Hébert: Trudeau can thank Trump for his popularity

Every other year – going back to Jean Chrétien’s first mandate – I’ve tried to spend the last week of my summer vacation on Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, using part of the time to catch a glimpse of what makes some of the voters behind the polling numbers tick.

The islands are a go-to destination for visitors from the other regions of the province, making them a good place to look for insights into Quebec’s political psyche. There are worse venues to chat about politics than a beachside café!

My last visit dated back to the first weeks of the 2015 federal election at a time when the NDP was still riding high in voting intentions. I had found plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the polling data, but also clear indications that Thomas Mulcair’s chances rested too heavily for comfort on his capacity to sustain the perception that he was best placed to beat Stephen Harper.

If there has been one constant over all those end-of-summer visits, it has been a general willingness to spontaneously vent about the prime minister of the day. To varying degrees that was true of Chrétien, Paul Martin and Harper.

On that score, this summer’s listening tour was unlike any of the previous ones, for no one seemed inclined to vent about Justin Trudeau. Quebecers are not raving about the prime minister; nor are they ranting about him in the way they did about his three predecessors.

An Abacus poll published in late July pegged support for Trudeau’s Liberals in Quebec at 53 per cent. That’s well above their election showing and almost 30 points ahead of the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.

The Liberals owe part of that popularity to the low Quebec profile of the opposition parties. The Bloc Québécois’ latest leader, Martine Ouellet, moonlights as a member of the National Assembly. Incoming Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is relatively unknown outside his party’s modest Quebec circles, and the ongoing NDP leadership campaign is very much taking place under the radar.

The potential re-emergence of a Liberal juggernaut in Quebec in the 2019 election would in itself be cause for concern for the other parties. But even more worrisome from the opposition’s perspective is the fact that the main trend underlying the high Liberal score is not Quebec-specific.

While the Liberals have reset their governing agenda to deal with a changed U.S. reality, the Conservatives and the New Democrats have so far failed to find a footing in the new Canada-U.S. universe.

Over a summer break dominated by Trump-related developments, both main opposition parties have fallen well short of offering an effective critique of the government’s approach, let alone a constructive alternative.

Calling on Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts to publicly disown his reported friendship with then-Trump adviser Steve Bannon as Mulcair did last week only raises more questions as to how an NDP government would manage the relationship with an unpredictable White House. At last check, building bridges – not burning them – was part of the brief of senior PMO officials.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives, whose flirt with dog-whistle identity politics predates Trump’s victory, are scrambling to belatedly put much-needed distance between their party and the fallout from a toxic presidency.

While the opposition fiddles, the Liberals have acquired a lot of political cover for their handling of the Canada/U.S. file. On the Conservative front, former federal minister James Moore and Rona Ambrose, the party’s recent interim leader, have both joined an advisory group that acts as a sounding board for the government on NAFTA.

Canada’s two NDP premiers as well as senior members of the Canadian labour movement are also in the trade renegotiation loop.

Despite the breaking of signature election promises ranging from the size of budget deficits to electoral reform, mounting acrimony on the Indigenous front, concerns over a sudden abundance of border-crossing asylum seekers and a cabinet team whose learning curve is proving to be steep, Trudeau – as his government nears mid-mandate – is in better shape in national voting intentions than Mulroney, Chrétien and Harper were at the same juncture. He can thank Trump for part of that.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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