Canadian politics over the past decades has come to ride more and more on the leadership of parties. All parties can point to this phenomenon and how it’s affected them. The names of Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and Justin Trudeau have all been seen to feature higher in the branding of their parties in their times as leaders. And in a way, that does make sense; if your leader is a big asset, you want to highlight that.
This has led some people to complain that our politics has become “too leader-centric” and that’s a point of view that has its constituency, even if I disagree with it. All that being said, leadership politics does drive a lot of our politics to some degree. But despite that, there is one party in particular that’s always had a different relationship with leadership politics; the Liberal Party of Canada. The leadership struggles within the Liberal Party have a legendary history with leadership struggles, with many books written about the topic.
Since the election of Justin Trudeau as leader, it seemed that maybe the party had turned a page on that front. The Liberals have seemed more united as a party than they have at any time in recent history, which has been seen as a credit to Trudeau’s leadership. But since the SNC/PMO scandal broke, it seems that had slipped with the expulsions of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, along with the resignation from caucus of Celina Caesar-Chavannes. And even with all that, we hadn’t heard anything about a real challenge to replace Trudeau leader. Well, that was until today:
The Toronto Star’s Chantal Hébert has come out with a piece where she describes conference calls and meetings between Liberal insiders, planning for after an election loss and replacing Justin Trudeau. The name of who they want to replace him with is kind of beside the point for me, despite the fact that there is much to the suggestion of Mark Carney to chew over. It’s the fact that here we are, not even out of the month of May yet, a mere five months away from a general election and people are planning for a post-Trudeau Liberal Party.
Six months ago that would have been unthinkable, as Trudeau rode high in the polls and was still personally popular. But today we’re in a very different place, with the Liberals consistently in second in the polls and the Prime Ministers personal popularity in a far worse spot than it was before Christmas. But to me this strikes me as a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword”; much of the Liberal Party’s success over the past five years has been built around the popularity of Justin Trudeau. Many of the backbenchers currently sitting in the Liberal cabinet do owe their seats to that popularity and are now at risk because of the dissipation of that same popularity.
So I guess the idea of looking at new leadership would seem to be a natural thing to do, except that it doesn’t make sense this close to an election you would assume they are fighting as hard as they can to win. These people involved are assuming that their party will lose, or maybe they are hoping for that; neither situation is particularly good for their party. It’s surely not helpful trying to win in the Fall.
But to me the most troubling thing for the Liberal Party here should be the return of these kinds of leadership machinations and planning. This is exactly the kind of thing that got their party into a massive rut that Justin Trudeau managed to drag them out of. Under his leadership, it felt like a new day for their party, but this sounds a lot like the old ones.
If you’re trying to build a strong re-election campaign, having these kinds of stories out there is just not helpful at all. Not only does it undercut a leader’s chance to run their campaign, it really invites voters to envisage another person in their place. This is a feature of a leader-centric political environment and is hard to overcome, let alone this late in the game. I just find it fascinated that the history of Liberal leadership fights, something that seemed to be dead and long since buried, has somehow managed to crawl out of the grave looking to start up again. That’s just another bad sign for the current government, not just for the Fall but depending on how this goes, could be bad for a long time to come.