This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20161211.
‘Justin Trudeau will find that to win the next election his government will have to pick a lane and stay in it, rather than driving down the middle of the road.’
It’s a sad fact that ‘compromise’ can be a dirty word in politics.
In our party system, there is always some measure of compromise. No one ever gets all they want.
Governments come to understand that with every decision they make, at least one section of Canadians will be unhappy.
The Liberal election manifesto was designed, and stunningly so, to build the widest tent imaginable under the party’s bright red banner. As Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau successfully engaged lawyers on Bay Street and suburban soccer parents. He brought urbane West Coast hipsters together with fishers from St. John’s.
Now, more than a year later, the reality of governing will test the durability of this winning coalition.
To win again in 2019, Trudeau must hold that broad array of voters together, a task that may be easier said than done if the past few weeks are any indication.
Trudeau has been trying to find middle ground, but in politics the reaction to issues tends to be focused on the ends of the opinion spectrum, on the black and white and not the grey. When trying to play the middle, a politician runs the risk of upsetting everyone and pleasing no one.
In 2015, the Liberal coalition was made up of a robust cadre of moderate Conservatives, staunch Liberals and soft New Democrats. In recent weeks, it would appear that the Liberals’ big red tent isn’t as friendly a place as it used to be. With each policy decision, Trudeau runs the risk of driving some who took shelter in that tent back to their former homes.
For example, Trudeau’s approach to marijuana and his recent decision on pipelines have upset people on the left and right of the prototypical Liberal voter.
On marijuana, Trudeau is firmly in the legalization camp and Liberal MP Bill Blair, Toronto’s former police chief, is working on new legislation. However, Trudeau says that, in the meantime, the government is not in the business of pleasing recreational marijuana users and police should ‘enforce the law,’ including using criminal charges and raiding illegal marijuana dispensaries.
On this policy, some people want him to drop the legalization promise. Others just want the government to leave recreational users alone and take quicker steps toward legalization. Trudeau’s pronouncements left both groups unsatisfied.
Last week, the government approved two major pipeline expansions while shelving the Northern Gateway project. In the House of Commons, Trudeau claimed the middle ground.
‘One side of this House wants us to approve everything and ignore indigenous communities and environmental responsibilities,’ he said. ‘The other side ﾅ doesn’t care about the jobs or the economic growth that comes with getting our resources to market.’
Nevertheless, Trudeau’s pipeline decision jeopardizes his once-rosy relationship with his left-leaning supporters while not buying him any points with those on the right.
Conservative voters see the government scuttling an independently approved pipeline for no good reason, while those focused on the environment are unhappy the government is allowing the other two projects to go ahead.
By trying to find middle ground, Trudeau has ended up frustrating people on both sides.
When it comes to the decisions that lie ahead, Trudeau must decide whether he will appeal to the soft New Democrats or the moderate Conservatives who make up his coalition.
Trudeau will find that to have a chance to win the next election, his government will have to pick a lane and stay in it, rather than driving down the middle of the road.
If the prime minister had approved all three pipelines, would Conservatives have had the grounds to criticize him? Harper was unable to break ground on a single pipeline which brought oil to a new market in his nearly 10-year reign. By approving all three, the Liberal base would have stayed loyal and his political capital with soft conservatives would have increased. Approval of two pipelines was already going to alienate New Democrats who had voted Liberal in the last election. How much more alienated would they have been if all three pipelines had been approved?
Instead, the government’s decision exposed vulnerabilities on both sides. The prime minister has not consolidated his gains from the Tories, nor succeeded in saving his Vancouver-area MPs from anti-pipeline voters.
In politics, it’s just not feasible to make all voters happy all the time. A government simply can’t be all things to all people.
Bismarck’s words, first uttered in 1867, that ‘politics is the art of the possible’ are surely on our prime minister’s mind 150 years later.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.