Back when the House of Commons rose for it’s usual holiday break in December, the first few months of 2019 looked to be promising ones for the governing Liberals. They had gotten to the break in a good position, with a big election year budget coming in the Spring and with their Opposition mostly scattered, weakened or unable to mount any major challenges. But wow did 2019 come in with a vengeance.
We all know the story about now-former Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, from the cabinet shuffle, to the Globe and Mail stories, and then everything that’s flowed from it, including the poor response (or should I say responses) from the government to it all. In the span of less than a month, what looked to be a promising 2019 for the Liberals as quickly turned on its head and with the return of the House of Commons tomorrow, it promises to get worse before it gets better.
And to me that is the striking thing about this whole situation to date; it’s mostly taken place with the House of Commons on recess. Prime Minister Trudeau has only had to face one question period on the SNC scandal so far, and that was on the first day that the story broke and comparatively nothing had happened yet in the story. In the break week since, so much more has happened and so much more about this story has come spilling out. It’s rare to see that happen, and it promises to be a bad omen for the government.
So tomorrow the House will sit for nine more days until their next break. On top of the House sitting, we’ll have the scene taking place behind closed doors in the Justice Committee on Tuesday. After having botched the emergency meeting called last week, tomorrow would offer a good chance to get some things right for the government members and call all the witnesses that need to be heard from. Of course, because the meeting will be “In Camera”, we won’t know what was said or what was even rejected, only what was approved. So we’ll have to read between the lines and make our best assumptions as to what happened in there.
But that to me is a prime example of the problem the government has found itself in here. The Hill Times has a good story out today about the worry and “serious concern” running around government circles about this issue, and there is one line from an anonymous Liberal staffer that makes a great point about politics in general; “perception is reality”. Once that perception takes hold, it’s hard to undo but even worse for the government, even if the facts in the end support them and show that they were totally in the right, the damage how people perceive them will be irreversibly done. Because even if that exoneration comes, many people will still ask themselves “why did the Liberals act this way?” “Why didn’t they just come clean?” “I thought they were the one who were going to be different?”.
For me that damage to perception is the biggest problem for this government, especially where it is coming from. I still remember back when the Liberals had their Leadership Campaign to replace Paul Martin, I told Liberal friends of mine back then that their best shot at revival was picking a leader who had no ties to the last two governments, who had no ties to the years of AdScam and who had no ties to the internal battles they had been fighting for year. Justin Trudeau was such a person, along with having the cache of having the “Trudeau” name. And you saw that advantage playing out when he became leader. He was able to get members to put aside their divisions for the most part and he was able to take bolder moves and positions at being a cleaner party because he had the credibility that came without having those ties to hold him back. He was the one who could honestly say that they’ve learned from the past and were doing better today because of it.
But as the SNC/PMO scandal has grown and started to take on more of a life of it’s own, something about the details of this story has stirred memories for many folks about that past that he had no connection to. Even though this scandal is not the same as AdScam was, it has drawn eerie parallels that some in the media have pointed out, like Dan Leger of the Halifax Chronicle Herald did today. And in my view, that is the biggest problem for the government here. This story may not be the easiest one to follow and it is not a straight forward one, but it brings back those memories for a lot of people and can make it all blur together.
To drive that point home about perception issues, Maclean’s released results of a poll that points to how closely people are following this and how people are viewing it. Here is the part that leapt out at me:
The online panel survey of 1,500 adults, taken Wednesday and Thursday by Public Square Research, showed that 43 per cent have followed the controversy since a Globe and Mail story cited anonymous sources who said the Prime Minister’s Office pressured Wilson-Raybould to avoid a court trial for the Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. Twelve per cent said they “know a lot about” the story, while 31 per cent “know a little bit” about it. A further 27 per cent say they’ve heard about the controversy but “don’t really know what’s going on,” and 30 per cent have heard nothing about it.
Of the 43 per cent who’ve followed the story enough to know a lot or a bit about it, 73 per cent say Wilson-Raybould has the most credibility, compared to only 27 per cent who say the prime minister is more credible.
These numbers are simply bad for the government. To have 43% of respondents “following” this story in the week that it’s been out there, that means it’s getting penetration in the public. It may not be swinging opinions yet, but people are watching. To make it worse, the fact that 73% of that 43% say that Jody Wilson-Raybould has the most credibility in the matter, that’s bad for the government. You can’t look at that number and say “well that’s just Conservatives who don’t like us”. That kind of number means that it’s coming from all angles and all quarters. That number is as much a function of how the government has responded to this story as anything else. When you put together the number of stories and explanations the government members have put out so far, their actions at the Justice committee last week, and combine that with the fact that the Prime Minister won’t let Wilson-Raybould speak for herself while he gives his side of the story, it all raises a lot of questions. The combination of a disjointed and bad response from the government, along with the silencing of Wilson-Raybould, bolsters her credibility and eats away at the Prime Ministers.
In short, the government looks scared of her and what she might say if given the chance. Most people understand that if nothing was done wrong here, there is nothing to be afraid of. That fear is speaking volumes and it seems that it’s getting the peoples attention. So tomorrow we’ll see the first of what promises to be many raucous Question Periods this Spring. We’ll see Opposition parties with the first bit of wind in their sails that they’ve had in a long while and a government that’s looking to be at it’s worst point since they got elected, even though they still ride higher in the polls than the others. This isn’t the scene we’d thought that we’d see two months ago, but sometimes in politics, things can change just that fast.