The wave Liberals need to watch is a green one

Justin Trudeau has no plans to call a first ministers’ conference in the six months before the next federal election.

Little wonder — the prime minister probably faces friendlier crowds at those freewheeling town-hall meetings he likes to hold across the country.

Thanks to this week’s provincial election in Prince Edward Island, and last week’s vote in Alberta, Conservatives or conservative-leaning parties now hold power in six provinces, representing roughly 60 per cent of Canada’s population.

“The blue wave continues,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer cheered on Twitter on Tuesday night as he monitored P.E.I. election results from his seat at the Raptors game in Toronto.

Of course, Conservatives will be looking at P.E.I. and Alberta as portents for the federal election this fall. But it’s a risky business, using provincial elections as a forecast for how Canadians will vote federally.

During the decade that Stephen Harper led a Conservative government in Ottawa, for instance, voters in the 10 provinces elected non-Conservative governments a total of 17 times: 13 election wins for provincial Liberals, four for New Democrats.

Granted, Liberal governments in B.C. and Quebec were often more aligned with Harper than with federal Liberals, but it’s an endearing Canadian trait to keep things balanced, politically, between the two levels of government.

As journalist Robert Benzie has written, there’s even a name for it — the Underhill balance theory, named for 1940s-era political scientist Frank Underhill, who first observed the phenomenon of federal-provincial mismatch.

So it may not be the blue wave making federal Liberals nervous as the October election looms, but the Green result in P.E.I. and elsewhere over the past year. It’s new, it’s different and shakes up the status quo.

The Greens had gone into the P.E.I. election with very realistic dreams of forming a government for the first time in Canada. They didn’t quite make it, but they got a strong consolation prize by winning official Opposition status for the first time in this country.

As P.E.I. Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker noted Wednesday, “This is new territory.”

The premier-designate, Dennis King, also went into the P.E.I. campaign as someone new and different. King had only become the Progressive Conservative leader two months before the election, so he was an unknown quantity to many P.E.I. voters.

When voters start looking to untried parties and leaders, that surely says something about general dissatisfaction with politics as usual.

The question now is whether P.E.I.’s appetite for change is indicative of a more widespread mood in the country at large.

Voters hungry for change can be fickle and volatile. Trudeau knows plenty about that sentiment — it got him elected in 2015. Underdogs do very well in change elections; incumbents do not.

Some might joke that Trudeau has been doing everything he can to enter the next election as an underdog. His approval ratings have been plummeting for the past year or so, and especially over the past few months, in the wake of the self-inflicted damage of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Even without all the erosion in his support, however, Trudeau was always going into the next election as the candidate representing no change — or as little as possible.

During the budget lockup, top government officials were telling reporters that the whole idea of Budget 2019 was to project confidence, stability and continuity to future voters. Trudeau will be asking Canadians for permission to keep doing what he has been doing.

Harper called it the “strong, stable government” option when he was campaigning for re-election. Trudeau will likely be arguing that he needs more time to deliver on the big change he represented four years ago.

Hard as it is to believe, Trudeau will also be the eldest of the three main party leaders vying for power.

Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are turning 40 this year, while Trudeau will turn 48 in December. That will make it harder for the prime minister to cast himself as the candidate of youth or change in the 2019 election.

It’s a simple fact that Trudeau has lost friends and allies around the first ministers’ table since he was elected four years ago.

That’s a common phenomenon in Canada. His concern, with an election six months away, likely revolves around how much the voters are still looking for the change that he once represented.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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