This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 11, 2018.
February was not a particularly kind month to the Liberal government. I can only assume that their issues management team did not have much chance to sleep.
If there is one lesson I learned during my time in politics, it’s that when it rains, it pours. Rarely did I receive one piece of bad news without a few more unpleasant surprises by the end of the day. A crisis in the health portfolio would soon be followed by a meltdown by a backbench MPP, or some other unexpected turn of events.
So it has gone with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
February was not a particularly kind month to the Liberal government. I can only assume that their issues management team did not have much chance to sleep. As soon as it had solved one challenge, it seemed that another emerged.
Of course, the most problematic was Trudeau‘s ill-fated official visit to India. The prime minister, who has proven that he is remarkably adept at demonstrating authenticity, came across as almost comically out-of-touch.
Dressed in traditional Indian garments, the entire Trudeau family spent the entire week clothed in a way that many Indians took as insulting. The parade of outfits, combined with an attempt by Trudeau to literally dance for a crowd, made for endless mocking on social media and tut-tutting in traditional media.
But more challenging still for the visit was the Indian government’s subtle, or not-so-subtle, attempts to undermine the trip and demonstrate its antipathy toward Trudeau‘s government.
Narendra Modi’s government got quite close with the former Conservative government and has not been secretive in its disapproval of several moves by the Trudeau government. It set about sabotaging the Trudeau tour as subtly as it could, as when it sent only a junior minister of agriculture to greet Trudeau (Modi usually makes a personal appearance to greet foreign dignitaries), or when it sent low-ranking bureaucrats to accompany the Trudeaus.
While those were minor frustrations, they received minimal attention at home. The trip officially went from bad to worse when Jaspal Atwal turned up at a reception hosted by the Canadian government to celebrate our bilateral relationship with India. Atwal is a persona non grata with the Indian government, having attempted to murder an Indian cabinet minister visiting Vancouver in 1986.
His presence, for good reason, caused a major scandal among the Indian government, and afforded them the opportunity to once again accuse the Liberals of running a government that is weak on the issue of Sikh extremism.
The issue unsettled Liberal MPs, but the federal budget promised to turn the page on Feb. 27. The problem was that the budget was a wholly unremarkable document, and one that did little to refocus the media onto the positive work done by the government.
The last week has been no more kind to the government. U.S. President Donald Trump‘s haphazard and aggressive announcements that he would be imposing trade tariffs on steel in allied nations came as unwelcome news. The fact that he wrote specifically about Canada was an even more unwelcome development.
The government, to its enormous credit, successfully pushed back on the imposition of tariffs, offering Canada a temporary reprieve. But the potential imposition of such damaging tariffs will now be used as a sword of Damocles, an implicit threat dangling over the head of Canada as our government attempts to negotiate NAFTA.
And to cap off several weeks of unpleasantness, several polls emerged that showed the Liberals trailing the Tories for the first time in years.
Now, let it be known that polls taken this far away from an election are minimally important in understanding what will actually happen in the 2019 election.
What those polls, and the successive bad news, can actually do is unnerve the Liberal MPs. While people dismiss the power of MPs on the agenda of the government, they actually have remarkable power to shape its priorities. An agitated and restless caucus can spell major issues for a government.
While we haven’t yet approached that moment, the disquiet among the Liberal backbench is evident – both based on their faces during question period, and in murmurs around the Hill.
To remedy that discontent, Trudeau needs to reclaim the narrative. The question is how he goes about accomplishing that.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.