Liberals can manage this minority, but sunny ways must end

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau obviously got the message that was delivered in the minority victory. He needs to reach out to Team Liberal, instead of simply selling the country on Team Trudeau.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 2, 2019.

OTTAWA—There was a rumour flying around last week that former prime minister Jean Chrétien would be meeting with the new Liberal cabinet.

It turned out, like many rumours, to be a half truth. In fact, as reported in The Hill Times, the current prime minister would be sitting down with his predecessor to seek advice on how to navigate a minority Parliament.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau obviously got the message that was delivered in the minority victory. He needs to reach out to Team Liberal, instead of simply selling the country on Team Trudeau.

The Trudeau pedigree is obviously loved by many Canadians, particularly older voters who remember the groundbreaking vision of the current prime minister’s father. But there are many Canadians who dislike both Trudeaus. And other Canadians feel that the younger Trudeau does not carry the same political heft as his father.

During the last election, Trudeau secured a healthy minority, but he was also facing a Conservative dead man walking in the person of Andrew Scheer. Scheer continues to self-destruct, making moves that almost seem designed to inflame his core constituency.

The decision to name Leona Alleslev as his deputy leader will only bring grief to Scheer and drive more opponents into the Conservative review camp. There is a bond of loyalty in politics that sometimes supersedes political logic. People support a leader who has been in the trenches with them, even when they realize that doing so could compromise their capacity to win the next election.

Scheer has some of those supporters on his side, but the naming of a Liberal-turned Tory to the key position of deputy leader will do nothing to solidify those longstanding relationships. One can only wonder what Michelle Rempel Garner or Diane Finley think about being politically leapfrogged by someone who has been in the party for a single year.

The other thing that Scheer must consider is that if Alleslev bolted from one party, there is a chance she could do it again.

Scheer has sacrificed some internal political support, choosing to elevate Alleslev as a symbol of how he has the power to attract former Liberals from Ontario to his team. This appointment is unlikely to blunt the chorus of voices saying Scheer just can’t win. Scheer is on shaky ground with respect to his own political survival.

That is precisely why Trudeau needs to rework his electoral message, ensuring the Liberal team is featured instead of the Trudeau brand that dominated the last election.

In the lead-up to the October vote, several longtime Liberals confided that they were wavering on support for the party, specifically because they had misgivings about the leader.

Many long-serving Grit volunteers complained privately that membership in the party is seen as a negative by the leader’s team.

Many party old-timers quietly opposed Trudeau’s decision to cut ties with Liberals in the Senate. Because Trudeau promised to do things differently, he also focused on naming Conservatives and New Democrats to key positions while ignoring Liberals.

Among the most prominent appointees were former Tory interim leader Rona Ambrose and former minister James Moore. Moore was a vocal critic of the Liberals during the last election, and Ambrose is one name being bandied about as a replacement for replace Scheer as Tory leader. So much for doing politics differently.

When it comes to judicial appointments, prominent Liberal lawyers say their party alignment is viewed as a scarlet letter.

Former prime minister Chrétien privately offered his services to help heal the rift between Canada and China, prompted by the decision to execute an extradition order on Meng Wanzhou. His services were declined, even though no one would be better positioned to end the rift than Chretien.

These are internal party challenges but with an election looming in the next couple of years, Trudeau needs everyone on board. The possibility of facing a stronger Conservative leader is not lost on those planning for the next election.

Scheer was an easy foil with his rigid social views and refusal to recognize growing concern over environmental issues. Come April, Trudeau may be confronted by a new face, unburdened by so many stinking albatrosses.

Trudeau’s new emphasis on the Liberal team will help, and the decision to put other strong Liberals in the window will be welcomed by many. From Chrystia Freeland to Jim Carr, from Catherine McKenna to Jonathan Wilkinson, to Pablo Rodriguez, Team Liberal is regionally strong and diverse.

Liberals can manage this minority. But sunny ways must end.

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