The latest poll from Abacus Data has Justin Trudeau’s Liberals trailing the Conservatives by 16 percentage points, 25 to 41. That’s landslide territory for Pierre Poilievre’s Conservative Party, right up there with John Diefenbaker’s 208-seat victory in 1958 and Brian Mulroney’s 211-seat record-breaker in 1984.
This isn’t an isolated poll. Opinion surveys have been trending in this deathly direction for the Liberals for many months. To borrow from auto-racing parlance, for Mr. Trudeau to call an election today would be the equivalent of “Gentlemen. Start your coffins!”
As solace, some in the Liberal Party might be thinking of how it staged a marvellous comeback from third place to win the election under Mr. Trudeau in 2015, and that maybe it can be done again now.
That would be folly. That resurgence was when the Liberals were in opposition, not a sitting government with a leader the public has been evaluating over the course of eight years.
What Canadian history shows is that no government comes back to win an election after reaching the depths of today’s Trudeau Liberals.
Brian Mulroney’s Tories were polling in the twenties in the early 1990s. It prompted Mr. Mulroney to choose to pack it in. R.B. Bennett’s Tories were loathed in the Depression years of the early 1930s. He chose to run again, attempting to recover his standing via a new policy splash modelled on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was beaten badly by Mackenzie King.
In the late 1970s, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, in their fourth term, were highly unpopular though not doing as poorly in the polls as his son now. As John Duffy wrote in his book Fights of Our Lives, Pierre Trudeau “kept postponing the general election out of fear that he could not win it.”
Even though his government lost all 13 of the by-elections in English Canada he called in 1978, he still wouldn’t step down. A year later he was defeated by Joe Clark, who won a minority. It should have been a majority but Mr. Clark was a gaffe-prone leader lacking the gladiatorial skills of a Pierre Poilievre. He quickly fumbled away his minority, allowing Mr. Trudeau Sr. to return to power.
A great favourite of both Trudeaus was Wilfrid Laurier. Even beyond Pierre Trudeau’s fourth attempt in 1979, as Justin Trudeau appears to be planning to do now, Laurier sought to extend his term to a fifth mandate in 1911. It was a mistake. Despite trying to revitalize his weary Liberals with a reciprocity deal with the United States, he lost the election to Robert Borden.
Another Liberal prime minister who mistakenly attempted to extend his reign was Louis St. Laurent, who lost a third-term bid in 1957 to Diefenbaker.
While there have been no miracle resurgences at the federal level, provincially there have been some, an example being that of Premier Christy Clark’s British Columbia Liberals. They came back from a 20-point deficit in some polls to win the election in 2013 against Adrian Dix’s NDP. But unlike Mr. Trudeau, who has been Liberal commander for 10 years, Ms. Clark was a new face as a leader, having taken over in 2011.
Fatigue with Mr. Trudeau, as pollsters note, is a major burden. For those whose public impressions have become embedded after a long time in leadership positions, their reputations are unlikely to change. Striking new policy initiatives like those undertaken by Laurier and Bennett didn’t help.
The governments of Bennett, Mr. Mulroney’s in its latter stages and Pierre Trudeau’s in the late 1970s all faced dire economic conditions. Mr. Trudeau’s economy is not as bad. His unpopularity has broader causes, suggesting that even if economic conditions were to improve, it would be hard for him to turn things around. When Stephen Harper failingly tried to extend his stay to a fourth term in 2015, the economy was in relatively good enough condition but it wasn’t enough to save him.
Liberals note that two weeks is a long time in politics and that there could be almost two years until the next election. They say that Mr. Trudeau is a great campaigner, that the party did better in by-elections in the spring than polls suggested and that Mr. Poilievre’s favourability numbers are not all that impressive.
Other Liberals are not so bothered by their party’s awful standing in the polls. They feel it will convince their Leader, who has never been a quitter, to face today’s stark new realities, announce he will not run again and call a leadership convention.
If Mr. Trudeau takes a hint from history, he will do just that.