It’s nervous Nellie time in the Liberal caucus

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The prime minister and his team would be well-advised to heed the ‘nervous Nellies’ in the caucus. Caucus members are like the canaries in the mine, giving the leader a hint of the toxic atmosphere that the party is facing in the body politic.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 18, 2023.

OTTAWA—It’s nervous Nellie time in the Liberal caucus.

As the Conservatives climbs in the polls, the Liberals’ angst increases exponentially.

If one were a fly on the wall at the recent Liberal caucus in London, Ont., they would have been privy to some serious rumblings of discontent.

For most of the caucus, it was the first meeting after the cabinet shuffle.

One of the by-products of a shuffle is internal dissent. Those who were not promoted likely believe this was their last chance to accede to cabinet.

So, the discipline of power that usually muffles those who wish to remain in the favour of the leadership is weaker than it was before the change.

In addition, the caucus is spooked by the continuing poll climb by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

His simple, negative messaging about the country is obviously hitting a raw nerve with many Canadians.

That messaging, especially on social media, has resulted in a slow, steady climb in popularity to the point where most polls have the Conservatives substantially ahead of the Liberals.

That also contributes to the nervousness. Many Liberal members have little or no experience with running behind in the polls.

Since 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team have managed to lap the Conservatives in just about every part of the country except Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Now the numbers in Ontario, and even Quebec, are changing, which has people asking questions of the leadership.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller weighed in on the rising temperature, saying Liberals have not decided exactly how to counterattack Poilievre’s “garbage” attacks. He told the media that his colleagues did not want to bring themselves down to a level of politics that they have foresworn.

“There’s a tension as to how to engage … whether you fight fire with fire and bring yourself down … there is a struggle and attention generally as to how to deal with a person like that, that Canadian politics, in particular, hasn’t seen much of,” said Miller.

The minister is right that the negativity in Poilievre’s messaging is not politics as usual. Most official opposition leaders try to build their image as thoughtful prime ministers in waiting.

But messaging on social media has changed radically in the past decade.

The depth of anger is amplified by voices that feed on negative posts from like-minded political naysayers.

Back in the last century, those negative voices also existed. “Nattering nabobs of negativism,” was a term coined by American vice-president Spiro Agnew, when he was complaining about the media coverage of the Nixon administration.

He accused the media of forming their own 4-H club, a riff on rural youth organizations, made up of “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

The same and more could be said today, but the reach of social media is much broader now.

The fact that Poilievre’s numbers have increased most rapidly amongst young people reinforces the power of social messaging. They are the ones gathering most of their information from social media sources.

They are also least likely to vote, which makes the short-term focus on numbers a bit of a mug’s game.

Those numbers could change and change drastically. When former prime minister Kim Campbell called the 1993 election, her party was in majority government territory.

At the end of the campaign, the party ended up with two seats.

Nothing is written in stone.

But the prime minister and his team would be well-advised to heed the ‘nervous Nellies’ in the caucus.

Caucus members are like the canaries in the mine, giving the leader a hint of the toxic atmosphere that the party is facing in the body politic.

It may be nice to be nice. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said back in 2015, sunny days were back again.

But when storm clouds are on the horizon, they cannot be ignored.

The leadership needs to start responding in kind to Poilievre’s negative attacks. Learn from nature. You need to fight fire with fire.

The government also needs to start telling Canadians how it plans to make life better.

It is not enough for politicians to make housing announcements. Announcements need to be followed up with focused media buys to let people know what major federal initiatives are under way.

A $4-billion housing accelerator program is worth talking about.

That means serious advertising dollars to accompany the work that is actually being done.

It is fine to be the nice guy in politics.

But, unfortunately, everyone knows what they say about nice guys. They finish last.

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