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How the Liberals can kickstart a comeback

Commentary

A resurgent Conservative Party is coming out of its annual policy convention confident, energized by promising polling trends, and united around leader Pierre Poilievre. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals are limping into London, Ontario this week for a caucus retreat with their lowest levels of support since taking office in 2015. If an election were held today, all signs point to a Conservative win and the end of the Trudeau government.

It could be, however, several years before voters head back to the polls for a federal election. Is there a way for the Liberals to regain their footing in that time? Can they reinvent themselves in the eyes of the Canadian public after so long in power?

While the government’s growing challenges may simply be insurmountable, they have to try something (or maybe many somethings). The Hub has gathered a host of experts, including some prominent Liberal insiders, to consider these questions and offer their suggestions on how the government can turn its political fortunes around.

Time for a constitutional gamble?

Sean Speer, The Hub’s editor at large 

The Trudeau government finds itself in a difficult spot. It’s been around long enough that its longevity is now a liability. It’s come with the departure of key ministers and staff, inevitable political scandals, intellectual exhaustion, and a growing public perception that it’s responsible for the country’s problems including housing, inflation, and crime. 

These challenges may ultimately prove to be insurmountable. There’s a reason why so many Canadian governments (including the Harper government of which I was a part) tend to be replaced after two or three terms in office. 

Recent exceptions such as the B.C. Liberals under Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark and the Ontario Liberals under Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne were able to eke out one more election victory before ultimately being defeated. 

It seems unlikely however that Prime Minister Trudeau intends to step down before the next federal election. So the government will need to find a different source of renewal than a leadership change if it wants to restore its public support and seriously compete in its fourth re-election bid since 2015. 

The range of options includes everything from staffing changes (does the prime minister need to finally replace Gerald Butts as Bill Morneau argues in his book?) to sharper political tactics (see the thoughtful yet blunt comments below from Scott Reid and John O’Leary) to to repositioning itself on the political spectrum (see Sharan Kaur’s observations about centrism) to big, new policy initiatives that might capture the imagination of voters and distinguish the government from its political opponents. 

Different people will of course be drawn to different options. But the key here is that the government needs to be thinking in these rather urgent terms. It cannot merely assume that its political standing will turn around if it’s just patient and keeps doing what it’s doing. 

It must be prepared to assume political risks because it otherwise faces the biggest risk: losing. At this point, cautiousness, and safetyism are bigger risks than doing nothing. 

What’s a big idea that may galvanize Canadians and breathe new life into the Trudeau government? 

My bias is towards policy. I’m not sure that a change or personnel or tactics is sufficient to overcome the headwinds facing the government. A new policy initiative that galvanizes progressives and swing voters and contrasts with the Conservatives strikes me as the best chance that the government has. 

The truth is though there’s not a long list of obvious single-issue campaigns that can, as Reid writes, galvanize the public. There’s the sense that the government might view Bill C-18 and the ongoing fight with Google and Meta along these lines. The problem is not only that the Conservatives aren’t taking the bait, but it’s far from obvious that the issue has much salience with Canadians. 

One idea that’s admittedly high risk but may fit the bill is constitutional reform. Previous constitutional fatigue has left us suspended in an unsatisfying equilibrium. No one is satisfied with the status quo. Yet no government has been prepared since the early 1990s to address it. Maybe it’s time for the Trudeau government to take a gamble and open up the constitution.

The Liberals would probably want to codify a specific right to an abortion as well as to bring more concrete expression to the constitutional evolution of Indigenous rights as envisioned in Section 35. They may even want to take a shot at curtailing the notwithstanding clause or interprovincial trade barriers. Conservative premiers would have their own priorities including possible constraints on the federal spending power, the inclusion of property rights, and of course senate reform. Quebec would presumably have an interest in immigration, language, and provincial rights more generally. 

Maybe there’s an odd dynamic where these strange bedfellows can actually reach a deal. Or maybe the prime minister can go over the heads of the premiers and appeal directly to Canadians. Either way, at least it would give him something more exciting and interesting to talk about than net-zero emissions, or child-care spaces, or the government’s other technocratic stuff that seem to have lost their resonance. 

The prime minister’s father of course secured the Constitution in the twilight of his political career. Perhaps Prime Minister Trudeau can reinvigorate his own political fortunes by building on his father’s constitutional architecture. 

Demolish Pierre Poilievre

Scott Reid, Principal at Feschuk.Reid and former senior adviser to the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin 

It’s simple: demolish Poilievre.

There’s more, of course. If the Trudeau Liberals are to rise up off the political mat, a long list of challenges will have to be confronted.  

First and foremost, the government must radically re-engineer its approach to pocketbook issues. A party that once pegged its appeal on lifting up the middle class now aims most of its economic measures, and messages, at the lower end of the income scale. The fat middle of the electorate feels increasingly uncherished and unheard. This simply must change. 

Trudeau also needs to start thinking about how to procure a single-issue campaign capable of galvanizing public attitudes. Think 1974 or 1988—elections where the default theme of “time for a change” was overwhelmed by a policy fight that rescued unpopular incumbents.    

But the essential precondition for a Liberal rebound is to render the leader of the opposition widely unelectable. Why an impossible-to-not-encounter media blitz against the new CPC leader wasn’t launched last year is a Murdoch-level mystery. With Poilievre’s own advertising campaign working to apparent effect, the Liberals are running out of time to lay on the lumber. Hesitate much longer and the reek of desperation will overwhelm even the finest creative. 

Research will guide where that attack should be trained specifically. Keep in mind that simple character attacks are easily dismissed as pure politics. Better to find a policy difference so instructive that it invites people to make their own damaging inferences about Poilievre and how he would govern.

A well-executed paid campaign will not win Trudeau the next election. Inevitably, the Liberals need the economy to be better and they need to be better on the economy. But as long as Poilievre’s presentation of himself to voters goes uncontested, there will be no return to competitive standing. It is the critical first step back. 

Wedge issues alone won’t work

Sharan Kaur, Former Deputy Chief of Staff to the Hon. Bill Morneau

The days of sunny ways are long gone. We live in a post-pandemic era where distrust in our institutions is at an all-time high and politicians aren’t afraid to pander to people who consider conspiracy theories as facts. Social media has become the proverbial town square and liberalism is next on the chopping block. 

A recent poll conducted by Angus Reid revealed that 32 percent of people felt that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre would make the best prime minister for Canada, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trailing at 17 percent. Some might be wondering how a party that won a staggering majority in 2015 on a platform of hope and hard work is suddenly the party that Canadians want to run away from. Simply put, those at the helm of power within the liberal movement have lost sight of the centrist politics and policies.  

When left in the ivory towers of Ottawa for too long, politicians and those around them lose sight of what is truly impacting Canadians. Every day Canadians want to see politicians show restraint when it comes to spending. They want to see decorum. They want to see all levels of government working together to solve critical issues like housing. The liberals need to focus less on creating wedge issues out of things like identity politics and find ways for growth and prosperity for our country. 

Social policy issues will always be important but right now we are seeing a level of anger and frustration rise amongst everyday Canadians who are having a hard time keeping a roof over their heads and putting food on their tables. 

If I were part of the team surrounding Prime Minister Trudeau, while the Conservative Party of Canada held their well-attended national convention in Quebec City this weekend with a somewhat new and improved version of their leader Pierre Poilievre, I would advise them to tread carefully. Let the conservatives move to the far Right. They will inevitably fumble by pandering to those with extremely polarizing views.

There is one person who can beat Poilievre and it is Trudeau but it will require discipline and a compass that will guide them back to true centrism.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, flanked by MPs, arrives to make an announcement during the Liberal summer caucus retreat in St. Andrews, N.B., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press.

Trudeau needs to retake centre stage

John O’Leary, Senior consultant at Crestview Strategies, member of the 2019 and 2021 Liberal Party National Campaign teams, and Director of Strategic Communications in the Liberal Research Bureau

More Justin Trudeau.

It’s counter-intuitive to say the Liberals need a more visible, active prime minister at a time when polls show many Canadians are ready for a change and believe it’s time for Justin Trudeau to step down. But he can’t hide from those polls or just surrender to that sentiment. The prime minister often says that “there is more to do” and it’s up to him personally to get it done.

He needs to admit that his team of capable ministers is unable to lead the national conversation like he can. He needs to physically get out of the Ottawa Bubble to be present with more real people talking, and better yet being seen doing something, about their biggest problems. He needs to strenuously make the case that he has the best answers to what confronts our country, and he needs to keep at it week after week without distraction. 

The prime minister must also enlist his caucus and cabinet as a pack of attack dogs to take a sharper partisan fight to the Conservatives, in local ridings, the House of Commons, and social media, so he can stay laser-focused on his core narrative. He needs to show the vigour and energy that knocked out Patrick Brazeau in 2012, and the relentlessly positive and hopeful spirit that won over Canadians in 2015. People aren’t going to give the prime minister a second look and support him again if he doesn’t give them something inspiring and worth seeing.

Justin Trudeau is the only person who can persuade Canadians he is the right person to lead our country. Polls today say he isn’t doing enough to make that happen, but everyone loves a comeback. He needs to step up and give Canadians more, and he needs to start now.

Act on affordability issues

Margareta Dovgal runs the Vancouver-based non-profit Resource Works Society and has been a long-time Liberal Party volunteer 

Fall marks eight years since the Liberal Party of Canada swept in a majority win, bolstered by a campaign focused on change. And change there has been, from cannabis legalization and national child care to weathering a global pandemic.

What’s front and centre today, however, is the sense that everything is intolerably expensive and that wages haven’t kept up.

The crisis before us isn’t unexpected—alarm bells have been sounding for ages. It isn’t exclusively down to the federal government either, with much of the responsibility for housing in the hands of municipalities. The same goes for provinces regarding business conditions.

Nevertheless, a mature government with nearly a decade under its belt can’t avoid accountability for national affordability and economic performance.

Poilievre is already leveraging the situation, pulling support from demographics that should be voting Liberal. His message, like the Liberals back in 2015, promises change.

There’s a vast gulf, rapidly widening, between the homes we need and the ones we’re building.

Our economic productivity is lagging, affecting Canadian incomes. Core to that is building more, particularly high-value major projects that deliver energy and minerals to the world. 

The next federal election will hinge on who is perceived to have the greatest commitment and most credible plan to release affordability pressures and grow the economy. 

Right now, the Conservatives can only say the right things.

The Liberal government has an opportunity to act.

Let’s do that, urgently and aggressively. Work with provinces and territories on pushing cities to get more homes built and investing in affordable housing.

Take every measure to improve business confidence so that more high-paying jobs can be created and maintained.

Progress on this front will drive not only decisions at the ballot box, but also the engagement of volunteers and organizers across the country next time we’re in an election. 

It’s time to reduce immigration

Bryan Breguet, Too Close to Call founder and pollster

How could the Trudeau government interject new political life into itself? It could switch its position on immigration. I’m not talking about going PPC or [Quebec Premier Francois] Legault, but a significant pivot from ongoing increase to the country’s immigration in-take target and its general “century initiative” rhetoric.

This isn’t such a far-fetched idea. We’ve seen recent glimpses when government raised the prospect of a possible cap on the number of international students, a group that has ballooned massively in recent years to reach 900k recently, and is believed, at least by some, to put significant pressure on rents and housing prices. 

While the Liberals have, at times, given the impression that they don’t take the housing crisis seriously and are inclined to double down on satisfying their increasingly mortgage-free boomer base, we must also recognize that the Liberal Party of Canada has historically been remarkably good at adapting and pivoting when needed. They read the room much better than the Conservatives and New Democrats. 

So, if they decide to get more serious on the housing file, they’ll need to confront the fact they can’t build enough (or, more precisely, incentivize provinces and cities to build) to make a meaningful difference on prices before 2025. They could however pivot on immigration and have results quickly. 

It might start with reducing the number of international students. But the government’s track record on immigration and built-in strengths could enable it to go further by reducing the number of permanent residents (including points-based immigrants and refugees) without the risk of people questioning its commitment to immigration and diversity. 

It’s hard to know how much such a policy pivot would affect housing demand and in turn prices but it may not matter per se. Politics, of course, is ultimately about optics. The government would look like it’s trying to get to the root of the housing crisis. The Conservatives, by contrast, appear afraid of their own shadows with anything related to immigration. 

The prime minister might therefore gamble that his name and decades of good-faith support for immigration and multiculturalism would allow him to pivot without alienating voters from cultural and visible minorities—something that the Conservatives likely cannot afford, especially after the 2015 election. The Liberals in short may have the political maneuverability to counterintuitively run to the right of the Conservatives on immigration. 

Polls have shown people are ready to support a reduction in immigration levels. A well-crafted message centered on helping the housing market could succeed and take this topic away from Poilievre who currently enjoyed a de facto monopoly on it in the past couple of years. 

Brian Dijkema: Does prayer belong in the public square?

Commentary

Does prayer belong in public spaces? This is the question behind a Quebec reporter’s question to Pierre Poilievre about why there were prayer rooms at last weekend’s Conservative Party convention. In Canada, the answer to that question depends—in a way that is, I think, underappreciated—on where you live.

If you live in English Canada, the answer is likely to look a lot like Pierre Poilievre’s. You might not personally need a prayer room, but the fact that some people might want or need one should be met with a shrug (Poilievre gave a few of those as well). Prayer rooms are fine and perfectly normal—we have them in airports, hospitals, and many other places run by and paid for by the state. And it’s not even a particularly partisan thing—the Liberals have them too. It is, as former Conservative staffer Garry Keller notes, not shocking to anyone.

The fact is that prayer is pretty close to ubiquitous. Research conducted by Cardus with the Angus Reid Institute shows that lots of people pray. Virtually 100 percent of those who are religiously committed do so regularly, and what might surprise people is that even 10 percent of those who are spiritually uncertain pray at least once a month. What is truly shocking is that 2 percent of those who are non-religious—the same group that is entirely unanimous in their belief that there is no God or higher power—still pray! So, whether or not you want to give a room for people to pray in, it’s most likely happening all around you. As research from the Pew Forum notes “one-in-five religiously unaffiliated Canadians say they pray, meditate, or engage in other forms of worship on their own at least once a month. Therefore, the term ‘nones’ should not be equated with ‘secular’ or ‘non-religious.’” It’s almost as if the religious impulse is a human thing!

So, politics and the Constitution aside, Poilievre’s shrug is exactly what we should expect from a purely sociological point of view.

What has shocked many in English Canada is the illiberal character of the reporter’s question. But I’m not shocked and you shouldn’t be either. Quebec at this moment is not—is self-consciously not—a particularly liberal province; and many within it don’t want it to be. And that’s not just because Quebec has the lowest proportion of religiously committed in Canada. Only 6 percent of Quebeckers are, and over 57 percent consider themselves spiritually uncertain—the lowest and highest proportions in Canada, respectively.

But it’s not just personal, it’s political. This is, after all, the province where you will be fired as a public school teacher if you wear a hijab. It is a place where students attending state schools are barred—by law—from using rooms in the school to pray. You can’t be a judge and wear a yarmulke, nor be a police officer with a turban. This is not an accident. The reporter is merely asking questions in line with political leaders who have made—and a citizenry that is largely on board with—an explicit removal of religion from places associated with the state.

As my friend Dr. Robert Joustra wrote when Bill 21 was still an embryonic idea:

This is a kind of secularism, certainly, but not the best kind, and not the sort that should be associated with Canada. It’s called laïcité, a kind of reimported civil religion which suppresses all other identities—religious or otherwise—beneath that of the state.

For the record, I think laïcité is terrible policy. It’s misguided not just for legal reasons, not just because there are other, better, ways for the state to exercise a principled and structural stance on religious freedom and its limits, not just because it is profoundly dehumanizing, but also, practically, because it’s likely to foment the very divisions and radicalism it aims to prevent.

But the one thing it has going for it is honesty. Quebeckers, unlike many in English Canada, are at least open about their fear of religion in the public square. In this, they are different than many (not all!) English Canadians

Many of the reactions to the reporter’s question—and indeed Bill 21—are indicative of what you might call a consensus on the theoretical commitment to religious freedom in the English-speaking parts of this country. Many people are religious; lots of people pray, and wear funny hats; it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why should I care? In some ways, the collective reaction to the reporters question is a perfect case study in what Robertson Davies calls a “sort of Canadian conventionality, which keeps religion strictly in its place, where it must not be knocked, but need not be heeded, either.”

But when it comes to actual attempts to live out their deepest convictions in public life (peacefully, as citizens) many religious people are keenly aware that the self-perceptions of English-speaking Canadians’ tolerance of religion is often more of a veneer that is quick to block participation, dissolve basic freedoms in administrative language of faux liberalism, or to publicly shame religion when its adherents want to move beyond fashion and articulate in institutions and action their view of justice and society.

I said Quebec was more honest, but they’re also, to their credit, more cognizant of the reality that religion is powerful. That power, it must be said, has of course been the source of great evil that has scarred our country, but it’s also the source of great good, the lasting benefits of which we still feel and which we don’t often even recognize. Our country has for too long assumed, rather than sought to answer in a careful and thoughtful way, the proper role of not just prayer, but of religion as a force for social and political change. And too often that assumption is a minimalist one.

Poilievre’s shrug was the right response to the question at hand. But if we are to live fully in our Canadian identity, we can’t shrug off the deeper question. Perhaps, like a heart that’s having trouble, a little shock might help us live more fully together.