An End to the Annus Horribilis? Team Trudeau’s Year Ahead

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with the media under cover of an open air tent at the PM’s residence at Rideau Cottage, for months the main venue of news announcements on the pandemic. What will 2021 bring? In a world of social distancing and virtual campaigning, perhaps more of the same, plus vaccine news and updates. Adam Scotti photo

Among the oddities of a pandemic combined with a lockdown is that the most indelible image of the year 2020 in Canadian history will be of a young-ish prime minister with a salt-and-pepper beard standing in front of a Victorian house in Ottawa, addressing his fellow citizens through the lens of a television camera. How that inextricable association with deadliest, costliest crisis ever to hit the world in peacetime will play out in Justin Trudeau’s political fortunes will depend on may factors, writes veteran Liberal strategist and H+K Vice President John Delacourt.

John Delacourt 

The year 2020 has been defined for Canada’s Liberal minority government by variations on tragedy and crisis response. As a high-ranking Conservative put it to me, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has earned the grey in his beard. How many ways can events converge to break the spirit of a country? Air tragedy, mass murder in a small community, the insistent drumbeat of our most vulnerable claimed by a raging pandemic? It’s a checklist from hell. 

More to the point, from how many fronts can the Liberal government’s mettle be tested? Let’s add the threats of a refreshed Conservative brand with a new leader, the slow-drip depletion of the Liberals’ hard-won political capital with the WE charity controversy and, oh yes, the departure of a finance minister before any kind of budget could begin to be drafted. If the plot points were formulated by a fiction writer, one would say the 2020 narrative for the Liberals had an over-determined tragic arc. 

Except the real arc was a curve of COVID-19 cases that rose in the third act of this year with surprising momentum. When emailing anyone inside Trudeau’s government about what the year ahead might look like, you were likely to read a response like “2021? Let’s talk about next week instead. Or better yet tomorrow.” In all seriousness. Because serious is not a mood, it’s room tone now. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon. 

This despite the prospect of something like crisis resolution with the long-awaited distribution of COVID vaccines. All talk of decision points and what can be expected for the year ahead—the budget, the likely election—is, for the time being, subsumed by the massive logistical undertaking required over the next few months. 

This major mobilization is being aptly compared to a war effort, and not simply because it is being led by a former NATO commander in Iraq, Major General Dany Fortin, with a staff of 28 seasoned planners of ground operations in international hot zones. The official line is that this is a “whole of nation” approach to preparing for the known unknowns, and so much of it is further complicated by the unique factors of COVID vaccine production, storage and distribution that will weigh heavier on resources and timelines in, say, Nunavut than it will in downtown Ottawa, where Fortin’s team is based. Calling in the military was once viewed as an admission of planning or negotiation failure in the face of emergency, be it snowstorms or blockades, but that’s so last century now. The country is under attack and a few days lost to crisis mismanagement means thousands of lives are suddenly at risk. 

So, it may be no surprise that, given where the focus is, talk of confidence votes in the House and a possible spring election can seem like considerations currently in the periphery. Election readiness activities—the selection of candidates, fundraising and even a little virtual meet-and-greeting—continue apace but more as contingency planning. There is much more work ahead on what’s keeping many potential Liberal voters up at night. The vision for economic recovery first signaled in the Speech from the Throne acknowledged that the pandemic had pulled the curtain back on some troubling systemic inequities. Building back better for the Liberals means that advancements in national pharmacare, affordable housing and clean technologies—the policies first introduced with the 2019 campaign platform—will remain in the foreground. But there is a new urgency in responding to the social injustices that a summer of Black Lives Matter protests gave voice to with the gravity of a persistent injustice that knows no borders in North America. The continuing work of reconciliation with First Nations is another vital component of this renewed commitment to historical redress. To add to this, the two glaring challenges for governments the pandemic has amplified are the struggles with adequate childcare and seniors care that many Canadian families are facing. Any campaign platform the Liberals are currently sketching out will assuredly emphasize these as priorities. 

So, with all of this in mind, 2021 is unlikely to bring any surprises in terms of policy announcements; day-to-day crisis management contains as much of the unpredictable as anyone can bear right now.

What Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is likely to affirm, whether an election is in the offing or not, is that there can be no recovery that doesn’t put the health and wellbeing of Canadians first above all thoughts of opening up the economy once again. She remains poised to defend this approach from the Conservatives’ attacks in the House, which center on how open-ended deficit spending continues to be.

Vice President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have a private stroll down the corridor of the National Art Gallery in Ottawa in late 2016, only weeks before the Obama administration left office. The next time Biden visits Ottawa it will be as President of the United States. Adam Scotti photo

Will this approach bring the Liberals back in power? Perhaps it is owing to a state of collective exhaustion, but there is a blasé tone that sets in when you talk of the next election campaign with anyone who’ll have to take the Liberal vision on the road (or on the Zoom tour, coming to a computer screen in front of you). It’s the new legacy of crisis response; a government that has, but for a brief interlude in the summer months, been constantly communicating, announcing stimulus measures rolled out in record time, then extending, adapting and expanding upon all the support it initially put in place. So much of any nascent campaign platform feels like it’s already been put through its paces in the scrums from the Prime Minister’s front yard each day. 

And with many of the commitments to prop up struggling businesses, there have simply been fewer options to consider, too. Take, for example, the restaurant sector. When a report from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce states that as many as 60 percent of them will be out of business by the end of the year, what government, be it Conservative or Liberal, would not be compelled to act, taking on some more debt so those business owners will not have to? Perhaps the wartime analogy obtains once again; who would want to campaign against the most aggressive measures possible taken against an enemy threatening a way of life?

When the smoke on the health and economic battlefield clears, the Liberals will shift focus to non-pandemic relations beyond our borders, where an imminent Joe Biden presidency shares some features with the advent of available vaccines.

Biden’s inauguration will mark the conclusion of the most volatile phase ever of bilateral issues management. There are no guarantees that things will return to what was once considered normal; Biden is unlikely to disavow some of the policies that could be considered economically nationalist, given how acutely economic decline continues to afflict the rust belt states, not to mention the states that are the major agricultural producers. But as one senior Liberal adviser put it to me, there will be a coherence, a consistency, something close to predictability in trade relations. There will be known unknowns to contend with once again.

An American president who believes in the value of multilateralism and diplomacy also bodes well for an alliance to combat the worst effects of illiberal populism, be it found in former Soviet satellite nations, India, Latin America or China. And this too gives this Liberal government cause to hope that the coarsening of foreign policy may no longer be trending for the worst. The new geopolitics may ultimately be about digital infrastructures, defined by their standards of cybersecurity and regulatory environments, but much of this dialogue will require the oldest tools of diplomacy: an open mind and a firm hand on national self-interest. A seasoned diplomat in the White House bodes well for congenial relations and new partnerships in the coming months. 

And so, even with the prospect of an election in the spring, the Liberals can console themselves that 2021 will at least be more predictable, and their messaging has been tested every day for much of a year. What is a six-week battle after you’ve just waged a twelve-month war? Trudeau’s team can be forgiven a little confidence—even when it’s easily spun as arrogance by an Opposition restive for a campaign—for saying “bring on the budget vote, there’s a lot of work to be done to get the country back on its feet”. And if the provincial elections in New Brunswick and British Columbia are any indication, attempts to politicize those efforts at economic recovery by forcing Canadians to the polls may be met with a stronger rebuke than the Opposition imagined.

So, Liberals, going into 2021, can legitimately take stock and be hopeful. Not only that the worst has passed but that they may even aspire to a strong showing in the House after the votes are counted in the next election.  

Contributing Writer John Delacourt, Vice President and Group Leader of Hill & Knowlton public affairs in Ottawa, is a former director of communications for the Liberal research bureau. He is also the author of three novels.