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The vote is still four months off, but unofficially the federal election campaign is fully joined, or will be as soon as the Liberals locate their brain.
In less anatomical terms, whatever passes these days as the fount of Liberal political thinking and planning is either AWOL or addled.
For most of the 20th Century, Canada’s big red machine was the stuff of political mythology. At its core, manipulating the machinery, were the backroom powerbrokers and strategists who seemed to play the game a couple of moves ahead of everyone else. Skilled political operatives then executed each move with flawless precision.
Like many myths, this one’s partly truth and partly fiction, but the powers emanating from Liberal backrooms were sufficiently formidable that Grits governed Canada for two-thirds of the last century and were labelled “Canada’s natural governing party.”
The Liberals entered this election year atop the polls, almost certainly destined for re-election and quite possibly a second majority. Then came SNC-Lavalin.
After a lengthy hiatus, in 2015 the old Liberal political magic seemed to be back. The party had a fresh-faced leader whose last name almost demanded the honorific ‘prime minister.’ Party strategists accurately gauged the mood of the electorate and gave us “sunny ways” as the antidote to a decade-long Conservative dirge. The Liberals went from third to first and Canada had a second Prime Minister Trudeau.
Fast forward to 2019. The Liberals entered this election year atop the polls, almost certainly destined for re-election and quite possibly a second majority. Then came SNC-Lavalin.
An effective strategy to put the affair to bed never materialized and, for week after excruciating week, it dominated the national news, dragged the prime minister’s approval rating into the dumpster and deposited the Liberals in second place behind the Conservatives in almost every poll taken since mid-February.
But the bleeding has stopped, and the party still has the support of something between a quarter and a third of decided voters. There’s plenty of time to recover and win re-election, provided the Liberals can get back on their messages and execute with that old flawless precision.
That’s what makes the PM’s performance Monday — when he announced his government’s intention to ban at least some plastic products “as early as 2021” — baffling for its ineptitude.
The announcement was short on specifics, but that was easily manageable. There are studies to do; much to consider.
But then came reporters’ questions, and when Prime Minister Trudeau was tossed the most predictable of them all, he fumbled, stumbled, mumbled and bumbled, sounding for all the world like a man who has no idea what his family drinks, or from which vessel.
“What do you and your family do to reduce your use of plastics?” is a question that was certain to come, but somehow it caught Trudeau completely by surprise and the results were not pretty.
The Conservatives benefited not at all from the Liberals’ recent slide down the polls, nor did the NDP. Only the Greens seemed to gain supporters the Liberals lost.
He said something like: “We have recently switched to drinking water bottles out of water, out of, when we have water bottles out of plastic, sorry, away from plastic towards paper, like drink box water bottles sort of things.” There were a lot of ums and ahs in there, but you get the gist.
The PM was completely unprepared for the most obvious question. Why?
The well-oiled political machine the Liberals will need to carry them back to government has been conspicuous by its absence now for the better part of five months. Unless and until they find it, and get it working at maximum performance, they’re headed for more embarrassing moments and almost certain electoral defeat.
But, if the Liberals do manage to get their act together, their chances of recovery and re-election are better than you might expect.
The Conservatives benefited not at all from the Liberals’ recent slide down the polls, nor did the NDP. Only the Greens seemed to gain supporters the Liberals lost. And the pollsters tell us that the Liberals are the second choice of a lot of folks who currently identify as Green or NDP supporters.
The Liberals’ path back to government requires a reunion of the ABC (Anybody But Conservative) voters who rallied behind them four years ago. All they need to do is resurrect their leader’s tattered image and run a flawless campaign based on issues that work for them and against the Conservatives.
A new kind of politics won’t get it done. These Liberals need the big red machine.