When Liberal House Leader Karina Gould set out the government’s fall priorities three weeks ago, she said Canadians want politicians to work together, “not play partisan games.” It took 10 minutes of Question Period that afternoon for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to respond to Conservative attacks with accusations that the Tories plan to restrict abortions and flood the streets with assault weapons.
Sometimes it’s hard to stay on track. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals sure are finding that out now.
The Liberals came into the fall session of Parliament with a plan to get back on track politically by focusing on Canadians’ concerns about affordability. Then they got derailed for three weeks. Now they are working on a plan to get back on track. Again.
Expect a lot of announcements about housing initiatives in towns across the country. And more of the kind of thing we saw Thursday, when Industry Minister François Philippe Champagne announced a vague promise that grocery stores will keep price increases down. The Liberals are intent on sticking to the affordability message.
That was the plan a few weeks ago, too. Ms. Gould’s Sept. 18 press conference was all about how Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals were going to focus squarely on affordability. There would be discipline. Affordability was the thing. It was a recovery strategy for a government that had a bad summer after a poor spring. Events were planned: Mr. Champagne met with grocery store CEOs that same Monday afternoon to demand they find ways to stabilize prices.
But another thing happened that afternoon: Mr. Trudeau rose in the Commons to say Canadian authorities were pursuing “credible allegations” that agents of India were linked to the killing of Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
The timing wasn’t his choice, because The Globe and Mail was going to break the story anyway, but it took over the agenda. It dominated the news – at least until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to address a joint session of Parliament in a celebratory atmosphere. Then it emerged that the 98-year-old man who Speaker Anthony Rota honoured at that session, Yaroslav Hunka, served in a Nazi unit. The following week was full of recriminations, ousting and replacing Mr. Rota, and Russian propaganda.
This wasn’t the track the Liberals wanted to be on.
Sure, that wasn’t Mr. Trudeau’s fault. Mr. Rota, by all accounts, didn’t tell anyone he was going to honour Mr. Hunka – not even Mr. Hunka. But it knocked the Liberals off message. Again.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre spent the next few days making the fallacious argument that it was Mr. Trudeau’s fault for failing to vet the Speaker’s invitees, even suggesting that the fact the 98-year-old made it through security represented a risk to Mr. Zelensky’s life.
But Mr. Trudeau has reached the point in his tenure when a large number of Canadians are willing to blame him for the things he has done wrong in the past eight years, as well as all the things that seem to be going wrong now. One former Liberal operative joked privately that when it rains, it’s Mr. Trudeau’s fault.
So in October, the Liberals are trying to get back on track. Much like September. And January, when Mr. Trudeau told his caucus they’d rise to a pivotal moment by addressing concerns about health care and affordability.
It is true the track the Liberals are trying to get back onto now is a priority for Canadians. Some Liberals believe they might recapture some political mojo.
The energetic Mr. Champagne can try to talk down food prices. The Liberals do have housing initiatives to roll out, notably agreements with cities and towns under their Housing Accelerator program. Their bill to remove the GST on rental housing will have an impact. That’s something they promised to do in 2015, but backed away from.
“This is a prime minister who is getting back to his roots, focusing on doing the big, ambitious things and not being pulled around by the public service who, let’s be honest, on the GST idea was not most inclined,” Tyler Meredith, a former Liberal policy adviser, told The Globe and Mail last week. “The tax policy branch at the Department of Finance are not going to win you an election.”
It’s progress, then, that Mr. Trudeau has gone back to a promising policy from 2015. But getting on track is one thing. Staying on track is the hard part.