Sunny Ways Redux? Not so Fast 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at an election campaign rally in Toronto Centre, 2015. Alex Guibord Flickr photo

The 2015 Liberal campaign that propelled Justin Trudeau from third place to a decisive majority will go down in political lore as a textbook, near-seamless race. But as the cliché goes, campaigning and governing are not the same thing, whether in poetry, prose or spoken word. The months between the first 100 days and the last have been eventful and, as former Liberal advisor John Delacourt writes, not the stuff of sure things.

John Delacourt 

The conventional wisdom is that the October federal election will be a referendum less on what the Liberal government has achieved than on Trudeau himself. That will be a frustrating turn of events for Liberals who point to a strong report card despite challenges no one could have predicted. Yet it has been, as former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say, the “known unknown” of brand corrosion that has led to this state of affairs, less the performance of delivering a strong mandate than the unforced errors in management that have provided Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer with a very real opportunity to defeat what seemed an invincible majority four years ago.

The Trudeau government came in with a bold agenda, outlined by a campaign platform that spoke of resetting the course of governing on a number of fronts: Indigenous reconciliation, the environment and climate change, “Canada’s place in the world.” Even how Canadians elected their members of Parliament would be subject to review and study, with the promise of electoral reform. Fiscal prudence and wise management of the government’s finances would be affirmed. And guiding it all, the priorities of a struggling middle class “and those hoping to join it” were to be the lodestar for the next four years. This was the broad constituency Trudeau won over during the 2015 campaign. It was an electorate who, reportedly, from both external and internal polling, hadn’t felt any measurable improvement in their finances and quality of life, despite the economy’s slow, steady resurgence from the recession of 2008. A strong trio of initiatives would be put in place almost immediately: a middle class tax cut, a Canada Child Benefit and a revamped Canada Pension Plan to lay the foundations of long-term economic growth for the “minivan families,” those populating the suburbs of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, whom the Trudeau Liberals had relied on to kick-start their campaign and bring them their resounding majority victory.  

Just barely a year into power, the ground beneath the government began to shift precipitously, and it played out in concentric circles—from the international to the intergovernmental and finally at the cabinet level—for this government. The full implications of a Trump presidency came to the fore with the renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the implementation of tariffs targeted at steel and aluminum production here in Canada. Strained relations with our biggest trading partner required the focus of Trudeau’s PMO and his cabinet, as they sought to counter any further threats to our industries, not least the auto and agricultural sectors. What was to follow at the provincial level was the formation of a resurgent Conservative beachhead in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and, finally, Alberta. 

This new coalition put the government’s ambitious plan to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions—“the carbon tax”—in its sights. Outlying British Columbia elected an NDP government that was no less congenial, particularly on energy sector projects. With the Trans Mountain pipeline project, initially supported by Trudeau and suddenly put in jeopardy by B.C.’s new government, Ottawa opted to purchase it while it was under further review. It was an outcome that seemed to please no one, despite the stated intention of balancing the concerns of Indigenous communities and environmental groups with the imperatives of economic development. Yet the final, arguably more seismic shift for the Trudeau government to contend with came from within, with the SNC-Lavalin affair creating a rift that led to the eventual expulsion from caucus of two of Trudeau’s strongest ministers, Jody Wilson Raybould and Jane Philpott. From the hairline cracks of NAFTA to the emerging fault lines at the provincial level to the tectonic shift in fortunes over the last few months, who could have predicted such a turn of events back in 2015? At least that is the familiar line
of defence.

Yet all these events do not really seem to have been decisive. It could be argued that, given all that has occurred over the last four years, a Conservative government would not have fared any better or worse, certainly not in dealing with Trump. In fact, the story of the trade negotiations, if it is ever fully told, could reveal how expertly Trudeau’s team managed the unmanageable. And with the dynamic of the federal government versus the provinces, at least Trudeau can notch two Supreme Court victories with regard to the implementation of carbon pricing. Crucially, with this comparative argument of imagining the other party in power, the Conservatives may have also followed international precedent and implemented the deferred prosecution agreement when faced with the prospect of an employer like SNC-Lavalin no longer being eligible for procurement contracts. The strongest defence is less conjectural; the Liberals have “gotten the big things right” for growth and development. With close to 300,000 children lifted out of poverty by the Canada Child Benefit and employment numbers for well-paying, full-time work better than they have been in decades, those hoping to join the middle class do have better prospects. All of these factors should be more than consolation, they should be buoying the Liberals’ prospects for another mandate. However, it is the approval numbers on Trudeau himself, which have been in a steady decline, that truly weigh the heaviest on the minds of those contemplating the campaign ahead. 

This was the known unknown back in 2015. There was a cautionary tone established, and at least a stated means to address the moment if and when the shine started to come off Trudeau. His team knew from polling that the middle class branding of the government had to be sacrosanct. Any apparent deviation was, as one advisor told me, “like kryptonite;” Canadians would punish Trudeau himself for signs of hypocrisy in this regard. And they had on the face of it a contingency plan; what would help prevent too much slippage in the polls, if such kryptonite were uncovered, was a cabinet and caucus fully empowered to communicate the government’s mandate effectively, using the strategic thinking and 2.0 tactics on social media that were so effective for Trudeau himself in the campaign. The next four years were about decentralizing the issues management and the messaging so that if the shine was off the PM, the team branding would already be in place as a countervailing factor.

And this is where promise was never really fulfilled. From the moving expenses debacle with some of this government’s most senior advisors, followed by the Aga Khan vacation and then the perceived unserious approach to bilateral relations with the India trip, there has been more than enough kryptonite to go around. Those minivan families could look to each development and wonder just how much this government really understood their lives and priorities. And as for the mitigating measures to address risks like these, there is no effective empowerment of Trudeau’s front bench to communicate—or indeed personify—the government’s progressive mandate. “Make the message your own” is the mantra of Ottawa media trainers for a reason. A telltale sign this wasn’t going to be carried too far occurred when, recovering from the nadir of Bill Morneau’s management of his small business tax cut controversy, Trudeau himself took questions for the Finance Minister—standing right beside him. 

The default position in crisis, developed during the 2015 campaign, was that if you let Trudeau “sell” the merchandise in the store no one’s buying, his charisma would win out. More damaging than this approach moreover, if there is anything about the SNC-Lavalin issue that does still resonate, it is the impression of how little agency cabinet members had in the face of a phalanx of unelected advisors to the prime minister steering the course of action and keeping Trudeau himself looking like a remote but complicit figure throughout the worst of it. Though Trudeau has taken the hit through this steady decline in his approval numbers, this has really been about how Trudeau’s team has governed, not what they can say they’ve delivered for Canadians. The worst traits of this government, much like the best—its innovative and thoughtful policy making—were forged in the blast furnace of an election campaign, yet every campaign is unfortunately very different, and the alchemy that created one majority victory can rarely guarantee even an eked out minority victory the next time around.

If the Trudeau government only lasts as long as one mandate, the question of how the brand and issues have been managed will have proven to be their undoing. It will have been less those “events, dear boy” that took up so much oxygen in question period, or in the negotiations in Washington or First Ministers’ meetings. And even if the Liberals win another mandate, a minority government should be viewed as a defeat, if not a reckoning, for the decision-making that diminished such a powerful reserve of political capital.  

John Delacourt, Vice President and Group Leader for Hill and Knowlton’s public affairs practice in Ottawa, is a former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau and the author of three books.