To win, Justin Trudeau needs the Herb Gray crowd. He should listen to political elders, privately spilling their guts about feeling excluded. A small tent reaps a small voter turnout. A small turnout spells defeat.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May. 13, 2019.
OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau better hit the reset button to reverse his fading fortunes.
That should include mending fences with long-time Liberals who believe Trudeau’s quest to do politics differently has been exclusionary not inclusionary.
It is one thing to want new faces to reinvigorate a party. It is another thing to marginalize the old faces that have been supporting the party through thick and thin.
Remember the prime minister’s decision to take party politics out of the Senate? That decision was lauded by media observers as a way of doing politics differently. But now we are faced with independent Senators who do politics, with zero loyalty to anybody but themselves.
The government is having trouble passing an environmental assessment bill because it lacks Senate support.
Just last week, there was a gathering of the Liberal clan. The sold-out first annual Herb Gray Lecture Series, organized by Carleton University, featured MSNBC’S Ali Velshi in an articulate talk entitled “The Weaponization of Culture.”
Velshi’s first job was at Queen’s Park in Toronto working for minister Mavis Wilson in the government of David Peterson. He ultimately took a job with CNN and moved to the United States on the same day the World Trade Centre twin towers were downed by terrorists.
Velshi believes the weaponization of culture is leading to the decline of the American influence around the globe.
His two-hour presentation at the Library and Archives Canada included a historical overview and a conversation with the audience, moderated by journalist Susan Delacourt.
The occasion gathered those who knew and loved the late Herb Gray, the hardworking minister, deputy prime minister and second-longest serving Member of Parliament in the entire Commonwealth.
Herb Gray mentored many young Liberals who went on to establish their own political careers, including former Ontario finance minister Dwight Duncan and former tourism, culture, and sport minister Eleanor McMahon, both in attendance.
Herb, as he was fondly known by colleagues, practised the art of the big tent. Canada’s first Jewish federal cabinet minister, he embraced Windsor Muslims with the same enthusiasm shared for the rest of the community in his beloved hometown.
That big tent made Liberalism the most successful national movement in the history of the country.
But fragmentation of that tent could end up costing them the election.
The last time Liberals suffered a body blow was when the party dropped from frontrunner to third place under leader Michael Ignatieff.
The danger is not necessarily that Liberals will switch sides. But if they are not fired up, they may simply stay home.
During Ignatieff’s time, more than 600,000 supporters did not vote.
At the Gray lecture, the biggest complaint from many Grit attendees was the fact that they felt left out of a shrinking Liberal tent.
Trudeau needs to get loyalists back on side if he intends to form government.
The first step is to replace departed Gerald Butts with someone with broad and deep political experience running a national government—and soon.
Trudeau’s self-inflicted messes are a result of inexperience in running the massive operation of a national government.
From the SNC-Lavalin debacle to the Huawei extradition to the Marc Norman case, there are too many amateurs in the wheelhouse.
Trudeau is also overexposed. His team needs to be front and centre, with the leader spending less time in front of the camera minus selfies and socks. But a communications reworking is only part of the necessary reboot.
The problem goes beyond messaging to substance.
Climate change is one area where Liberals can contrast themselves favourably with the surging Conservatives.
The government also needs to draw another line in the sand. A handgun ban would definitely get the public’s attention and support.
Notwithstanding Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair’s claim that the country is divided, the groups Trudeau needs to attract are in favour of a ban. It would definitely provide a sharp contrast with core values of the Conservative Party.
Even rural women favour a handgun ban. Trudeau needs those women if he has any chance of returning his party to power.
Menstruation pads in federal establishments are not going to cut it.
Trudeau has feminists, the LGBTQ community, and is likely supported by the majority of Indigenous people.
But that matters little because the massive voting centre is where victory sits.
To win, Trudeau needs the Herb Gray crowd.
He should listen to political elders, privately spilling their guts about feeling excluded.
A small tent reaps a small voter turnout. A small turnout spells defeat.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.