“Can't anybody here play this game?” – Baseball savant Casey Stengel
Poor Casey suffered the misfortune of being the manager of the 1962 New York Mets, an expansion team with a 40-120 won-lost record and a label as the worst team in major league baseball history.
This is a stretch, I admit, but it seems to me that Stengel’s question – “Can’t anybody here play this game?” – could be asked of the 2019 version of the Liberal Party of Canada managed by Justin Trudeau.
The Grits are no expansion team. For most of the last century, they have been known as Canada’s “natural governing party.” They kept getting elected because they played politics better than any other team.
Not so much these days. They won a comfortable majority the last time out, in 2015. They had a charismatic young leader who captured voters’ imaginations. They stood for values Canadians wanted to share – transparency, gender equality, action against global warming, reconciliation with Indigenous communities, and a tax system to narrow the gulf between the rich and the rest.
These values haven’t changed. What has changed is the public perception of the Liberals’ commitment to deliver on the values – plus the prime minister’s inability to live up to the expectations he created four years ago. The expectations were surely unrealistic, but the Liberals created them, and now they have to live with them.
Recent polling shows the party’s once healthy lead of roughly 10 percentage points has evaporated into a Conservative lead of about five points. None of the party leaders has an approval rating to brag about, but Trudeau’s is a disaster. His 65 per cent approval in mid-2016 has plummeted to 29 per cent.
Or as the Toronto Sun was delighted to inform its readers the other day, Trudeau is now less popular in his land than Donald Trump is in his.
That comparison may be irrelevant, but the reality is sobering. Earlier this year, the Liberals were on a glide path to re-election in October. The polls today are pointing to a minority Conservative government.
It’s not just the SNC-Lavalin “scandal” – strip away the media hysteria and opposition hyperbole and it becomes obvious that nothing nefarious happened. The true scandal is the failure of the government to come clean about events.
Trudeau compounded the failure as, day after day, he permitted his former minister of justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to out-manoeuvre him for control of the ethical high ground.
She was at it again last week. She demanded an inquiry to determine who – presumably someone in or close to the Prime Minister’s Office – had leaked confidential information about a conflict between herself and Trudeau over the choice of a new Supreme Court of Canada justice.
Of course, she has never suggested looking into who – presumably someone in or close to her own shop – had planted the confidential account of her dispute with the PMO over the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, the account that ignited the controversy when it appeared in the Globe and Mail in February.
At week’s end, she released through the Commons Justice Committee a recording she made of a 17-minute telephone conversation with Michael Wernick, the clerk of the Privy Council. Although the recording added nothing material to her earlier testimony, it knocked the Liberals off their budget message, as the opposition and Ottawa media presented the tape as delicious new evidence of wrongdoing.
Her taping of the telephone call is disturbing. She did it without Wernick’s knowledge, and she made the recording public without his consent. It would be unethical for a journalist to do that, and in my books, it is “inappropriate” (to use her favourite word) conduct for the minister of justice to deliberately deceive the country’s most senior pubic servant. A growing number of Liberals are questioning her ethics.
The Liberal caucus meets on Wednesday. MPs will be under pressure to expel Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the caucus. Will they finally do it? Will the Liberal party recover its mojo in time to win re-election?
Let’s ask our baseball sage. Casey Stengel famously said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”