Four years ago, Justin Trudeau ended his campaign telling rallies that Conservatives were neighbours, not enemies. This time, he shouted himself hoarse during the last days warning of the dangers of his opponents.
This was a different campaign. Now the question is whether Mr. Trudeau can be a different second-term prime minister.
It is not solely a question of platform policies. It’s that this time, he can’t expect people to follow him where he leads. In the campaign, he called on Canadians to “Choose Forward,” as his slogan went, but he struggled to get people to walk with him. But in the end, enough of them returned to his resilient brand.
Now his second term starts with a lack of consensus and a lot of potential for combat.
This is the prime minister who is supposed to hold enough of the middle ground to allow him to push forward a centre-left agenda: he would cut taxes for the middle class but raise spending, he would tax carbon but build a pipeline, he would be a strong federalist but tend to Quebec. Much of that agenda is more contentious now. Mr. Trudeau won, but smaller. Does he still have enough personal power to forge a path forward?
Mr. Trudeau is tougher than many Canadians think. His political brand was supposed to be about dynamism, openness and building common ground. That has been beaten up over his first term. Still, his voters long to see it back.
His second term will require old-school tactical manoeuvring. Mr. Trudeau will have to strike a co-operative stand. Even with a large minority, and a logical main partner in the weakened NDP, minority government means daily wheeling and dealing to scrape up support from other parties, which fret about short-term advantage. Mr. Trudeau will struggle with premiers’ opposition with a diminished mandate.
Look at the political map now. The Bloc Québécois is back. Leader Yves-François Blanchet’s mandate isn’t to be a vanguard for Quebec independence, but his party now acts as a nationalist, autonomist Quebec bloc in the Commons allied to a nationalist, autonomist Premier, François Legault in Quebec City, who wants more powers. Alberta and Saskatchewan are hopping mad at the Liberal environmental agenda but in many parts of the rest of the country, Mr. Trudeau is blamed for buying a pipeline.
Mr. Trudeau almost certainly has to go ahead with both the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion and the carbon-tax-and-rebate program that is the centerpiece of his climate change plan. He ran against austerity, so expect the spending taps to keep flowing.
His economic agenda from 2015 – infrastructure and innovation – was barely mentioned in 2019. In the first term, it was displaced by NAFTA talks; there is no sign of a driving economic agenda for the second.
The social-policy agenda that Mr. Trudeau promised included negotiating pharmacare with provinces, but that won’t get easier now. That was one of the NDP’s chief planks, so you would expect speedy movement on that to be the price of regular support for Mr. Trudeau’s minority. But Mr. Legault could look to opt out of the national program and demand financial compensation. Mr. Trudeau has to worry that going head-to-head with the Quebec Premier would further boost the revived fortunes of the Bloc.
Perhaps, Mr. Trudeau can turn some governing obstacles into political gain. He has already lined up battles with conservative premiers, notably Doug Ford in Ontario and Jason Kenney in Alberta, and perhaps he will use them as foils to try to build support from progressive voters before the next election.
That’s a long way from the way Mr. Trudeau started his first term. The leadership required now appears to be about stickhandling through contradictory pressures, all while staying alive. And Mr. Trudeau doesn’t seem to have all the advantageous attributes he did in 2015 or 2016.
After his first victory, Mr. Trudeau rode a wave of goodwill that took in many people that hadn’t voted for him. He toured the world, welcomed as a new kind of leader. He convened premiers for an unusually collegial meeting that marked the start of his “pan-Canadian” climate initiative. There was a sense he could set the agenda. He doesn’t have that now.
Part of it is the wear and tear of four years in office. Some of those middle-ground compromises were harder to hold onto than Mr. Trudeau expected. It was hard to get the people who liked a carbon tax to like the purchase of a pipeline, too.
But the real chipping away came from Mr. Trudeau’s own personal political power, not just the SNC-Lavalin affair, but the un-forthright way in which he addressed that and a lot of other things. Many who had seen him as authentic and different in 2015 were viewing him as just a politician in 2019.
Now he heads into a political environment that seems to beg for tactical maneuvers, for scraping together support, always trying to stay in a winning electoral position for next time. You’d think that means Mr. Trudeau will want to recapture the sunny-ways brand of Trudeau 2015, but his second term will demand a hardnosed, tactical politician.
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