This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 28, 2019.
Each new provincial election brings more evidence that the wave of conservative victories across the country is turning into a tsunami. And with that, the inescapable conclusion that the Liberal brand is, if not in crisis, certainly not what it was on Election Day in October, 2015.
Last Tuesday, Prince Edward Islanders not only elected a PC minority government but were sooner ready to consider the Green Party than re-elect Wade MacLauchlan’s governing Liberals.
For those keeping count of such things, that’s five straight conservative victories. In four of them, the Liberal vote share dropped to the lowest levels seen, wait for it, since Confederation.
And so, it should come as no surprise that outgoing Premier MacLauchlan’s Liberal campaign opted not to reach out to their cousins in Ottawa for assistance. Trudeau, who as recently as August, was greeted on the Island as a rock star has now become a political liability.
What a change of circumstances for the prime minister and his party.
Trouble for the Liberals all started with Brian Pallister in Manitoba, then Doug Ford, here, in Ontario, François Legault in Quebec, Blaine Higgs in New Brunswick, Jason Kenney in Alberta and now Dennis King in PEI.
Today, 82 per cent of Canadians are governed by conservative parties.
By any measure, it is a startling rebuke that, six months out from the federal election, is no doubt weighing heavily on Liberals everywhere.
That said, while it is always best to be careful in making assumptions as to federal voting intentions based on provincial outcomes, it is beginning to look like Andrew Scheer’s optimism is warranted. The Liberal ship is floundering. Its cause matters not. The handling of l’affaire SNC-Lavalin. The internecine squabbling. The accumulation of seemingly minor missteps. Or the global rise of populist right-of-centre ideology, the Liberal message is not resonating as it once did.
The three years since the blue tide began have seen the federal Liberal approval rating fall by over 15 per cent. Two-thirds of Canadians now say that Trudeau does not deserve to be re-elected. What’s more, the Liberal’s majority has, through resignations and scandal, become seven members thin.
Add certain losses in some traditional Liberal strongholds and October’s election becomes a daunting prospect.
No doubt some Liberals will console themselves with the old political rule of thumb that when we vote one way provincially, we vote the other way federally. Consider the record in Ontario. Harper won with McGuinty at Queen’s Park; Chrétien with Harris; Mulroney while Ontarians elected both Rae’s NDP and the Peterson Liberals. And, of course, Bill Davis won while Trudeau Sr. was prime minister.
But the past may well not, any longer, be prologue.
As of today, one poll found that the Conservatives were 20 points ahead in the 905 region. Although it’s worth noting the Ontario race, provincewide, is closer.
Yes, the election remains six months away. Much can and will change. Trudeau, as we know, is a capable retail politician, and, after all, campaigns actually matter.
So, Scheer’s Conservatives would do well not to start measuring the drapes, just yet. Though Liberal voters seem to be abandoning the party, polls also caution us that it is no longer simply a two party race.
We have now seen provincial voters flirt with both new and insurgent parties, from the People’s Alliance in New Brunswick to the CAQ in Quebec to the Greens in PEI. Whether this wandering eye extends to Jagmeet Singh’s NDP or even Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party remains to be seen.
What is clear is that Trudeau will not be fighting the election he was envisioning a matter of months ago. Gone are two of his most well-respected cabinet ministers, as well as Gerry Butts, his trusted adviser. His claim to a better politics of openness and integrity has been eroded by a year of scandal and melodrama, and he has lost his ideological allies in legislatures from Alberta to New Brunswick.
It’s pretty clear that the lay of the chess board has shifted, and yet much of the Liberal team still appear to be playing checkers.