End of summer brings winds of political change

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One thing they should not forget. A government that has been in power for three terms, even one that has done a terrific job on many files, is starting to look a little frayed around the edges.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 12, 2022.

OTTAWA—The end of summer brings winds of political change.

The Conservative Party of Canada has a new leader. There is no doubt the new leader will have some healing to do. Pierre Poilievre’s main rival, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, made it clear during the race that there was no place for extremism in his vision of the party.

Poilievre played to the extremes, and it worked very well for him.

Party habits may not accurately reflect the public’s perspective. According to a poll published on the eve of his victory, the vast majority of Canadians would not think well of a leader who aligned himself with the Ottawa trucker occupation.

But that hasn’t stopped Poilievre from running on the “freedom” ticket, the same clarion call that came from the “Freedom Convoy” organizers.

In the short term, that will not bode well for Poilievre. But that doesn’t really matter because the Conservatives will likely have more than a year to reposition themselves closer to the political centre.

The Liberals have lived up to their commitment to the New Democrats on the issue of dental care, promising a package that will go out to low-income families in the near term.

While that may not be ambitious enough for Jagmeet Singh, chances are it will be sufficient to ensure the Liberal-NDP agreement will live to see another year.

The Tories will want that time to pivot. And no one should underestimate Poilievre’s power to pivot.

Over the course of his career, he has shown astute political acumen and his communication skills are powerful.

Some may make fun of his recent sortie on plain language government, as it certainly does not seem to be the top-of-mind issue for the political class in Ottawa.

But for most Canadians, who do not follow the machinations of government, the notion that Ottawa would become less complicated is powerful.

That is especially true when it comes to the tax system.

Most people do not want to be bothered with the details of governance, but they like the idea that it is becoming simpler and more plainspoken. It won’t necessarily get Poilievre any votes, but it works to position him as a guy who understands the concerns of ordinary Canadians and is prepared to listen to them.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also told cabinet last week that he intends to seek another term.

Party insiders think the election of Poilievre will assist the Liberals in achieving an almost unheard of fourth term in government.

Trudeau’s announcement is not necessarily etched in stone. In fact, it would be unlikely for him to signal anything else this early in his minority mandate.

A departing prime minister is weakened the moment they announce they have no intention of staying on. Most caucus members look to shift their alliance to the new leader as soon as the outgoing one signals their intention.

But cabinet members must be fairly certain he is staying because as soon as that admission was made, rumours were circulating that deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland is looking to leave government to take up a potential position heading up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Freeland is a quick learner. She has only been in politics for seven years, but already she is feeling the itch to move on. If so, she must be convinced that Trudeau is there to stay because otherwise, she was well-positioned to move in and replace him.

The reports that she is looking to jump ship may not be accurate, but once that message gets out, her political capital is spent.

A departing minister doesn’t have too many friends around the table. That leaves an open door for the positioning of other Liberals for the leadership.

One thing they should not forget. A government that has been in power for three terms, even one that has done a terrific job on many files, is starting to look a little frayed around the edges.

Trudeau has carved out a tremendous personal legacy in the areas of Indigenous reconciliation and the battle to lift kids out of poverty.

The dental program will be another step in that direction, along with the childcare agreements being negotiated by Karina Gould with every province.

Unfortunately, people don’t vote for what happened yesterday. They vote on what will happen tomorrow.

So don’t count out Poilievre.

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