a world on edge is not getting more predictable. A friendly U.S. president is publicly unsure about his country’s stability as a democracy. People who wish Trudeau well say he seems unsure how to proceed.
Meanwhile the world moves on, ready or not. When the House of Commons reconvenes on September 19, Trudeau will face a new opposition leader, almost certainly Pierre Poilievre. Trudeau defeated the last three Conservative leaders in elections. He might use his familiar toolkit to defeat a fourth. But the Liberal share of the popular vote has declined in six of the seven federal elections since 2004, including two of Trudeau’s three as leader.
I’m told that in a meeting with Ontario premier Doug Ford a week ago, Trudeau responded to Ford’s demands for more immigrants, processed more swiftly through the system, by complaining at length about Quebec premier François Legault. In Trudeau’s telling, Legault has the tools Ontario wants, but he cut immigration when he came to power and plans to keep it capped.
One topic Trudeau didn’t mention in his talk with Ford: dental care, a key element of a deal he cut with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to ensure NDP support in Parliament. A file you might expect him to discuss with the premier of a large province. The feds could start delivering dental care without provincial cooperation. Perhaps this would go better than other things the feds have done by themselves lately. Or they could ignore Jagmeet Singh’s end-of-year deadline for delivering dental care, on the theory that some bluffs are just meant to be called.
The world has a way of moving on, ready or not. A case in point: what could happen while Liberal fortunes grow cloudier and it becomes clearer Trudeau is staying put? Perhaps a version of what happened when Scott Brison, Navdeep Bains and Catherine McKenna walked away.
The Liberals I spoke to are skeptical that Chrystia Freeland would run to replace Trudeau. “I just don’t see her sitting through a bunch of debates with other Liberals,” one of my Trudeau confidants said of Freeland, “or meeting delegates” in a succession of small towns. And an exit route, plausible but far from sure, presents itself: she is being mentioned as a serious candidate to become NATO’s next secretary general.