National AffairsOpinionPolitics

Can leaders win back votes?

By Susan Delacourt / June 29, 2023

It takes a certain lack of humility to plunge into political life. But long-term survival in politics is a humbling experience, as all the federal leaders and their parties learned once again the hard way during the first half of this year.

Canadians generally don’t mind seeing political figures knocked down a few pegs, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that politicians of all stripes will be headed out on the summer barbecue circuit with a certain degree of battle-weary humility.

Justin Trudeau has been weathering controversy after controversy over the past six months, most notably on the issue of foreign interference in elections, but also in the larger realm of security and law and order. And this is all against a backdrop of punishing rises in the cost of living – an issue that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his team have hammered for months now.

If one was looking for just one snapshot over the past half year of just how much Trudeau has had to reckon with humility, it would be his rather remarkable, candid acknowledgement in March: “No matter what I say, people are going to wonder – if they didn’t vote for me – whether or not they can trust me.”

Abacus Data has been reporting a steady, rising dissatisfaction among the Canadian public with how things are going with Trudeau in charge – even if the Liberals did do better than expected in the byelections last week.

“There’s no doubt that the public is open to change,” Abacus CEO David Coletto says. “Most are ready for new leadership because they don’t sense the current Liberal government is effectively tackling the issues they care most about – the cost of living, health care, and housing. The challenge for the Liberals is that these are big, challenging issues that will take time to improve, and execution and delivery are largely out of its hands.”

But the Conservatives could do with a dose of humility too, says Coletto, especially after seeing their vote share drop in those same byelections in Manitoba, southwestern Ontario and Montreal.

“The Conservatives should reflect on how the byelection results are evidence of uneasiness with the kind of change they are offering,” Coletto says.

“Canadians don’t need to be convinced that they want or need change. They need to be convinced that change will make a difference, and that it will lead to different and better outcomes for them and their families. Just because people want change, doesn’t mean they will vote for it. My advice would be to offer Canadians an alternative that appears competent, mature, and in control.”

Meanwhile, the New Democrats and Leader Jagmeet Singh appear to have a bit more explaining to do to the voters about what the country is getting out of the Liberal-NDP co-operation pact. As my colleagues Stephanie Levitz and Raisa Patel reported last week, the NDP did not get any bounce in those byelections either.

There’s a rule in politics about avoiding hats – except during the Calgary Stampede, when they’re mandatory. The rule for this summer, for all political types, might be to face the citizens out there with hat in hand, mindful that the first six months have not exactly worn well on the image of Canadian politics.

If humbling is indeed the theme, perhaps the most searing example of that came with what happened to David Johnston, the former governor general appointed to advise Trudeau on how to get to the bottom of the foreign interference issue.

Johnston, who could rightly boast he was one of Canada’s most eminent statesmen when he accepted the post, was essentially chased out of his job by the angry-mob-style partisanship that has come to characterize political debate in this country.

Memo to all political leaders: perhaps think twice about taking that show on the road this summer, especially when talking to voters who have bigger issues on their mind than whether Johnston’s cottage was too close to the Trudeau’s.

It should be noted that some big things happened amid all the small squabbles. The federal government reached a deal with all provinces and territories on the all-important issue of health care – $46 billion in increased spending, which Poilievre has said he will not roll back if Conservatives come to power.

And there were other victories amid the often toxic partisanship on Parliament Hill. A major report on last year’s convoy protests in Canada found that Trudeau and his team were justified in declaring a state of emergency. President Joe Biden finally paid a call on Canada and lavished friendship on his Liberal allies to the north. The federal and Ontario governments managed to attract Volkswagen to build a massive vehicle battery plant in St. Thomas, Ont. as part of an effort to make Canada a big player in the emerging clean-energy economy.

Even in this realm though came a humbling setback – Stellantis, viewing the subsidies VW won, suspended work on its massive electric-vehicle battery plant in Windsor, forcing governments into a mad scramble to woo the automaker back over the past month or so.

It’s said that politics should be judged by deeds, not words. But every now and then, I check into the website, to see what it’s been tracking under the “favourite word” category. Basically, it tallies up what words are uttered most often by individual politicians, factoring out all the common ones.

With the Commons now shut down for the summer, the favourite words for the three major federal leaders could be seen as a revealing glimpse into what’s been on their minds in the first half of 2023 – or what they think the voters want to hear.

For Trudeau, the favourite word is “support.” For Poilievre, it’s “money.” For Singh, it’s “need.”

Come to think of it, those words could be read as a kind of mission statement for federal leaders and their MPs as they disperse to all corners of Canada – the three ingredients of the political pitch: need, money, support.

Twitter: @susandelacourt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *