Opposition parties will have to work harder if they want to beat Trudeau in 2019

The economy is strong and the Liberals haven’t made enough blunders to lose — yet

By Kyle Carruthers

It seems like yesterday, but at this time two years ago Canadians were about midway through the marathon 2015 federal election campaign.

At that point, a Justin Trudeau-led government seemed like a long shot. The NDP was still riding high in the polls under the relatively centrist leadership of Thomas Mulcair. The Liberals, after years of rebuilding, were still struggling. Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his party were doing a decent job of hammering away at nagging doubts about the inexperienced Trudeau’s qualifications to lead.

The rest, of course, is history. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as he is now known, won a large majority government and is approaching the halfway mark of his first term. Harper and Mulcair are both gone — the former having been replaced in the spring with Regina MP Andrew Scheer and the leadership race to fill the shoes of the latter entering its final stretch.

So how are things going? As is usually the case in politics it really depends on who you ask.

Some of the progressives who lent their vote to the Liberals in order to get Harper’s Conservatives out of office are disappointed with in the Liberal government. These include broken promises on electoral reform and promised new spending on underfunded indigenous communities that has yet to materialize. “Balancing the environment and economy,” once we move beyond rhetoric, has proven easier said than done leaving disappointed Canadians on both the left and right.

But while some progressives may have buyer’s remorse it still manifests as mild frustration and disappointment. The passionate Trudeau hate is on the right.

I’m not talking about the discontent of every conservative with legitimate concerns about deficits (which I share) and over tax increases. I’m talking about the deep seated loathing of “Prime Minister Selfie” — as he is derisively known — that has reached a fever pitch among some on the right.

Trudeau derangement syndrome now matches in intensity and irrationality the pathology that plagued former Stephen Harper’s worst critics.

It is loosely policy based, combining justifiable disagreements with misplaced blame for economic challenges facing the energy sector plus cultural anxieties about refugees and the changing Canadian demographic that “Trudeauism” celebrates. But I think much of the syndrome is rooted in a profoundly personal distaste for the youthful-looking, cosmopolitan, Quebec-based, son of a millionaire who (derangement sufferers believe) undeservedly ousted a competent prime minister.

Trudeau derangement syndrome may produce severe symptoms but it seems unlikely to be particularly contagious. “Prime Minister Selfie” may seem like a compelling line of attack for curmudgeonly technological refuseniks but it is not a very compelling one to younger Canadians — even ones who are well into their thirties, forties and beyond — who know what Instagram is.

And while some of the sheen has come off Trudeau’s Liberals, most polling still shows the Liberals well out front in public opinion. The Opposition has its work cut out for it.

Of the options available to Conservatives, Andrew Scheer was a decent choice as leader but I don’t think anyone would accuse him of having Trudeau’s charm. If he is to win in 2019 he will have to follow the Stephen Harper model of gradually earning the trust of moderate and centre-right Canadians while cultivating the image of a steady and capable leader.

The problem with that approach is that — readers will recall — Stephen Harper didn’t win so much as Canadian’s grew tired of the Liberals and sought an alternative.

I would submit that we’ve got a long way to go on that front. Sure there has been discontent over such matters as the Omar Khadr payout or Trudeau’s trip to Aga Khan’s private island, but voters tend to have short memories and neither is enough, years removed from the event, to be a real difference maker come election time. Large deficits aren’t going to do it either, because Canadians have an (unfortunately) blasé attitude towards debt.

I think that recent moves to change the rules regarding the taxation of small businesses — which will result in substantially higher tax bills for many of the kind of Canadians that the Liberals need to keep in their tent — are going to hurt the party more than anything we’ve seen in the past two years. Voters affected by this move will find a natural home with the Conservatives. And, worryingly for rank and file Liberal MPs, the pain will be felt most acutely at tax time 2019.

But I think there needs to be more. The Liberals are likely going to have to screw something up in truly epic fashion in order to flip voter preference. The steady drip of disappointment and scandal just isn’t strong enough right now to oust a sitting government.

There are wildcards beyond the government’s control of course. The economy is faring well but that can change quickly. The future of NAFTA is very much in doubt but I have a hunch that if negotiations turn for the worse more Canadians will place blame on the erratic occupant of the White House than on the Trudeau government.

Another wildcard of course is the NDP leadership race — the conventional wisdom being that a strong NDP is bad for the Liberals. I have little in the way of meaningful speculation about how that will play out, but I have doubts that those Anyone But Conservative swing voters, so crucial to Liberal election victories, are irritated enough with the current government yet to burn the whole thing down.

At this point, if we are to see a change of government in 2019, the reason why has not yet revealed itself.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.