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The ONW Salon:  Whither Canadian Politics In 2018?

Susanna Kelley (Moderator): What will 2018 bring for each of the three federal parties and their leaders in 2018? We asked Richard Mahoney, Will Stewart and Tom Parkin.



Will Stewart:

Happy New Year to all. I hope that everyone had a safe, relaxing, and enjoyable holiday season.

Our esteemed moderator has asked us to discuss what 2018 will hold for the leaders of the three major parties. I thought I that I would start the conversation by making a few observations about each leader, the challenges they faced in 2017, and some predictions for the year ahead. I am sure my fellow panelists will pick my statements apart, but that's what we are here for!

Justin Trudeau:

Let’s be honest, Trudeau is riding high in the polls, the opposition leaders are not on the radar of most Canadians, and the entire government that he leads seems content to keep on with government by selfie. But there are storm clouds beginning to gather on his sunny ways.

The end of 2017 was not strong for Trudeau and his band of merry ministers. Of course we had the significant ethical issues with the Minister of Finance that have been covered here many times, and the PM himself got a lump of coal from the Ethics Commissioner for the holidays when it was revealed that he too has some judgment problems of his own.

Add to that the seemingly difficult time that the Trudeau government is having with passing any legislation (half what Harper had done in the same time), and the serious gaffs on the international stage with TPP, China trade, and NAFTA in the recent months. But also there was his praise of Castro upon his death, the seemingly lack of interest in the evolving Iran situation, and people are rightfully asking if Harper was correct in the foreign policy debate during the 2015 election – that Trudeau was just not ready for the world stage.

2018 will be an important year for the PM. Can he stop the tailspin? Will they get their issues management problem fixed? And can this happen before the ever-friendly press turns on him and asks similar questions to the ones that I have asked above.

Prediction?  The polls will get closer and closer until Trudeau gets some foreign policy wins and can demonstrate that he is engaged in the job, not, as the Ethics Commissioner asserts, just as a ceremonial head of government.

Andrew Scheer:

This is a make or break year for Scheer. He simply has to define himself to Canadians or risk having the Liberals define him. He also has to begin to shed some of the social conservative assertions that are lurking in polite company. But perhaps those two statements are versions of each other.

Many people have critiqued the Scheer/CPC advertisement of which saw the leader walking around a playground. They have been mocked and ridiculed many times. I would ask those same pundits from all stripes to look back to the mock interview style ads that Harper used in 2006. The same people took issue with those, the same snickers could be heard, but those (and other factors) led to the end of the Liberal government.

What the critics forget is that there are more people on Main Street than Bay Street. The CPC narrative is clearly that the Liberals are out of touch elites, which is driven home by small business tax changes, taxation on diabetic medication, taxes on employee discounts while the ministers and their friends jet off to private islands, own secret assets in shady numbered companies, and attend international conferences with private photographers in tow.

The question is not if the ads are good or not (I believe they are for the right audience), but are they effective in driving the compare and contrast position that the CPC wants. That is the unknown.

Prediction? 2018 will be the year that the CPC make significant gains in the polls, or they will have to retool their strategy. Failure to get within 5% for the CPC by this time next year will mean that they have to hope for a Liberal blunder, not a CPC surge, to get power in 2019.

I will save Singh for my next round while I defend myself against jabs from my fellow panelists.


Tom Parkin:

We are now in the year before the next federal election. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's approval rating of has fallen considerably—to the point where, for the first time, he has a net negative rating, according to Angus Reid.

But the party horserace numbers haven’t changed much, suggesting that while disappointment in the Trudeau Liberals is real, neither of their two competitors have been able to take advantage of it—yet, anyway.

Despite being in office for over two years, Trudeau has left no mark on Canada. His infrastructure program was supposed to be his economic signature, but in it’s first year, about 40% of the budgeted allocations were delayed. And now his Infrastructure Bank is being recreated as a private investment rent-seekers’ paradise rather than a hub for cheap public finance, as was promised.

The Liberals have tried to take credit for a spurt in GDP growth in 2017, but it’s doubtful Canadians will give him much credit—or even that many noticed. And should interest rates increase this year, Canadians’ historic levels of household debt will become more expensive, drawing more money from household spending and transferring it to banks and other lenders. That will leave a sour taste for many.

In 2018, Trudeau needs show he has done something tangible for Canadians—other than break promises.

Richard Mahoney:

The litany of complaints from Will and Tom about the Trudeau government read like a repeater coil of the twitter feeds of prominent Liberal politicians like the PM: yelling about small business tax changes that mostly did not happen, ranting about selfies and where the PM holidays, and a step too far on criticisms of Minister Morneau's handling of his personal wealth when he entered public life. And what about Iran?

You cannot find a government announcement on important accomplishments like the tax relief for the middle class and the accompanied tax increases for the one per cent of wealthiest Canadians, the massive progress on poverty with the expansion of the Canada Child Benefit, the huge increase in retirement security for all Canadians with the changes to the CPP or the recent and historic new national housing strategy, without also seeing a twitter feed with some version of these talking points in play. That was and is 2017.

It was also a year that saw two new Opposition leaders elected to replace the defeated Tom Mulcair and Stephen Harper – a generational shift in Canadian politics.

Both new leaders finished off 2017 on a low note: by-elections in Quebec, Western Canada and Ontario showed a very strong performance by the Liberals, picking up two seats that were held by the Conservatives, seats the Conservatives would have to win to have a chance at forming a government. Seats that Liberals had not held for generations.

And not only did the NDP lose as well in those seats, its share of the popular vote went down below recent levels.

So while all three leaders face challenges in 2018, Trudeau starts from a position of strength, with a year in front of him in which he needs to continue progress on the economy, leadership on the global stage and progress on issues like climate change as his must dos.

For Scheer, it is as Will says above, the time to define himself. What kind of Conservative is he? Is he the social conservative that some maintain and that he showed during the leadership contest and as a Harper MP? Or is he a more modern, moderate Conservative? If so, how would we know?

What issues does he differ from the PM on? It is not enough to say that he wouldn't vacation with the Aga Khan. He has to set out a different economic and cultural vision, and he has not done that.

As Will says, if he defines himself in 2018, he will then show whether or not he has the stuff to compete with Trudeau in a 2019 election year.


Will Stewart:

I am always happy to see Richard attempt to belittle the criticisms that I, and others, have of the government. It is nice to see that he is playing into the exact narrative that the Conservatives want the Liberals to participate in. Their approach seems to be "don't worry about what we do (for we are beyond reproach), but look at what we have said."

The trouble is it is exactly that approach that further alienates them from the electorate. The successes Richard notes are all small tweaks to existing programs and policies. They are Harper light, not Liberal strong.

What Richard fails to mention is that not one of their announcements has satisfied the very people who voted for Trudeau in the first place.

Poverty activists say their tax reforms and poverty initiatives don't go far enough, veterans are still displeased with pension reform, First Nations are still waiting for meaningful consultation and an end to boil water advisories, there's no electoral reform, military procurement is a mess, thousands of people are without paycheques from their government employer, ATIP reform makes things worse, not better.  Not to mention an Environment Minister who erroneously tweets out pictures of polar bears as evidence of climate change then shames Canadians for pointing out it is cold outside!

And lets not get started on the hockey rink you can't play hockey on.

But by all means Richard, please keep disregarding my comments as mere talking points as the Liberals continue to disregard the middle-class Canadians they tell us they are.

Now, back to our question of the day: What does 2018 hold in store for the NDP?

The current strategy for the new NDP leader is not working. They got shut out in the by-elections, with considerable losses in popular support. Worse still is that support, almost to a percentage point, went straight to the Liberals who have found fertile ground in support from the left.

It is crisis time for the NDP. What can the party do to attract that support back? That is a good question that Tom will have to grapple with below.

If they go further left, they risk passing into oblivion for popular support as they alienate the working class support they have in favour of the downtown socialist support.

So do they move to the centre and become the middle option between the new left Liberals and the Conservatives? Perhaps, but look to Ontario in the 2014 general election and see how that was an utter failure for the NDP there.

We have been told to "wait to see what Jagmeet can do", but he took a beating on CBC in his first major interview after the leadership. We are told that he is "strong in Quebec" but the party's membership sales, popular support and groundwork paint a different story.

We are told to wait until we see him in a diverse, progressive, sub-urban riding of new Canadians, but we had that in Scarborough Agincourt and the NDP did not even contend, barely getting over 5% (less than 1,000 votes cast for them!) compared to 40% for the Conservatives and 49% for the Liberals. That is the lowest vote percentage for the NDP in that riding in at least the last 20 years.

Perhaps one way to end this crisis of irrelevance is to profile Singh as the true champion of the middle class against the fake populism of the Liberal elite. But it is difficult to be seen as the team captain for the NDP when you are not even allowed to suit up and take the field. With no seat, and no plans for a seat for Jagmeet, they will have a difficult time generating the following through the media that they need to be relevant.

Prediction? Singh succumbs to pressure and seeks a safe by-election seat, likely after the Ontario election in June. But will it be too late? We will have to wait and see.


Tom Parkin:

The two Opposition leaders must make a policy and personal mark in 2018. By the end of this year voters must have a sense of their beliefs, attitudes and what drives them.

No doubt Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will focus on deficits and taxes. But there are risks here. The Trudeau Liberals have already cut taxes for higher incomes and small businesses—one round of small business tax cuts happened on January 1st. The Liberals are doing nothing about tax haven use and refuse to keep their promise to rescind the deduction for stock option income.

Andrew Scheer recently and wrongly tweeted that Trudeau has raised taxes on small businesses. And while some Canadians will place partisanship above truth, it seems unlikely that Andrew Scheer will be able to create anti-tax outrage where the facts don’t support his case.

There will also be a challenge running as a cut-and-slash conservative unless deficit spending gets considerably worse. But the Trudeau government has pledged to keep federal program spending to about 2.3% over the next two years, which would likely be slightly less than inflation plus population growth. Where’s the need for conservative austerity?

In 2018, Scheer may succeed in becoming the candidate of spending and tax cuts—but it’s not clear that’s the “policy personality” Canadians will be looking for in 2019.

Singh has a different challenge. Ten years after the last recession the economy is beginning to pick up—though unemployment is still about 6% and labour force participation is only about 65%. Through those ten years, while wage earners have waited their turn, the Bank of Canada and government policy makers have had the backs of high-income earners, corporate profits and the stock market. And Canadians know it.

Singh has already issued a challenge to the Trudeau Liberals to undertake comprehensive progressive tax reform—acting on loopholes and the unfairness that has been created by cuts to corporate, small business and high income taxes. Expect more.

Singh also has a gamut of reforms to make life more affordable—childcare, pharmacare and public infrastructure investment. All these ideas have strong economics and the ability to help those who haven’t made many gains the last decade. Singh will continue to pitch these issues.

Singh’s challenge will be that the opinion elite has already made their overwhelming decision that he and his plan can’t be allowed to succeed. After all, it is very hard to make someone understand something which his paycheque depends on his not understanding.

Singh will have to fight for every column inch and inspire Canadians to once again have hope that government can work to improve their lives. That is an immense challenge in a cynical age, especially for an under-resourced party.


Richard Mahoney:

Will and Tom both point to the challenges in front of Jagmeet Singh. If Scheer is the average everyday guy alternative to Trudeau, many NDP delegates fancied that Singh was the urbane, hip, attractive and multicultural alternative to the popular PM.

Singh’s first problem is similar to Scheer’s: they are both unknown to most Canadians. To put forward the case that you are a credible alternative to govern Canada, both leaders will need to re-introduce themselves to Canadians.

Singh in particular will need to tell Canadians how a Singh-lead government would differ. Would the New Democrats put a higher price on carbon? Would they still work with NDP governments in BC and Alberta to advance big energy projects? How would their approach on First Nations differ from that of the Liberals in this regard? Would they attract investment and jobs the way Trudeau is: unemployment is as low as it has been in a generation – what more could you do to build a modern economy with expanding middle class opportunity?

I think the logical move for the NDP and Singh is to move back to their roots, While the NDP have recently refrained from using “socialist” to brand their approach, ironically they may be doing so at a time when more Canadians are willing to look at policy alternatives once considered “socialist”. Being good looking and wearing nice suits is easy, but won’t get them much. Canadians will want to know how and why an NDP approach will differ from the Trudeau approach.

The Trudeau approach is centrist, modern progressivism. You would think that many New Democrats would be looking for a more radical solution. But we have yet to see that, other than some musings from Singh about legalizing all drugs. He will have to do better, and more than that in 2018, to make a difference. Let’s see if he, and they, is courageous enough to embrace some of the many good ideas out there that the government cannot currently afford or has yet to embrace.

Yes there is risk to all of to all of that. And the age-old internal debate in the NDP will pit that risk against those who prefer a moderate, Liberal-esque approach. But the risk to the NDP of being redundant seems greater to me than it ever has. Watching the NDP have that debate, and answer those questions, is the challenge in front of them, and will be very interesting for the rest of us to watch.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parking is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 




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