Winning conditions still elude federal Liberals

As the prime minister, Justin Trudeau is not one who is usually eclipsed on a Canadian stage — especially on Parliament Hill.

The occasion of Jason Kenney’s return to his former haunts on Thursday of last week in his new role as Alberta’s premier was a clear exception.

For better or for worse, the premier’s message that Trudeau’s environmental policies are putting his province’s economy in peril, alienating Albertans and putting dangerous strains on the unity of the federation, resonated loud and clear.

Absent a strong federal counter-message, Kenney literally had the stage to himself.

By the time the Alberta premier left town, no one doubted where he stood.

The same could not so easily be said of Trudeau.

On the energy/environment front, the prime minister has managed to lose pro-pipeline advocates to the perception that he is against them, even as more and more environmental advocates seriously doubt the depth of his commitment to the climate-change cause.

The boilerplate comments he and his government offered in response to Kenney’s arguments did little to advance the prime minister’s case with either camp.

On this, as on other files — think of Indigenous reconciliation or refugee policy, to name just two — there is by now more confusion than clarity about the government’s ultimate purpose, and questions as to whether it has lost the thread of its own narrative.

Those questions predate the so-called SNC-Lavalin affair. But they have become more acute as the failure of Trudeau’s team to put the crisis behind it emerged as a possible template for its overall management of the government.

On the day after Kenney’s visit, yet another poll documented the decline of the Trudeau brand.

The latest Angus Reid sounding pegged dissatisfaction with the prime minister’s performance at 67 per cent, the highest of any federal leader.

It also placed the Liberals in distant second place behind the Conservatives.

Given the short time frame between now and the election, those numbers are likely to prompt more Liberal MPs to exit the scene than to set a leadership revolt in motion.

Those who are seeking re-election this fall have already chosen to sink or swim with Trudeau as their leader.

But by now, some have to be wondering whether that means they elected to go down with a rudderless ship.

As his fortunes have unravelled over the past months, Trudeau has more often looked like a passenger at the mercy of the elements than a captain in command of the helm.

Last week, the Liberals sent not one, but two senior ministers to the microphones to note that a Conservative climate plan is still missing in action, a full year after one was promised.

But on that score, the Liberals are very much casting stones from a glass house of their own making.

Their own narrative to justify Trudeau’s re-election to a second term increasingly boils down to the necessity of keeping the Conservatives out of power. No one would call that particularly inspirational.

With every passing day, it seems that the relative weakness of their opponents is blinding the Liberals to their own.

They may be operating under the delusion, common to incumbents, that none of the opposition rivals who sit across from the prime minister could possibly replace him.

That is certainly what Stephen Harper and his strategists believed about Trudeau going in to the 2015 campaign.

Back then, Trudeau was widely considered a lesser contender than either Harper or Thomas Mulcair, both of whom were nevertheless consigned to opposition in his favour.

They have each been replaced by untested successors.

Even by the standards of those who supported them for the leadership, neither Andrew Scheer nor Jagmeet Singh would be readily described as a political force of nature.

And yet, in this election year, both boast approval ratings that suggest they are outperforming Trudeau.

An underwhelming prime ministerial performance rather than an overwhelmingly impressive opposition performance is in play.

As they start to ponder their options for this fall’s vote, a growing number of voters feel they are staring at an empty leadership frame, with reasons to vote against a given party outnumbering reasons to support one.

Kenney’s visit to Parliament Hill was meant to be a wake-up call and, up to a certain point, it succeeded — albeit possibly not exactly in the way the premier expected.

It is not just that a blue wave has washed over the provinces since Trudeau became prime minister.

On the right (and the left, in the case of British Columbia), premiers with a stronger sense of purpose than that on offer at the federal level have also entered the scene.

It is hard to think of a time when the leadership balance between Ottawa and the provinces has been so tilted in the latter’s favour.

The next federal election, regardless of its outcome, seems unlikely to even the scales.

Chantal Hebert is a regular columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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