LONDON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the long way around to get to his party’s biennial convention this weekend in Halifax.
He left Ottawa last Thursday, flew to Peru for the Summit of the Americas, flew back to Ottawa for his own “pipeline summit,” then off to Paris, and finally here to London for the Commonwealth Summit.
He will have logged more than 20,000 kilometres in the air before standing in front of his party on Saturday afternoon to give the convention’s closing speech.
The party says there will be 3,000 Liberals at this convention, a tremendous turnout, and while there’s little doubt they still love their leader, some will be looking for signs of a turnaround after starting the year with the worst three months of their government.
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Several pollsters measured a drop in Liberal support after Trudeau’s widely panned trip to India. A few, by mid-March, even put Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives ahead of Trudeau’s Liberals.
But as spring finally unfurls itself across Canada, the Liberals will have every opportunity to regain some political momentum.
Summit here, summit there, summit everywhere
In contrast to the India trip, the just-concluded prime ministerial travel — his first since India — was all business. He travelled without his family, wore nothing but business attire, and had a schedule filled with meetings of world leaders, premiers, and top business executives at three summits across three continents.
In Lima, Peru he met with U.S. vice-president Mike Pence, where the two pushed the NAFTA ball a little further towards the goal. After his hastily convened “pipeline summit” in Ottawa, he announced Ottawa would table legislation and enter negotiations with Kinder Morgan to get its Trans Mountain pipeline expansion off the ground.
Then to a quick stop in Paris, meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and having the honour of being the first Canadian prime minister ever to speak to the French national assembly.
In London, one more summit — the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting — where, among other things, he joined the prime ministers of the UK, Australia and New Zealand for a top-secret cybersecurity briefing and re-affirmed Canada’s intention to work a free trade deal with Britain the day after Brexit.
For all those meetings, Trudeau comes back to Canada with relatively little to show for all that travel. There were some marginal deals on climate change and culture with France, but that’s really about it.
But to the extent that Canadians would have been looking at images of their prime minister dressed and acting in an uncontroversial professional manner, the April “Summit Tour” may prove to be a balm for a bruised image.
This is the first gathering of Liberals under a new open membership system the party has adopted. Under the new system, you don’t have to pay a penny to call yourself a Liberal, participate in policy development at this convention or vote in local riding association nomination meetings or in national leadership contests.
Some Liberals are worried about this new way of doing things, that the party is leaving itself open to capture by special interests. Others, including just-acclaimed party president Suzanne Cowan, see an opportunity to grow the party and bring more young people into politics.
“Unless we have a strong volunteer base and are growing that year over year between the last election and the next election, then we’re going to have a really hard time,” Cowan told The Canadian Press.
These kinds of conventions can sometimes leave a party in turmoil. The NDP’s decision at its gathering in Edmonton in 2016 to oust leader Thomas Mulcair is a case in point. But this weekend’s Liberal gathering is unlikely to have any such controversy and Liberals can be expected to head home on Sunday with an extra bounce in their step, focused on preparation for the 2019 general election.
An upbeat gathering of federal Liberals may even give a boost to embattled Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who speaks to the convention Friday afternoon.
A NAFTA win
Even Trudeau’s harshest critics have to grudgingly admit that he’s handled the relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump as well as any leader in the world. And if the PMO strategy to get Trump to sign off on an updated, modernized NAFTA that lets all three signatories get a “win-win-win,” expect Trudeau and the Liberals to put some serious wind in their political sails.
In Lima, Peru, Pence suggested a NAFTA deal could be done within “several weeks.” Back in Washington, other top White House officials are looking at inking a deal before the U.S. Memorial Day weekend.
If Trudeau can wrangle Trump to a signing ceremony, it could easily be the signature accomplishment of this Parliament.
One more summit
In June, Trudeau will host the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Que. The G7 is still the world’s most exclusive club. In hosting the leaders from the U.S., Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan, Trudeau will have an opportunity to act and be seen to act as a world statesman.
As host, Trudeau gets to set the agenda but he must also make sure that agenda is broadly acceptable to his guests so that the summit concludes with some concrete deliverables.
The last time this summit was in Canada it was the G8 — Putin’s Russia was still part of the club before it was booted out in 2014 after the invasion of Ukraine — and then-prime minister Stephen Harper used the occasion to launch his Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Initiative. That initiative saw billions of dollars raised to improve the health outcomes of women and girls around the world and it was an initiative that earned Harper more praise beyond Canada’s borders than within it.
Trudeau’s themes will include gender equity, climate change and ocean health, among other things.
A successful G7 with some strong policy outcomes will help the Trudeau Liberals finish the spring strongly and send Liberal MPs on to the summertime barbecue circuit with a strong story to tell.
The pipeline problem
For all the bright opportunities ahead for the Liberals this spring, the debate over the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline is easily the darkest cloud on the political horizon.
Trudeau’s calculus when it comes to the energy and environment file was, as he says over and over again if you ask him, that there does not have to be a choice between the two. It is not one or the other.
“The pipeline will get built,” he insisted yet again at his closing press conference here in London. But as insistent as he is on that, he is just as insistent that he will do whatever it takes to institute a national carbon tax, his government’s key policy tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But already, regional opponents to the carbon tax, like Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta opposition leader Jason Kenney, are warning that B.C.’s opposition to the pipeline project is proof that the left was never interested in selling their social license on resource development for new green taxes and that, as a result, rather than force recalcitrants like Saskatchewan to accept a federally mandated carbon tax, Trudeau should force a recalcitrant B.C. to make sure that pipeline gets built.
Politically, there is no easy way out for Trudeau. The Liberal brand is almost certain to take a hit in B.C. and Quebec if or when the pipeline is built. And if it does get built, few voters elsewhere will be likely to give the federal Liberals much credit.
David Akin is Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.