Chairman's Desk

Mississauga-Lakeshore byelection result has people talking — and with good reason

With a host of challenges ahead, a clear and urgent question emerges for Justin Trudeau: should I stay or should I go?

Former Ontario finance minister Charles Sousa’s win over his Conservative opponent, Ron Chhinzer, was decisive. Victorious by 14 points, Sousa more than doubled the margin of victory his Liberal predecessor secured in 2021. No doubt, an impressive feat, but not altogether shocking for a candidate of Sousa’s prominence and community ties.

As ever in politics, more intriguing than the result itself are the reactions it has elicited.

For Conservatives and their new Leader, Pierre Poilievre, the severity of the warnings are only rivalled by those visited upon Scrooge by the ghosts. This first-test-first-defeat combination has some calling for no less than a wholesale tactical course correction — and fast.

“Change your ways, Mr. Poilievre,” they chime, “before it’s too late!” Conversely, for the Liberals and Trudeau, many have marked this as a highly symbolic closing act to 2022: hardened by trials of every description, a defiant leader stands tall, ready for combat once more.

On both fronts, I see things differently.

While it’s true that Conservatives require significant progress in the seat-rich GTA if they’re to stand any chance in the next election, the Sousa vs. Chhinzer race was between a veteran politician and a political newcomer — the results reflected this reality. The chance for introspection or message refinement ought never to be missed, but the numbers are clear: nationally, the Conservatives hold the lead, and some polls (as recent as last week) show its growing.

So, in assessing this race, the Conservatives should not overreact, nor should the Grits. Stepping outside the partisan opinion bubble and the Mississauga-Lakeshore result proves only that the Sousa and Liberal brand retain strength but does little to counteract a truth too few Liberals are willing to accept, let alone vocalize: that Trudeau’s personal brand remains deeply polarizing.

Heading into this new year, the details Liberals should most closely scrutinize are not the final accounts of a foregone byelection but the ominous forecast ahead. The prime ministerial briefing for 2023 consists of dire challenges, from a battle with the provinces over a crumbling health-care system to resurgent sovereignty movements. Combine these ordeals with a likely showdown against an opponent with energy and momentum, and a clear and urgent question emerges for the PM: should I stay or should I go?

For any politician, there are few inquiries so personal, so demanding of frank introspection. Beyond the original question all new candidates must face — am I the right sort of person for this profession? — is one far narrower and that can often only be conceived with success: am I the right person for this specific task, to win this election?

In fairness, Trudeau and his supporters can respond quite simply: we’ve heard it all before, and on each occasion we’ve been proven correct — the specific task was met by the right man, so what’s different now?

But that’s the thing about the feeling of invincibility, it’s with you until it’s not, until it’s been coldly disproven by defeat. A fundamental truth in politics is that success is fleeting, it’s corollary: that there is, therefore, a right and wrong time to go.

Unfortunately, most politicians get that timing wrong and fail to exit while, crucially, an exit lane still lies ahead. And yet, they do so for understandable reasons. Here are just two.

First, walking-away runs contrary to the fighting spirit that first delivered them victory. A disposition emboldened by those around them who — needless to say — hold vested interests.

Second, there are existential fears over the family feud their departure might instigate. As they contemplate their withdrawal, leaders watch these rivalries take shape. Rarely do they like what they see. Rarely are they wrong to worry. History reveals that bitter leadership contests can tear the soul of a party apart.

Both reasons are deeply relevant for Trudeau. While Sousa’s victory presented a moment for celebration at the end of a challenging year, it would be a mistake to interpret it as a sign of invincibility. For the good of his party, he cannot afford to ignore the reality that, should he choose to perennially drive on, eventually, he will run out of gas.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on December 19, 2022.