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Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

LAWRENCE MARTIN

The sagging Liberals need a shakeup Add to ...

A month ago, the Liberal Party’s management team, faced with declining support numbers, got together for three days to plot strategy for the remaining months before the federal election. Since the extended session, news has gotten no better. The Liberals continue to droop in the polls. Since last fall, they’ve gone from about 36 per cent to about 29 per cent. That’s a loss of about 20 per cent of their support. In an election year that is ominous.

In the Greater Toronto Area, where the election may well be decided, a top strategist told me that the biggest drag on their numbers is not their own doing. It’s the Ontario Liberal government’s early age sexual education policy. “I’m not kidding. It’s hurting the brand badly in certain ethnic communities, especially in the west 905.”

There are, of course, many more problems than that. The Conservatives control the agenda, they dominate the airwaves, and they often have Justin Trudeau on the defensive. With a young leader aspiring to replace an entrenched old-school ruler, the Liberals need to have the look of an insurgency movement. Instead, they have the look of bystanders. Their vocabulary is stale. They lack a phrase-maker. They lack clarity.

But despite the grim tidings, the party’s inner sanctum is resisting calls for a change of strategy. Of the existing plan, the strategist wrote in an e-mail, “We will stick to it. We expected the Tories would spend millions around tax time and the hockey playoffs to goose their numbers. That’s what they’re doing.”

He turned to a phrase used by Jean Chrétien, calling the worriers “nervous Nellies.” Mr. Trudeau, he said, is still neck and neck with Stephen Harper “despite being outspent 20-1 on advertising if you include government ad spending.”

To the charge that that they are passive – Idle Some More is what one wag called their approach – the Trudeau team cites substantive speeches the leader has given on energy, on liberty, on democratic reform and on the economy in recent months. But nothing has captured the public imagination. Instead, many of the headlines have gone to Mr. Trudeau’s attempts at damage control.

On the economy, he hasn’t done enough to distinguish his approach from a government that is vulnerable. The country is in a stagnation trap. There’s been a decade of very low economic growth and economists say there are many more years of it to come. The Tories can’t keep blaming the global financial crisis. It ended many years ago.

On foreign policy, the inexperienced Mr. Trudeau could have helped his cause with trips abroad to meet foreign leaders, including the U.S. President. But they didn’t happen. On overhauling our deteriorating parliamentary democracy, Mr. Trudeau was bold in ending Liberal Party affiliation in the Senate, but the party’s other proposed reforms don’t go far enough. They won’t end one-man rule.

Too much caution grips the Grits. They had a lead in the polls. Teams that have a lead going into the third period too often sit on that lead and watch it disappear.

On their declining poll numbers, the senior strategist sent this response. “The horse race numbers are not very meaningful six months before an election. Ask Tim Hudak. Or Adrian Dix. Or Pauline Marois. Or Danielle Smith.” That’s true enough, but if you look at the last four federal campaigns, the Harper Conservatives have increased their standing during the course of every one of them.

The Liberals like to point to the fact that since the last election, the Tories have dropped from 40 per cent support to about 32 per cent. That’s also about a 20-per-cent fall. But they now have the momentum, so much so that Liberals are relieved Mr. Harper did not call an early election. With such a call, he would have had a lot working for him: the terror bounce; his chest-thumping bellicosity in Ukraine and the Middle East; and an avoidance of the Mike Duffy trial.

He could have caught Mr. Trudeau while he was down. As it is, the wounded Liberal leader still has half a year to recover.

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