Time to ditch the sunny ways

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While Justin Trudeau’s own house is burning around him, the prime minister continues to claim that all is well in Liberal land and he welcomes the input of two former ministers who have engaged in the death of a thousand cuts with all their colleagues.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on April 1, 2019.

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s precipitous poll drop should serve as a pre-election wakeup call.

Whatever side of the Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott show you are on, one thing is clear: the biggest loser in the war of allegations is the prime minister.

Players are busy issuing affidavits that they didn’t leak the initial story that vaulted the Jody Wilson-Raybould story to the front page of The Globe and Mail.

Wilson-Raybould herself has been quoted saying she was not responsible for any leak. But if her interpretation of a conversation with the prime minister ended up in print, she must have told someone.

While his own house is burning around him, the prime minister continues to claim that all is well in Liberal land and he welcomes the input of two former ministers who have engaged in the death of a thousand cuts with all their colleagues.

The women and young people who vaulted Trudeau from third to first place are beginning to have second thoughts.

Trudeau swept to power in a surprising win promising sunny ways and appealing to next generation voters.

Sunny ways will not last forever.

Trudeau needs an aggressive Plan B because the sunny words passing daily from his lips are not credible.

Trudeau is now bleeding support from the very demographic he needs to win an election, because his own brand has been badly damaged by internal allegations from a former cabinet colleague unhappy about losing her “dream job.”

The internal warfare has damaged the leader directly and delivered the possibility of a majority government to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

This past week, we have seen some semblance of prime ministerial pushback with a couple of unfavourable stories about the former attorney general being leaked to the media.

But even those leaks were damaging, as Trudeau publicly claims no ownership of the breach in confidentiality faced by the judicial appointments process.

In the same way that the negative stories about Trudeau could only have come from Wilson-Raybould, the reverse is also true.

At some point, a leader has to stop apologizing and lead. Trudeau really needs to signal to his caucus that he is ready to do battle. He needs to start with an internal housecleaning.

If that means turfing a couple of bad apples out of the caucus, it could not happen soon enough. Eight weeks of public bloodletting from inside the Liberal team is enough.

Let the caucus do the job the majority would like done. When a senior member with the political experience of Judy Sgro challenges the pair to “put up or shut up” you know what action the wisdom of experience is dictating.

The time has come for Trudeau to show that he actually wants to continue as prime minister.

Prime minister means first minister. He is the boss of the team, the leader to whom all colleagues are looking for signals as to how they can extricate themselves from this mess. Instead, his sunny demeanour is making it worse.

Inaction has already cost him a principal secretary and the clerk of the Privy Council. Neither resignation has staunched the flow of bad ink coming from the whisper campaign of allegations being levelled by the duo.

We know from the testimony of the former attorney general that the actions of the prime minister were legal. End of story. So why the post-budget claim from Philpott that there is so much more to come?

As Philpott was not present for the discussion between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould, she must have received information from her friend. Passing along that information is a clear violation of cabinet confidentiality. Obviously, if Wilson-Raybould broke her cabinet oath of confidentiality, she cannot be trusted to respect caucus confidentiality.

Philpott was taking copious notes during her appearance before Ontario caucus and was told to stop, as nobody is supposed to record what goes in inside caucus.

Just last Thursday, Trudeau was again apologizing for allegedly using a sarcastic tone against protesters who disrupted a Liberal fundraiser.

Trudeau commented that he was disrespectful to the protesters, but made no mention of how they disrespected him. There are plenty of avenues open to protesters, but disrupting an event and then actually getting a refund of their ticket price, is hardly the response one expects from a leader.

Trudeau is going to have to decide if he is willing to fight for his government. Fighting may run counter to his natural instinct.

But sunny ways will not work.

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