There was something telling about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and maybe politics in general, as he returned from his disappointing trip to China in December. He got right back on a plane and headed to Saskatchewan to do some campaigning in a byelection.
Getting back on a plane might be the last thing a normal person would do after a long flight from China. How many politicians would feel like campaigning after a high-profile trip that did not go well, especially in a long-held Conservative riding the Liberals were given little chance of winning?
Yet, there he was. Just as he did on the way to China, when he stopped off in the British Columbia riding of South Surrey-White Rock to squeeze in some campaigning before four federal byelections on Dec. 11, 2017. But Trudeau is not a normal person – nor is he a normal politician. And, unlike his father, Trudeau the Younger loves to campaign. No matter what policy or crisis is on the agenda, Justin Trudeau is a disciple of the permanent election campaign.
So far, as we reach the halfway point in Trudeau’s term of office, he has been able to compartmentalize policy and crisis alike so that he can concentrate on winning in the polls. That strategy seems to be working.
The Liberals may have had a terrible autumn on Parliament Hill, but the rest of Canada doesn’t seem to have noticed.
Of the four byelection results, the Liberals retained seats in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario, and snatched South Surrey-White Rock, which had been in Conservative hands for 40 years.
Normally, voters take out their frustrations with sitting governments in byelections. But in these four byelections, the voters seem to be sending both federal Opposition parties a message. The B.C. riding represents the second Conservative stronghold lost to the Liberals in a byelection since Andrew Scheer became the national Conservative Party’s leader six months ago.
Even worse for the Conservatives, given the fact that although the federal Liberals have handed the Opposition a gift-wrapped scandal over tax reform and the perils of an accident-prone Finance Minister Bill Morneau, the polls have not budged. If an election were held tomorrow, Trudeau would likely do slightly better than he did in 2015.
Scheer is emerging as the other major loser in the Morneau affair.
The news for Jagmeet Singh, the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) leader for the past two months, is even worse. NDP strength fell in three of the four byelection ridings. On top of that, Singh is beginning to look like a dud in the media instead of the messiah he was cracked up to be.
When the NDP loses, the Liberals win because the two parties compete for a strategic left-of-centre voter who is more aspirational than pragmatic. This voter, neither radical nor conservative, is crucial to Liberal success and must not be offended; as a result, this voter has enormous power. When the left-of-centre voter moves to the NDP, the Conservatives win elections.
Simple retail politics may explain why Trudeau is holding fast to his so-called “progressive” requirements for labour standards, environment and gender equality in any trade agreement that Canada signs.
There now is a very strong possibility that the U.S. will announce its intention to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement after the next round of negotiations in Montreal this month. And who knows what the situation is with the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Trudeau stood up his trading partners at what was supposed to be a signing ceremony?
As for China, even if Trudeau had come home with a commitment to begin free trade negotiations, a completed deal is years away. Trudeau could wind up with nothing to show after more than a year.
But the left-of-centre voter needs to hear a favoured narrative on labour standards, environment and gender equality to go on believing in the Liberals. So, expect the Liberals to continue “out-lefting” the leftwingers leading up to the October 2019 federal election.
Some words of caution to the Liberals: nine- or 10-point leads in the polls can disappear quickly. Ask Paul Martin. Just because the two Opposition leaders are like a couple of consumer products that aren’t catching on doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems to address, such as a weak cabinet or no comprehensive trade strategy. After all, in politics, a week is a long time.
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