John Ivison: With voter support tumbling, a tactical reset is in order for Liberals

It seems for a good number of Canadians, the realization has taken hold that this is a PM with no first-hand experience of the lives of the people he champions

OTTAWA — The House of Commons is out for summer and the great chamber will echo the sounds of tour groups, rather than heckling, for the next three months.

Most Canadians would consider it no great mischief if a period of silence from all politicians were to follow.

The Liberals, in particular, would be advised to get out of people’s faces.

The past six months have not been kind to this government, if tumbling poll numbers are any indication. (Nanos Research suggests the Liberals enjoyed 43-per-cent support a year ago, 17 points ahead of the Conservatives. By January, that gap had fallen to eight points and last week the Grits were flirting with minority government territory at 37.45 per cent to the Conservatives’ 30.85 per cent.)

Watching the last question period of the session, it’s not hard to figure out why. There is hubris on the government side that is a turnoff for voters.

Justin Trudeau took it upon himself to answer all the questions posed, a practice that looks more ill-advised by the week.

John Barlow, the Alberta Conservative MP, asked about the escalator tax increases to beer, wines and spirits included in the budget implementation bill the Senate has just amended.

“The Liberals plan to crash Canada’s party with their never-ending tax increases. Will the prime minister agree Canadians already pay their fair share and cork this tax?” asked Barlow.

Even Liberal MPs were moved to raise their eyes to the ceiling when Trudeau responded that he and his family will enjoy spending Canada Day visiting one of the country’s national parks.

The imperiousness present in not even attempting to answer the question has been at the root of Liberal ills this session — from the apparent belief that promises to voters in their election platform were discretionary, rather than firm commitments; to the attempt to unilaterally change the rules of Parliament in their own favour.

As NDP Leader Tom Mulcair quipped in his session-ending press conference: “You could be forgiven for thinking that because they only got 40 per cent of the vote, the Liberals figure it’s OK if they only respect 40 per cent of their promises.”

The reversal on electoral reform was likely the most damaging, but recurring deficits far in excess of the promised $30 billion over three years also hurt the government’s support.

The Liberals entered the new year under a cloud because of the cash-for-access imbroglio and Trudeau’s holiday in the Bahamas, in defiance of the prime minister’s code of ethics.

Neither affair burnished Trudeau’s image as a man of the people, so he blew off the billionaires in Davos to embark on a “listening tour” to “reconnect with Canadians.”

This was a calculated effort to bury the bad news beneath a blizzard of photo ops and stories about the prime minister calling local radio stations to request songs by the Tragically Hip. In large measure, it worked.

Canadians are not yet bored by Trudeau. It seems the appetite for pictures of the prime minister balancing babies, boxing, performing handstands and crashing wedding photos is insatiable.

But there is increasing disillusionment. The number of those who consider him their preferred prime minister has fallen dramatically since this time last year, again according to Nanos.

It seems for a good number of Canadians, the realization has finally taken hold that this is a prime minister with no first-hand experience of the lives of the people he is championing.

This has become the main thrust of the attack made by Andrew Scheer, the new Conservative leader — that Trudeau is hurting the very people he claims to be helping.

The Liberals can claim, with justification, that their agenda was knocked off course by Donald Trump’s election.

Trudeau should be commended for the patience and restraint he has shown in dealing with the Trump administration. He has resisted the temptation to score domestic points by attacking the president’s more unglued decisions, instead concentrating on areas of agreement — trade, security, energy and the middle class.

Foreign relations with the U.S. under the new Global Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, have been disciplined and focused on America’s self-interest — pointing out that Canada buys more U.S. goods than the entire European Union. The strategy has paid off so far.

There has been some thoughtful legislation. The pot bill is half-baked — rushed through in the wake of the electoral reform debacle to appease the millennial vote. But it is better than the alternative — the continuation of 94 years of failed prohibition.

The new anti-terror legislation appears to be a workable balance between Charter rights and security.

But progress is uneven, mirroring the strengths and weaknesses in cabinet. A summer shuffle is rumoured, with speculation surrounding the future of Harjit Sajjan as defence minister, following his claim to be the “architect” of Operation Medusa in Afghanistan in 2006.

It will be a welcome respite for Sajjan and many others on the government side of the House not to be hounded by the opposition on a daily basis.

The summer break will offer blessed relief for the Liberal government, around which the waters have been rising.

A tactical reset is in order — shuffle weaker ministers out of front-line portfolios; prorogue the House in order to reconstitute Senate committees chaired by Conservatives; and prepare a Throne Speech to set out priorities for the second half of the mandate.

But just as important is an attitudinal refresh. It’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way but the Liberals need to at least pretend to have discovered humility, if they are to recover support.

National Post June 21st 2017

• Email: jivison@nationalpost.com | Twitter: IvisonJ

Leave a Reply