Missteps put the Liberals’ advantage at risk

Even before the opposition parties had the opportunity to fire their first question period shot of the year this week, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were walking wounded.

From a cabinet shuffle that raised questions in many quarters about the prime minister’s commitment to Indigenous reconciliation, to the firing of Trudeau’s handpicked envoy to China in the midst of a major dispute, the first three weeks of 2019 have been bruising ones for the ruling party.

Remarkably, all the hits the Liberals have been taking since the new year have been self-inflicted.

The shuffle was meant to ensure the cabinet was battle ready and, ideally, more bulletproof as the ruling party enters an election year.

But Trudeau’s decision to move Jody Wilson-Raybould — the first Indigenous Canadian to hold the justice portfolio — to the lower-profile post of veterans’ affairs, and the replacement of one of his top cabinet performers with a less-than-overwhelming one at Indigenous services, stole the show.

It was predictably seen as a negative signal on the reconciliation front.

From the start, the Burnaby South byelection saga did not feature the Liberals at their best.

They looked cynical when they declined to give NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh an early opportunity to run for the seat last fall, only to then have to replace candidate Karen Wang almost overnight after she appealed to the Chinese community to vote along ethnic lines in the Feb. 25 vote.

Coming as it did in the midst of a serious dispute with China over American demands that Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou be held until she can be extradited to the U.S., the firing this weekend of John McCallum as ambassador to Beijing has made the government look inept in its handling of a top-of-mind foreign policy file.

The sum of the accumulated blunders is the increasingly widespread perception that the government is flying by the seat of its pants on the policy front and going into an election year on little more than a wing and a prayer.

By all accounts, the Liberals started 2019 with a pre-election edge on the competition. But at the rate that they are chipping away at it, they will have levelled the playing field for their Conservative rivals long before the campaign gets underway.

Meanwhile, the missteps are taking a toll on caucus morale.

Coming on the heels of Wilson-Raybould’s reassignment, the firing of the well-liked McCallum sent shock waves in some sections of the Liberal family.

For many Liberals, including some MPs, the former ambassador was only stating the obvious when he said on Friday that it would be great for Canada were the U.S. to drop its bid to extradite Meng. That latter statement reportedly sealed his fate.

When the House of Commons adjourned at the end of last year, few Liberal MPs expected their government to come back for the last stretch of the current Parliament under an accumulation of new clouds.

Some of those clouds may not just be passing through.

In the last election, Trudeau ran from third place on an aspirational platform. That was the branding that the Liberals sold at the doorsteps and it helped them sell their projected return to deficit financing.

With an actual record to defend this fall — one that falls short of some of the signature promises of 2015 — the Liberals cannot but shift to a message that showcases managerial competence.

But the McCallum episode in particular puts the lie to the Liberal narrative that in troubled international times, the party offers voters the steadiest hand at the tiller.

A word in closing on Trudeau’s handling of the McCallum firing. It was made public Saturday via a communique that gave no reason for requesting the envoy’s resignation. It was then left to anonymous “senior sources” to put meat on the bone of the prime minister’s decision.

Asked off the top of question period by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to address the latest disturbances on the front of his foreign policy, Trudeau chose instead to thank those who had worked on setting up the House of Commons in its new temporary venue.

Anyone looking for reassurance that the prime minister is on top of things is unlikely to find it in boilerplate rhetoric.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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