Governments, it is said, defeat themselves, and Lord knows the Liberals have been trying. Through the summer months, the government seemed to stumble through one disaster after another. Some were not of its making but most of them were.
There was that business of the party at the Russian embassy; the heaving convulsions at the nation’s airports; the passport mess; all culminating in the revelation that the government had given a vicious antisemite hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach others not to be racist.
The impact of these was compounded in some cases by the suspicion that more than mere incompetence was at work. If a senior Global Affairs official thought it right to attend a party in honour of the invaders of Ukraine, even as Ukrainians were fighting for their very lives, that probably was not a decision she took on her own, or at random: It reflected a way of thinking in the department.
In the same way, it was not entirely surprising to find the anti-racism industry harbouring a virulent racist, as it would not be to find there were others. An obsession with race can as easily turn in one direction as another. It is far from clear whether the government was as shocked as it professed to be.
The effect, in short, was not as it would have been if these were mere accidents, unconnected with what we already knew of this government. But as it was, they have served to confirm existing impressions of it, none of them good: a government that puts ideology before practicality, symbolism before substance, flash before competence; as cynical as it is doctrinaire, and yet in some ways as naive.
A new poll by Abacus Data shows how baked-in some of these impressions have become, especially among swing voters – not the 32 per cent who said they would vote Liberal, but the further 25 per cent who would consider it – the voters it needs if it is to convert its present minority into a majority.
Among these voters, supermajorities agreed the government “spends too much without thinking about the long-term cost,” is “not focussed on everyday life,” seems “to look down on people/lecture to them,” is “tired” and “lacks strategy,” and perhaps most damning, is unable to “manage basic functions.”
All of which would suggest a government that was, if not toast, then certainly lightly browned. And things are only likely to get worse! The surge in inflation over the past year has almost certainly cost the government some support; it is now being joined by high interest rates, as the Bank of Canada struggles to stuff inflation back in its cage. Should higher unemployment follow, as many are predicting, things could get really dire.
As it is, the Prime Minister’s approval rating – often predictive of a government’s future support – is in long-term decline: As of August, roughly 30 per cent of Canadians had a positive impression of Justin Trudeau, versus 50 per cent negative, the largest gap of his premiership (except for July). The leader who was once the party’s chief electoral asset has arguably become its biggest liability; after seven years in power and an assortment of scandals, broken promises and cringe-worthy performances, he no longer resembles Dorian Gray so much as his portrait.
After the failure to secure a majority in the last election – the second straight, and the fifth election in the past six in which the Liberals have trailed the Conservatives in the popular vote – the sense you got from many Liberals was that he could stay, as long as he went: that is, provided he left before the next election, he would be allowed to retire, rather than be forced into it.
With the PM’s latest declaration that he intends to stay on at least until the next election – and with rumours that that election could come as soon as this fall – the party would appear to be stuck with him. Not that it has much in the way of alternatives. Even if party members had the nerve to take him out – a long and bloody business, in the absence of any formal process for doing so – there is no obvious replacement for him.
In sum, this is a government that would appear ripe for the plucking: repellent to those outside its base, and increasingly unable to inspire much enthusiasm within. Indeed, a great many centrist voters, one suspects, the kind who flocked to the Liberal banner in 2015, would vote for any responsible alternative, and would have in each of the past two elections, if a responsible alternative had shown up.
That’s all the Conservatives have to do, it would seem: show up, shaved and sober, with practical proposals for addressing the everyday concerns of swing voters. And yet, time and again, the party has failed to do so. It failed to do so in 2019, it failed in 2021, and it seems determined to do so again.
The lesson it has absorbed from the 2021 experience, under Erin O’Toole – when it surged to the lead in the first half of the campaign, only to fade as the contradictions multiplied between what the leader was saying and what its base believed, notably on guns and vaccines – was not that the party should not stake out extreme positions with no appeal to the average voter, but that the leader should not contradict them.
And so, rather than use the leadership race as an opportunity to showcase itself as a government in waiting, reaching out to voters who, though discontented with the government, had until now hesitated to mark their ballots for the Conservatives, it has gone all in for the crackpot vote: pro-convoy, anti-vaccines, fearful that the World Economic Forum is plotting to put microchips in our brains.
Governments, it is said, defeat themselves. Unless the opposition beats them to it.
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