Trudeau has to get out of the way

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There are leading Liberals who can speak on issues like health, childcare, and the environment. Justin Trudeau’s personal unpopularity has become an anchor for the party.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 2, 2021.

If Justin Trudeau wants to get re-elected, he needs to get out of the way.

That may sound counterintuitive, but the Liberal leader is actually dragging his party down.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole needs to get as much airtime as he can muster, because people do not know him. The election period is a time to introduce him to the general public. Jagmeet Singh is already known to the public, but since no one expects him to form government, he is not a political target, so his smiling face keeps people relaxed and listening.

In Trudeau’s case, he is known, and that comes with its own challenges. Those who like him are going to cut him some slack, but that group is getting smaller.

Men have never really been the most avid supporters of the prime minister. His feminism and obvious support for women and minorities rubs some the wrong way.

Back in 2012, Trudeau was able to prove his pugilistic nature by taking on a senator in a boxing challenge, where he surprised everyone by delivering the knockout punch. The next year he won the race to lead the Liberal Party, and in 2015, the federal election.

In 2021, most people have an opinion about Trudeau, and some of it is not all that positive.

A friend of mine confessed recently that she was going to abandon the Liberals for the first time in her voting life. Her explanation? She has taken a visceral dislike to Trudeau, and is sick to death of hearing him apologize for things that happened in the past.

She likes the Liberal platform, but the person fronting it simply turns her off. She is an older woman, exactly the kind of voter that Trudeau needs to attract if he is going to swing support back to the Liberals in the home stretch of the campaign.

To turn those voters around, Trudeau needs to keep his face off the air, and focus on the team and the programs that Liberals are offering to Canadians.

Women tend to be more supportive of environmental and health investments than their male counterparts. So, the Liberal platform contrasts nicely with that of O’Toole, who strangely dropped the requirement for green investments in his infrastructure announcement last week.

O’Toole is backpedaling on carbon targets, aligning his commitment to the puny promises of Stephen Harper. He is also vowing to reverse court-ordered pipeline cancellations.

His position on universality of health access is also under fire because O’Toole continually says he also supports choice for Canadians. Choice is usually code for allowing wealthy Canadians to choose a shorter line by paying extra.

There is plenty of fodder for Liberals to counter Tory program plans, but the attack should not be carried out by the leader. There are respected spokespersons on multiple files.

The environment is a specialty of Quebecer Steven Guilbeault and current environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson. Child and health care issues could both be addressed by multiple women in the cabinet, including finance minister and deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland.

On childcare, the Liberals are also on the right side of the issue as far as most Canadian women are concerned. It has been widely reported that the brunt of the childcare burden created by home schooling during the pandemic has fallen on women. They are the ones who understand that a proper, licensed childcare system overseen by government is worth a lot more to them than the cash-in-hand contribution being promised by the Conservatives.

An extra cheque every month means little compared to the palpable relief of having your child in a well-managed care facility when you are not able to be with them. In childcare, health and the environment, the Liberals have a great story to tell.

By promoting the Liberal platform via the use of his team, Trudeau can remind Canadians that his party is best positioned to carry the country through these trying times. With the spotlight on himself, Trudeau runs the risk of reinforcing the negative views of people like my friend. His sunny personality handed the Liberals a majority in 2015, but two terms in government can take a toll on any leader.

Most people don’t reward parties for the good things they have done in the past. They vote for the party they want in the future. And the reality is that opposition parties do not defeat governments. Governments defeat themselves.

After six years, the number of enemies is on the rise. The leader becomes the lightning rod for that criticism. But Liberal ideas could carry the day.

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