Summer is usually the best of times for the party in power in Ottawa. With Parliament in recess, ministers have the stage largely to themselves, free to announce whatever they wish with as much spin – and as little explanation – as they choose.
The opposition parties are left to whine about high-handed government while they count the days until the House resumes, and they can get their teeth into ministers in question period.
This, however, has not been a usual summer. It’s been a long one – 86 days from the time MPs left town in June until they return on Sept. 17. And by most accounts it has been a miserable summer for Justin Trudeau and his sunny ways Liberals.
Unable to close a new deal on NAFTA, they were forced to watch helplessly while relations between Ottawa and the White House were driven into the Washington swamp. The president of the United States amused himself by insulting the prime minister personally, and by threatening to ruin the Canadian economy unless he got his way on whatever issue happened to be agitating him at the moment.
To add injury to insult, at home the Federal Court of Appeal finally issued its Trans Mountain decision – and left the Liberals holding a $4.5 billion pipeline to nowhere.
So, with an election just 13 months away, the star-crossed Liberals are in deep doo-doo, aren’t they? Many pundits contend they are. Opposition supporters pray they are. And some panicky Liberals are muttering about the need for a snap election before the roof falls in completely.
Everyone should take a deep breath, then check out the polls. Despite their wretched summer, the Liberals are doing okay. Better than okay. Adversity seems to become them.
Early in the summer, the Liberals were locked in a virtual tie with the Conservatives. As recently as July 24, Nanos Research had the parties in a dead heat with 36 per cent apiece. But gradually, even as their miseries mounted, the Liberals reclaimed the lead. Last week’s Nanos survey put the Liberals eight points ahead of the Tories – 40-32 – with the NDP fading to 16 points (down from a high of 22 earlier).
And Trudeau topped Scheer by 42 per cent to 24 as the respondents’ preferred choice for prime minister.
The Liberals’ “recovery” – we’ll see how long it lasts once the House resumes next week – was made possible with a little help from three “friends.” Friend number one, of course, would be Donald Trump. Standing up to an American bully is always good politics in Canada – doubly so when the bully is as ignorant and irrational as Trump is.
Trudeau has played the Trump card perfectly – standing firm and pushing back without crossing the line into personal insult and hostility.
The second friend is Maxime Bernier, whose defection from the Conservative Party did not split the official opposition, but did expose a fault line. If he goes ahead with plans to lead a new party, Bernier would steal support among right-wing Conservatives who are more attracted to his brand of libertarianism than to leader Andrew Scheer’s amorphous centrism.
The third friend is Jagmeet Singh, the underwhelming NDP leader, who has been unable to establish a sense of direction and purpose in the party in the nearly 12 months since he succeeded Thomas Mulcair. Logic would suggest that left-centre voters who went with the Trudeau Liberals in the 2015 election in anticipation of real change would, three unrewarded years later, be moving back to the NDP. But that’s not happening.
The dynamic will change when Parliament returns next Monday. NAFTA will still be an issue, Trump a menace and Trans Mountain a challenge, but the opposition parties will finally be able to operate from the same stage as the Liberals. They will do their job of holding the government accountable. If they do it well, they may make the Liberals as miserable they might have been this summer.