The Jody Wilson-Raybould affair had been fast fading from public consciousness as Canadians embarked on the barbecue season. And the tide had begun to turn for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, allowing them to reasonably contemplate their re-election.
Of course, victory was hardly in the bag. The Liberals were still miles behind the Conservatives in terms of campaign preparedness. And Mr. Trudeau seemed less sure-footed than he had before the February departure of his alter-ego and former principal secretary Gerald Butts.
Mr. Butts left in the wake of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s revelations that senior staff in the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on her as justice minister and attorney-general to overturn a decision by the director of public prosecutions on SNC-Lavalin, throwing the Liberals off their re-election game plan. The intervening months have exposed the hole left by Mr. Butts’s absence from the PMO.
So it was no surprise to see Mr. Butts return to the fold in time for the campaign. He doesn’t need an official title to be the de facto ring master of the Liberals’ re-election effort. His mere presence within Mr. Trudeau’s orbit will reassure the Prime Minister and keep him on message as the Liberals seek to define the ballot question and demonize the Tories.
Mr. Trudeau runs several risks in bringing Mr. Butts back for the campaign – from demoralizing Liberal backbenchers who had grown frustrated by the former principal secretary’s gatekeeper role to reviving a perception among many voters that Mr. Trudeau is not his own man. But Mr. Trudeau evidently feels he needs Mr. Butts more than the other way around.
Just last week, Mr. Trudeau twice got out over his skis. In saying that comments akin to Donald Trump’s ugly attack on four progressive congresswomen “should not be allowed” in Canada, Mr. Trudeau went too far, turning what should have been a fairly straightforward condemnation of the U.S. President’s remarks into a eyebrow-raising call to limit free speech.
Then, in telling Canadians to be “patient” as Indigenous communities “make their own mistakes” on the road to reconciliation, Mr. Trudeau told a Liberal fundraiser in Victoria: “We have to be unconditional in our support in a way a parent needs to be unconditional in their love – not that there is a parent-child dynamic here.” He’s just lucky he had a friendly audience.
It might seem that Mr. Trudeau can hardly lose against a Conservative Leader who thinks chocolate milk is a miracle food, as Andrew Scheer intimated last week. Mr. Scheer’s vow to force a review of the recently updated Canada Food Guide – decried by the same dairy farmers who helped him win the Conservative leadership – was a political stunt. If Mr. Scheer is willing to interfere in Health Canada’s determinations about what’s best for Canadians’ well-being, then there’s no telling what other independent government agencies he’s willing to politicize.
With Mr. Scheer’s willingness to feed into negative narratives about the Conservatives, the Liberals hardly need Mr. Butts to do it for them. But by bringing him back for the campaign, if not longer, Mr. Trudeau seeks to ensure he is disciplined and steeled for battle.
Already, in a May interview with The Huffington Post, the supposedly retired-from-politics Mr. Butts was offering campaign advice to his former boss. “The campaign should be about a choice, not a referendum” on the Liberal record. The Liberals are “just getting started” on their “agenda to make the economy fairer and to make growth work for everybody.”
He added this kicker: “The starkest choice is on the climate, and what kind of economy people think is going to attract new investment and jobs, and what kind of jobs do people think their kids are going to have.” In other words, get ready for a characterization of Conservative politicians and policies as reactionary and dangerous for your children’s future.
Framing the decision facing voters as a “stark choice” between the forces of light and dark may not be a novel campaign tactic, but Liberals seem settled on going all out in their efforts to depict the Conservatives as scary. If they continue in the vein of recent Liberal characterizations of Conservative positions on conversion therapy, immigration and women’s rights, Canadians could be in for one of the most divisive election campaigns yet.
After all, the sunny ways no longer work their magic. Because it’s 2019, and Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals have a record to account for, Mr. Butts is turning to Plan B.
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