Opinion: Trudeau turns focus to his enemies in re-election fight

Elections divide the political world into friends and enemies. So does the newly released Liberal campaign platform.

The enemies of forward progress in Canada, according to the raft of Liberal promises unveiled Sunday, are clear: Conservatives of all kinds, from Andrew Scheer to Stephen Harper to premiers Doug Ford and Jason Kenney.

Did you notice Ford in that list? In case anyone missed it, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau punctuated all his remarks Sunday with multiple references to the Conservative premier now heading Ontario’s government – to argue how choosing Scheer’s team Oct. 21 would usher in Ford-style governance to all of the country.

Liberals have obviously decided they need to keep talking about their enemies to win this tight election. But if they win back power next month, it’s also evident they’re going to need a lot of friends to fulfill all the pledges on offer in the 85-page platform document.

The platform could well be subtitled, like the old Beatles’ song, “a little help from our friends.”

It’s one of the most striking themes throughout the “Choose Forward” manifesto – a huge reliance on co-operation from others to make the Liberal vision work. You want national pharmacare? Trudeau’s government needs to get provinces on side. A zero-emission future? Liberals are calling in “scientists, economists and experts” to chart the path to 2050. A handgun ban in your city? Liberals will be working with provinces and territories.

Another dominant theme through the platform is the Liberals’ fondness for institutions. I counted up more than a dozen new bodies and institutions they’re proposing to establish if they’re re-elected three weeks from Monday.

There’s a new “Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government,” to promote human rights and democracy, a new “data commissioner” who will oversee a crackdown on large digital companies, a new national institute for women’s health and a national secretariat for a pan-Canadian child-care system. That last secretariat also requires co-operation from provinces and territories, incidentally.

If all this co-operating and collaborating gets exhausting, Liberals also propose to set up a new, federal Family Day holiday. And note: this promise clearly fits into the friends’ side of the Liberal ledger – close friends, in fact.

Attentive observers of Liberal politics this past raucous year will remember that Trudeau’s former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, resigned on Family Day in Ontario in February – the very holiday he helped set up when he worked with Dalton McGuinty’s government at Queen’s Park. You could, perhaps, see this holiday promise as an homage of sorts to Trudeau’s old friend Butts, though likely not the SNC-Lavalin saga that prompted his resignation.

Five or so years ago, Trudeau set his sights on gaining power with an intriguing exhortation to Liberal troops: “Conservative(s) aren’t your enemies, they’re your neighbours.”

Sunday, Trudeau said: “we’ve moved the dial.” Certainly that is the case when it comes to Conservatives and how neighbourly the Liberals are feeling toward them these days.

Trudeau and his ministers have said repeatedly since Ford was elected last year the federal government cannot act as a backstop for provincial government cuts. But the Liberal platform, subtly and sometimes not-as-subtly, clearly invites Ontarians to look to Trudeau for what they might not get under Ford, on everything from education to autism-program funding to a francophone university.

“Education matters to young people across the country,” Trudeau said in Mississauga Sunday. “But it’s especially top of mind here in Ontario, as Doug Ford slashes education funding and makes it near impossible to pay for tuition.”

Trudeau and the Liberals won the 2015 election by fighting against Harper and Conservatives, so the temptation has to be large to frame this 2019 election as a sequel – a renewed rejection of all things Harper-related, up to and including his successor, Andrew Scheer.

But the platform unveiled for this campaign is also a reflection of four years of governing under the Liberals’ belt; a recognition that running the entire country is hard and complicated and very rarely unilateral, especially in this fractious federation.

So the platform follows too in a tradition that has divided Conservatives and Liberals since at least the past century. Liberals, accustomed to being the “natural governing party” through most of the 1900s, drew their new ideas from the public service and institutions of government, while Conservatives’ policy was often inspired by outside-government think tanks and organizations.

“Choose Forward,” this new Liberal platform document, reads very much like a budget document or a second Throne speech, which Trudeau’s government never did get around to delivering – unusually – in four years in power. It is premised very much on the fact that the federal government needs to negotiate its ideas to fruition, and for that, you need friends in many places.

That’s a challenge for another day, though. First, Trudeau has to fight to get re-elected, and for that, he has made clear that he needs to focus on his enemies.

Susan Delacourt is a national affairs writer.

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