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Why Trudeau Is Sticking Around
He made himself the only option
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is still there for only one reason — and it is not because he wants to be Prime Minister for the rest of the his life. There is, in his view, an existential democratic threat on the horizon in the form of opposition leader Pierre Poilievre, and Trudeau feels he is the only thing standing in the way of Poilievre becoming Prime Minister.
He may well be right, but not necessarily for the reasons he thinks.
At our first caucus meeting after winning the election in 2015, Trudeau told the assembled MPs, most of whom were rookies, that “arrogance is Liberal kryptonite.” In spite of that apparent profound self-awareness, there has been no shortage of arrogance to come out of the top levels of the government. That he plans to hang on for another election — and therefore up to another six years — is a testament to that. As if to say, “I don’t want to be here, but I’m too important to the country to leave.” Maybe so, but expressing it turns people off; one can be both competent and arrogant.
The Trudeau government, in spite of its many missteps and gaffes, has accomplished quite a lot for this country. Michael Harris laid out the logical case for this in The Tyee last week. There is, without a doubt, much more to be done.
It brings me back to my general observations of the different parties. The Conservatives know their ideas are unpalatable to vast swaths of the population. It was, after all, Poilievre himself who brought in the Fair Elections Act to make it harder for the Commissioner of Elections to investigate electoral fraud and more difficult for young people and marginalised communities such as the homeless and other demographics not prone to voting Conservative to vote. So they don’t focus on ideas, they focus on people. Conservative MPs are largely chummy, easy to get along with on an individual level, and will happily join you for a meal or a drink. Criticising the foibles of their adversaries is an easy sell and people support them because they’re friends, and they’re not those others. Their own ideas are kept quiet except when talking to the narrow segments of the population that truly agree with them and make up their strongest base.
The NDP, by contrast, know their ideas are very much in line with the values of a majority of Canadians. So much do they know it that disagreeing with them on anything makes you a bad person unworthy of this world. It isn’t that the NDP is wrong, it’s that they know they’re right.
Liberals are pragmatists. The party drifts between the right and the left, often but not always reflecting the mood of the country, and look principally to govern competently without making too many friends nor too many enemies. There is an ingrained belief among Liberals that the public can see that they're doing a good job and will therefore naturally support them, and there is a certain incredulity towards those who don't see it. As a centrist party, they’re rather between the other two; there are few radical centrists.
There is enough kryptonite to go around.
When I was on the Hill, I often noted that I got along with Conservative members but generally disagreed with them on matters of substance, while I generally agreed with the NDP on matters of substance but had trouble getting along with their members.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has done much to soften this. He’s principled but also pragmatic and rather more affable than his predecessor. He knows the best way to move forward on the NDP’s own ideas is to support a pragmatic government that recognises the problems, and holding a balance of power is a rare opportunity that he isn’t willing to squander the way Jack Layton did.
Poilievre is the ultimate populist. He expertly and ruthlessly criticises his opponents, offering little of substance or much in the way of realistic alternatives. By sharing what he disagrees with rather than what he would do differently, voters can easily assume that he would do whatever they think he should do. By not saying, he leaves it open to the imagination. He will tell you that Trudeau is bad because inflation is high (among the lowest in the G7, mind you) and housing prices are out of control, and so it is easy to infer that he understands the problem and will fix it.
In the background, Trudeau has done little to promote and expose possible successors to the public. His own team clearly wants Chrystia Freeland to be the next leader, but there’s less evidence she desires the job. Other strong candidates like François-Philippe Champagne have not been given the leeway needed to truly establish themselves in the public consciousness. Anita Anand, known for her competence, got pushed to a critically important but less public role at Treasury Board. There are many other examples, and for the general public, their names are largely unfamiliar. Throughout his time in office, “Liberal” branding has been replaced with “Team Trudeau” branding, which may be great when Trudeau is on top, but kneecaps the party and its ideas going into the future.
Trudeau recognises the same major problems that Poilievre does but he has the responsibility to actually solve them. Many of the biggest issues such as housing supply and health care access, and their root causes, are primarily provincial in nature and require stepping on provincial toes to resolve. With Quebec nationalism always being at the front of his mind, that is rather like walking on eggshells. He has nevertheless managed massive investment in health care and is getting the federal government back into the housing game. Minimum wage across Canada doesn’t come close to keeping up with the cost of living, but is primarily provincial. Raising the federal minimum wage looks great on paper, but impacts so few people as to be an almost purely symbolic act.
What Trudeau and his team see is that the only way to solve these major social and economic problems is to keep hammering away at them, and changing leaders right now would risk ending the momentum they have. With nobody in the wings, it would leave Poilievre as the only known quantity in the next election; to stop him, Trudeau has to stay.