A dozen members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet hit the province of Saskatchewan on Tuesday in an unprecedented, all-out blitz of publicity events ahead of a two-day Liberal caucus meeting in Saskatoon, a city that last elected a Liberal MP in 1993.
Liberals are gathering as NAFTA negotiations hang in the balance, with the country uncertain if the TransMountain pipeline expansion will ever get built, and with governing party’s signature national climate change plan on life support.
Amidst that backdrop, Liberal MPs will this week begin considering how to position their party for re-election in 2019.
All parties typically have a late summer caucus retreat ahead of the fall sitting of the House of Commons but the Liberals have added a new twist to those meetings with an all-out regional publicity blitz by top ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet. The blitz consists of a few spending announcements as well as appearances by other ministers to talk up the government’s record.
In Saskatoon, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, Infrastructure Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott will all hand out federal cheques to fund half-a-dozen regional and local projects ranging from crime prevention to indigenous healthcare to support for pulse farmers.
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Other ministers have been dispatched to tout key aspects of the government’s record. Brison will speak to the chamber of commerce in Prince Albert about the government’s economic record while Finance Bill Morneau does the same thing in Saskatoon. In Regina, Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos will talk about the Canada Child Benefit.
Trudeau is scheduled to spend the day in Winnipeg but will be appearing on Saskatchewan television and radio shows.
The closed-door caucus meetings kick off in downtown Saskatoon on Wednesday morning and are expected to start with a review of the government’s work so far this summer and a discussion of what lies this ahead this fall. Topping the agenda will be the ongoing NAFTA negotiations. Liberal MPs know this is a crucial file and if a new NAFTA deal cannot be forged, the chances of the Liberals winning re-election next fall drop sharply.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was scheduled to be in Washington Friday for more NAFTA talks but is expected to join her caucus colleagues in Saskatoon.
And while the Liberals remain ahead of Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives in most recent polls by anywhere between three and eight percentage points, many Liberal MPs are hoping to maintain and solidify that top spot by encouraging the prime minister and his cabinet to focus more on what they think is the government’s strong economic record and focus less on what some Liberals are privately referring to as the “virtue signalling” events such as the prime minister’s appearances at Pride parades or, as he did this week, at a summit where he spoke again about his record as a self-described “feminist” prime minister.
Liberals who hold that view tend to worry about the electoral threat from the Conservatives and say they have a strong record on the economy — notably an unemployment rate that is at a 40-year-low — that they hope the prime minister and his cabinet will highlight more.
There are also Liberal MPs who worry they are more vulnerable to Conservative attacks that the Liberals are doing a poor job of controlling the flow of irregular migrants across the border from the United States. These Liberals tend to hold ridings in urban areas like Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal that have a high proportion of “regular” migrants — immigrants who believe they played by the rules, waited their turn in line, and are upset at the possibility that other migrants are getting into the country in some “irregular” way by skipping immigration queues.
And while Trudeau, Goodale, and other cabinet ministers have often said that there are no shortcuts to becoming a Canadian, Trudeau, his immigration minister Ahmed Hussen, and other cabinet ministers have suggested that those concerned about this irregular migration are intolerant and even racist. To Liberal MPs with a large immigrant population, those criticisms are not going over very well.
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But there are also some Liberals who must worry about the electoral challenge from the left, from what is traditionally been the NDP. Liberal MPs in downtown Toronto, in the Halifax area, and in some B.C. ridings have faced criticism from New Democrats disillusioned with the government’s broken promises on electoral reform and inaction on climate change.
NDP MPs are also meeting this week with their leader Jagmeet Singh in Surrey, B.C. New Democrats have largely stalled in the polls in the high teens and are having trouble raising money. As a result, the threat from the left to the Liberals, right now, is likely at its lowest point in perhaps 25 years.
Still, Liberals, this week in Saskatoon, will want an update on those agenda items favoured by the progressive wing of the party, including a national pharmacare proposal first announced by Morneau in the spring budget.
The Saskatoon meetings wrap up Thursday. MPs from all parties will then make their way to Ottawa where the work of Parliament will resume on Monday.
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David Akin covers Canadian federal and electoral politics and is currently Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.