OTTAWA, Canada — Four thousand Liberals have two things top of mind as they huddle here for their biennial convention: Pierre Poilievre and the next election.
The Conservative is a feisty and unifying force who wants to be Canada’s next prime minister. He trounced the competition in last summer’s leadership race and mobilized thousands of party members as he heralded a new era of right-wing politics.
He fires up the Liberals, too.
Poilievre won’t physically be at the convention, but nor will he be far — fuel for chit chat at boozy receptions and the motivation for any strategizing that takes place. All of it forces a question, whether said out loud or not: Is Justin Trudeau ready for the fight?
The prime minister will make his case in a headline speech that opens the convention on Thursday night.
Greg MacEachern, a Liberal lobbyist and former Parliament Hill staffer, sums up the state of play using a well-worn adage most recently deployed by President Joe Biden at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “Don’t compare me to the all-mighty, compare me to the alternative.” Top-line figures in a new poll from Abacus Data — 33 percent Conservatives, 31 percent Liberals — suggest an election today would be tight. Factor in the margin of error and the race between Liberals and Conservatives is a statistical tie.
But it’s the trends below the surface that should give party rank and file pause as they chatter away in the bars and backrooms of Ottawa. The negatives have worsened since the 2021 election: For the PM. For the government. And on the direction of the country.
Average voters appear to have lost the thread the Liberals are spinning.
“I don’t get a sense that they have a clear understanding of exactly what the government’s plan is,” says Abacus pollster David Coletto. “They probably hear things about battery plants and investments in a green economy — and I would suspect most people support that kind of thing, but they don’t see a connection between those specific events and outcomes and the broader kind of story that the Liberals want to be able to tell.”
Overall, signs point to a likely Conservative win unless something changes.
Helming the party for roughly a decade, Trudeau has accumulated his share of baggage, something that would typically raise obvious questions of succession.
There was his family’s holiday visit in 2016 to the island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan. There was the time he allegedly pressured his justice minister to give a get-out-of-jail-free card to a Quebec-based engineering giant that faced bribery charges. There was the bombshell publication later in 2019 of photos in which Trudeau wore blackface.
More and more recently, Poilievre and his Conservatives are asking whether the three-term government is deserving of another.
But so far, few Liberals are talking openly about ending the Trudeau era and starting fresh. Broach the point with insiders, and they’ll all tell you the same thing.
“Justin Trudeau is a huge asset for the Liberal Party,” says MacEachern.
Even so, the convention also offers future leadership aspirants a chance to gladhand and expand their support base. Mélanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister and rumored contender in a race down the road, is hosting a reception at a trendy bar.
She is also the opening act for Trudeau’s speech on Thursday evening, where insiders expect a rousing call-to-action to energize the base.
As the convention opened, the Hill was abuzz with a Radio-Canada story that claimed the Prime Minister’s Office told another potential aspirant, Defense Minister Anita Anand, to slow her roll.
How the party and its leaders communicate their message will be a constant refrain on and off the convention floor. The governing party has yet to earn much credit on some of the big issues it has shoveled money into fixing — the cost of living, child care, housing and health, for example.
The gathering poses plenty of opportunities to re-tune.
Dan Arnold, a former head of polling in the Prime Minister’s Office who has attended every party convention since Paul Martin was elected leader in 2003, hails from Alberta — a traditionally weak spot for Liberals.
He says the confab offers delegates a chance to take their message directly to the party’s powerbrokers. “It is good to have that prairie voice more in people’s faces,” he says, where they can have a “direct conversation in a hospitality suite with somebody in the PMO.”
There is work to be done in the Prairies.
Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan reflected on the party’s weakness in western provinces on stage at the Public Policy Forum’s recent Canada Growth Summit. And he elaborated on his remarks about the 2019 federal election in an interview with POLITICO.
“The Liberal Party was thrown out of Alberta and Saskatchewan. We lost [Cabinet minister] Ralph Goodale in Wascana. That was big. And you really have to ask yourself, ‘Well, what do we do?’ ” he said.
O’Regan, who served as Canada’s natural resources minister, acknowledges the political challenges of heralding a clean energy transition — especially in Alberta.
“Workers felt marginalized and patronized. You gotta watch that,” he said. “If you were driven to lower emissions in this country, if you really do believe that Canada can be a leader in this field, then workers are not ‘that thing over there in that part of the country that we’ve got to kind of deal with.’”
The first in-person convention in four years will also offer delegates an opportunity to formally influence party policy. They’ll debate 36 resolutions, including a pitch to boost annual defense spending to C$32 billion and “massively invest in renovating NORAD infrastructure.”
Delegates will also debate lowering the voting age to 17 and introducing a guaranteed basic liveable income.
The government has spent considerable resources responding to the war in Ukraine, countering the Inflation Reduction Act’s green subsidies, and checking off items on the confidence-and-supply deal with the NDP that keeps the minority-status Liberals in power.
Some backroom chatter will focus on pivoting a reactive policy agenda to a more proactive offer and an election platform.
Most Liberal delegates despise their freedom-evangelizing foe. But they acknowledge Poilievre’s uncanny ability to raise piles of cash in pursuit of ending Trudeau’s time as prime minister.
The Conservative leader won’t be near the convention floor, but he’s still going to force some uncomfortable conversations.