Brison’s departure a wake-up call for Atlantic Liberals

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Scott Brison has always had a great political antenna and, while he said his decision was family-based, his reflection had to include a review of the party’s political popularity meter in Nova Scotia.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 14, 2019.

OTTAWA—Scott Brison’s surprise departure is a wake-up call for Atlantic Liberals.

His successor will have big shoes to fill.

Brison was always ahead of the curve. One of Canada’s first openly gay Members of Parliament, he moved seamlessly from the Progressive Conservatives to the Liberals when the Tory party severed with its progressive wing.

Brison was a great minister and MP, continually re-elected and popular in Ottawa and his constituency.

He posted seven successive election victories and served as a capable, no-nonsense minister in two Liberal governments. He also found time to build strong hometown ties, fathering two daughters with his partner Maxime Saint-Pierre. The retirement will not doubt provide more time to spend with his growing family.

As Brison’s social media post said “now is the time for others to walk that path, and I pass the baton knowing that Canadians will always collectively make the wise, democratic choice that puts good women and men in the Parliament of Canada, year after year, election after election.”

Brison has always had a great political antenna and, while he said his decision was family-based, his reflection had to include a review of the party’s political popularity meter in Nova Scotia.

In the last election, Liberals swept Atlantic Canada with Brison garnering 70 per cent support in his riding. It goes without saying that will not be the outcome of the next election.

The Liberals have nowhere to go but down. And unlike most other parts of the country, the biggest beneficiary of Liberal losses will be the Conservative Party.

Brison’s own riding was always blue until he decided to cross the floor and the constituents entrusted their confidence in him.

Tory popularity is on the rise in the East. The Liberals are definitely down but not out.

But the Grit focus on pipelines in the West has left their longtime supporters wondering what is in it for them.

Brison was a senior minister in Atlantic Canada. With his resignation, the region has lost a national heavyweight but that will be addressed this week.

With the exception of Dominic LeBlanc and Lawrence MacAulay, other Atlantic ministers are junior in rank and experience. Some in the party are complaining that the region is underrepresented in cabinet.

With election year kicking in, it is tough to point to a visionary eastern project that will excite voters in the next campaign. While the country is deeply involved in the government’s attempt to facilitate a western pipeline, there does not seem to be a similar Atlantic agenda.

Having made a British Columbian breakthrough in the last campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau undoubtedly wants to hold onto his gains.

But in the down and dirty world of electoral politics, the most important supporters are those who have been with you longest.

Atlantic Canada has been a bastion for Liberals even during tough times.

And they might be feeling a little taken for granted.

Brison said all the right things about his support for the party and his intention to help win the next election.

But by voting with his feet, he becomes the first Liberal to leave on the eve of an election.

The New Democrats have bled resignations in the past year, and that is usually a portent of diminishing electoral expectations.

If Jagmeet Singh is not successful in the upcoming byelection, the party will undoubtedly see more departures.

As for the Tories, Andrew Scheer has a bounce in his step and his team appears to be solidly gearing up for the fight.

Brison’s decision may be a solitary one. But if more Liberals decide to leave, there is a message in that as well.

One of the challenges of the new fixed date election system is that the campaign is already off and running even though the date is Oct. 21.

Every decision is now seen through an election lens. The Brison story has the potential to move from a single resignation to that of a potential eastern narrative.

Trudeau delivered on the marijuana promise, and Nova Scotia is actually the biggest beneficiary of that decision.

But the party’s electoral hopes in Atlantic Canada could go up in smoke if they don’t have anything more to offer.

A carbon cheque will not cut it, as people will be happy to cash in and vote for the competition.

The reality is that most regions do not decide on what government did yesterday. They want to know what is coming tomorrow.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.

Atlantic Canada is waiting.