Trudeau faces a daunting task

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The government would like nothing more than a channel-changer on foreign interference investigations. Even if the Liberals succeed, with the appointment of a special rapporteur and multiple committees, all eyes are still on government foibles. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 13, 2023.

OTTAWA—In one month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will celebrate 10 years as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

That celebration will be fêted in early May at the party’s national convention in Ottawa.

There will be much to celebrate. Back in 2013, pundits were writing off the Trudeau leadership.

He was leading a third party that was supposed to be on the verge of extinction.

Then came the blockbuster campaign of 2015, in which he was able to ignite the youth vote and encourage many non-Liberals to swing over to support the prime minister’s vision, including the legalization of marijuana and a commitment to end the current first-past-the-post voting system.

Back in 2015, Liberals moved ahead with their promise to legalize marijuana, but shelved their promise to change the voting system.

One out of two ain’t bad.

But in the lead-up to a potential election later this year, a 50 per cent success rate won’t help the government attract more swing voters.

Some say the Liberals promised to bring in proportional voting. But that is not accurate. In the prime minister’s mind, he was looking at the possibility of a weighted vote, with Canadians choosing to rank their choices in every local election.

Whatever Trudeau’s vision, the change was not accomplished and that failure is one of the issues that will affect the next election.

The promise to change the voting system appealed to those in smaller parties, like the New Democrats and the Green Party, as neither realistically hoped to form government.

Instead, they would be satisfied to have direct influence in shaping government policy.

Minority government has given them that opportunity. The New Democrats have been key to the introduction of dental care and potential pharmacare.

But whether the third party will be rewarded by the electorate for promoting these initiatives remains to be seen.

New Democrat supporters who switched to the Liberals in 2015, left in 2019 and did not return in 2021.

Green Party voters may make a switch as their party’s internal challenges have definitely damaged their credibility.

Looking forward, voters can be expected to make decisions on what parties will do in the future, not what they promised in the past.

Liberals will be particularly challenged since, as government, the party has been in power for eight years, and politics is the only job where the more experience you have, the more voters want to dump you.

Trudeau hopes to make history as only the second prime minister in Canada to be elected four times in a row.

He would follow in Liberal Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s footsteps by pulling off a four-peat.

But it is a daunting task.

The government is working hard to put some successes in the window. The recent health-care agreement is a great win.

It will help assuage Canadians’ fears about access to health care: from primary providers through to mental health and continuing care.

The next election will not be fought on political successes.

Public attention is focused on allegations of foreign interference in elections, in particular from the Chinese government.

Most Canadians don’t follow the allegations closely. They will be aware that the heated political temperature in Ottawa is putting pressure on the current government.

Trudeau stepped up earlier last week with a series of measures to respond to the allegations, but whether that is enough to cool things down remains to be seen.

If not, the Liberals may be positioning to move to an election sooner rather than later.

The official opposition has been searingly critical in recent exchanges in the House of Commons. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been clear and concise in his attacks, and is obviously trying to keep the issue front and centre in the public mind.

The Liberal hope is to dampen down the heat and move the issue to the back burner.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper may have inadvertently helped the Liberals when he made a clearly sexist attack at Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly while she appeared before committee.

Even New Democrats demanded an apology.

The government would like nothing more than a channel-changer on foreign interference investigations.

Even if they succeed, with the appointment of a special rapporteur and multiple committees, all eyes are still on government foibles.

With that in mind, a successful Liberal convention in May and a summer spent travelling and rolling out budget announcements may mean we are heading for a fall election.

That could be the only way to douse the parliamentary fires.

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