By Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press on December 14, 2023.
OTTAWA – If there is a walk in the snow coming for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this winter, it won’t have anything to do with reflecting on his future.
It also won’t come as the result of being pushed out.
Despite strong winds of change swirling around the prime minister and his minority government, multiple insiders and strategists say that since Trudeau saved the party eight years ago, the Liberals are his to lead for as long as he wants to.
Trudeau, who will turn 52 on Christmas Day, has been asked about his future dozens or maybe even hundreds of times, and he has been clear that he isn’t going anywhere.
In a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, he reflected on why.
“You can’t believe all the things that I believe and not want to be there to do this fight. Because it is so, so centred around everything that I’ve been fighting for since day one,” the prime minister said Monday.
From his perspective, everything he has tried to build is now under threat. He said he feels a deep responsibility to fulfil the promises he made, particularly to young people, about climate change, reconciliation, human rights and job creation.
“I made a promise to a whole bunch of first-time voters in 2015 that if they stepped up and came out and supported what we were doing “¦ that we would make the world a better place,” he said.
“Well, those young people are now in their late 20s, those people who voted for me for the very first time, and they’re having trouble affording a home. They’re being pushed out of the centre of our biggest cities,” he continued.
They are also “worried about the backsliding of rights,” he said, including abortion rights in the United States.
“They are feeling more anxious now about that promise of Canada that I stepped up and I said we were going to fix,” he said. “I feel a responsibility towards those young people. Me, personally. And I know that there is so much more for me to do, and I’m gonna do it.”
It has been a tumultuous year for the prime minister, professionally and personally.
That included his separation from Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, his wife of 18 years, which they announced publicly in early August. They now live separately, and share custody of their three children, Xavier, 16, Ella-Grace, 14, and Hadrien, 9.
But even with that hovering over him, and polls suggesting Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is gobbling up support from past Liberal voters in every province and territory, Trudeau projects himself as at peace, and yet ready for a boxing match that is already well underway.
“Poilievre calls his approach common sense,” Trudeau said Tuesday night in a passionate speech at the Liberal caucus Christmas party. “It’s absolute nonsense.”
A couple of thousand Liberals roared their approval in response.
Many people who know Trudeau well say he is strongest when he’s the underdog.
“He performs best when there’s a challenge ahead of him,” said Zita Astravas, who was a key adviser to Trudeau for the last eight years and is now a vice-president at Wellington Advocacy.
Trudeau never looked like the guaranteed winner of any of the three federal elections he has won.
He entered the 2015 race as the leader of the third-place party, and ended up winning a majority government.
In 2019, though the Liberals were ahead in most polls, a series of media stories revealing that Trudeau had worn brown- and blackface multiple times before he entered politics threw a major wrench in his re-election bid. The Liberals won a minority.
In 2021, during an election he called early hoping to restore a majority mandate, the Liberals often trailed the Conservatives in the polls as divisiveness over COVID-19 policies reigned. Trudeau eked out a second minority win, helped in part by then-Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s missteps around gun policy and vaccines.
But things feel different this time.
The Liberals have plummeted in the polls so much since the summer that it appears an election held today would be a bloodbath.
A slight uptick in support in an Abacus Data poll this week was the first good polling news the party has had in maybe a year, but that tracking poll has them 10 points behind nationally and trailing the Conservatives in every region but Quebec, where the Bloc Québécois are in the lead.
Poilievre is a formidable opponent who has united Conservatives in a way neither of his party’s previous two leaders were able to do. He also has a talent for turning complex issues into simple catchphrases, such as “axe the tax,” or referring to Canada as “broken.”
Even Trudeau acknowledges the approach is working, though he insists it’s a cynical and shallow way to win people over.
“People are anxious and worried and it’s really easy to amplify fears and anxieties and not put forward any solutions,” he said.
Perhaps an even bigger factor is the desire for change after a long time under one prime minister. His personal popularity once lifted the party up, but now his disapproval numbers are bringing it down.
A Leger poll last month found half of respondents wanted Trudeau to step down before the next election. One in five said that was because they were “just tired of him.”
“It’s sort of a truism across the world,” said Kevin Bosch, a longtime Liberal insider who is now managing partner at the strategy firm Sandstone Group.
“People get tired of your face after a while.”
Only two prime ministers have successfully won four consecutive elections. Sir John A. Macdonald won a sixth election, and his fourth straight, in 1891. Wilfrid Laurier won his fourth straight campaign in 1908.
The last long-serving Liberal prime minister won three straight majority governments and likely would have won a fourth, but he never got the chance.
Jean Chrétien got pushed out by people within his own party. The so-called Liberal civil war that saw Paul Martin supporters successfully push Chrétien to step down left wounds so deep it took the Liberals more than a decade to recover.
That memory looms large over Liberal politics today, and multiple Liberals say such a thing won’t happen this time.
“I’m a pretty plugged-in Liberal, and I have not heard any sort of current to sort of push him out,” said Bosch, noting Liberals remain grateful to Trudeau for bringing the party back to life after its worst showing in history in 2011.
There are a lot of names drifting around as Trudeau’s possible successor.
François-Philippe Champagne, the vivacious industry minister, has been quietly amassing a team for months and is considered among the early front-runners.
So are Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, who is considered a major organizing asset in Quebec, and Treasury Board President Anita Anand, who can take credit for Canada’s successful procurement strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has not thrown water on the constant chatter that he will make a bid for it.
And while Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has been less prominent in leadership gossip mills of late, she has not ruled herself out, either.
The names of the cabinet ministers considered the best communicators for the party – Housing Minister Sean Fraser, Immigration Minister Marc Miller, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc – are being bandied about, too.
There is no whisper that any of them are trying to push Trudeau out before he is ready.
“Canadians should be reassured by a leader they know,” Champagne said in an interview this week.
It’s not that there are no Liberals seeking change.
That included Sen. Percy Downe, who sat in the Liberal caucus until Trudeau excluded senators in 2014. He said in November it was time to discuss succession.
Chrétien-era finance minister John Manley said in September it was time for Trudeau to go.
But Astravas suggested most Liberals are gearing up to support Trudeau into the next campaign.
There is an effort to better communicate the government’s economic plans, with the hiring of an outside communications expert for the first time since Trudeau’s election.
Max Valiquette comes in as the executive director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office with a quarter century of experience in marketing and advertising. His specialty is marketing to young people.
And Jeremy Broadhurst, who ran the 2019 campaign, recently moved back to the party from an advisory role in the Prime Minister’s Office, to get the next campaign plan into shape.
With a minority Parliament, theoretically the next election could happen any time.
But the supply-and-confidence deal the Liberals signed with the NDP in March 2022 is set to remain in place until 2025, and Trudeau said he sees no reason for that not to last.
The next campaign, he insists, will follow the fixed-election date schedule and take place in the fall of 2025.
“I think it is really, really important for progressives to continue to be able to demonstrate that we can get big things done,” he said.
The NDP’s influence pushed the Liberals to introduce a national dental-care program, and while pharmacare is nowhere close to a done deal, New Democrats got it onto the agenda.
The deal also pushed the Liberals to move faster on a range of other measures, including a top-up to GST rebate cheques and legislated paid sick days.
Bosch said the NDP has seen real progress on some of its key priorities, so the deal appears to be working for both parties.
There has been some muttering in Liberal circles that Trudeau hasn’t hit back early enough or hard enough at Poilievre, as the Conservatives continue a full-scale attack on the government’s policies and Trudeau himself.
Astravas hedged when asked if the Liberals waited too long to reset and push back.
“It’s been a challenging number of months for a number of reasons,” she said. “I mean, just look at the world right now, right?”
She listed off the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip and post-pandemic economic turmoil.
But she said she sees clear signs the government is “really honing in on that affordability message” as housing prices and overall cost-of-living remain the critical issue for Canadians.
In recent weeks, including at that Christmas party, there have been more visible signs of the attacks the Liberals intend to stage.
And Trudeau appears confident that the young people who have drifted toward Poilievre’s party this year will not remain there.
“It is totally understandable that people are upset and frustrated and worried and anxious about their future right now because there’s a lot to be anxious about,” he said.
“At the same time, I know that we have those solutions. We’ve been building those solutions. And it is more important to keep that progress going right now, to be doubling down on those things.”
He admitted the housing problems won’t be solved in a matter of months. He said the 2017 national housing strategy the Liberals put forward was the “right plan” for the issues that existed then, but admitted it’s not solving them now.
He said the policies he promised that are now being executed are going to work.
“To those people, those young people who are not so young anymore, and those young people coming along that I made a promise to, I’m going to deliver,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2023.