ANALYSIS: Biggest peril for Team Trudeau is that Liberals are at war with each other
“The Liberal Party needs to be the best version of the Liberal Party,” Jane Philpott said as she explained to Maclean’s why, after quitting cabinet and raising doubts about the judgment of its leader on a crucial rule-of-law issue, she remained committed to her party and was desirous of remaining in the Liberal caucus.
Philpott’s comment was an admission that, in her view, the way in which leaders and senior aides in her own party interacted with and ultimately took action against Jody Wilson-Raybould over the SNC-Lavalin matter was most definitely not “the best version of the Liberal Party.”
Philpott is not alone in her view. Within the caucus and, more importantly, in the broader community of Liberal activists, volunteers, fundraisers, and supporters, there are those who would agree with Philpott’s diagnosis: they want to stick with Team Trudeau even though they are disappointed by the recent bad behaviour of Team Trudeau. It’s an open question how many Liberals feel this way but it seems fair to say it is not an insignificant number.
Correspondence sent to me recently from rank-and-file Liberal volunteers and supporters from parts of the country where Liberal candidates should never worry about winning — think downtown Vancouver or Guelph, Ont., or downtown Toronto — describe feelings of confusion, anxiety, and anger.
These are Liberals who, if they haven’t been already, will be asked to volunteer their time and money this year to get Liberal MPs re-elected. And many, disillusioned by the behaviour of their party leader, are wondering if they’ll say yes when that call for help comes.
This is surely one of the greatest perils for Justin Trudeau as he deals with the fallout of the SNC-Lavalin matter. He and his MPs will need to count this year on the tens of thousands of Liberal volunteers who cheerfully campaigned on his behalf in 2015, believing that “hope and hard work” were, in fact, just what was needed to bring about “real change.”
WATCH: On The West Block with Mercedes Stephenson, Liberal cabinet minister Karina Gould says Wilson-Raybould should put her concerns ‘on the record.’
Some Liberals smugly think that their supporters will stick with Trudeau because the alternatives are so unappealing. Really? There are certainly voters in Ontario who reliably cast their ballots for Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne but who, in the recent Ontario election, finally had enough and voted for Doug Ford. In the provincial riding of Guelph, those Liberal supporters who had finally had enough of their own party’s increasingly mendacious behaviour elected a Green Party MPP. There are alternatives.
And yet, when asked Tuesday morning in Winnipeg, what he’ll do to end the sniping and backbiting and bring his party together in an election year, Trudeau not only would not acknowledge there’s a problem, but he said things in his party were never better!
“Our team has come out stronger and more united than ever before,” Trudeau said with a straight face. Huh? Say what? Two strong female ministers quit the cabinet; another strong female MP quits caucus, and the prime minister’s close friend and top party strategist feels compelled to quit as well and this is “stronger … than ever before?” Cue that Monty Python skit where the knight declares that the loss of his arm in combat “tis but a scratch.”
Some Liberals — again, it’s not all but some — are disillusioned with the kind of crass, corner-cutting, backroom politicking that got Liberals into trouble when they last held office.
Other Liberals, meanwhile, are blaming Wilson-Raybould, Philpott and Celina Caesar-Chavannes as the responsible instigators and plotters of this turmoil. And many of those Liberals are happy to let the world know they’re not happy.
When Judy Sgro, the former Chretien-era cabinet minister, and long-serving Toronto MP, tweeted out an interview in which she said “put up or shut up” about Philpott and Wilson-Raybould, that tweet was liked or re-tweeted by at least eight other members of the current Liberal caucus.
Another member of the Liberal caucus, Toronto MP Yasmin Ratansi also took up Sgro’s point and dismissed Wilson-Raybould and Philpott — both of them first-term MPs — as “neophytes.” One wonders what the other “neophytes” in cabinet like Chrystia Freeland, Catherine McKenna or Jim Carr thought of that.
But it’s not just inside the caucus room that this drama is playing itself out.
Former Liberal MP Sheila Copps jumped into the fray, first by embarrassing herself with the suggestion Wilson-Raybould would have leapt into action if Indigenous jobs were at stake.
Since then, Copps has not backed off and has continued her attacks on Wilson-Raybould on Twitter and, most recently, in a Toronto Star op-ed.
Former Montreal Liberal MP Marlene Jennings is about as hot as Copps is and called Wilson-Raybould and Philpott “ridiculous” and said they should “grow up and put their grownup pants on.”
Then, in the wake of the extraordinary leak this week of how Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould did not see eye-to-eye on a Supreme Court nominee, other Liberals weighed in, disgusted by what is a fairly transparent campaign to discredit Wilson-Raybould.
“Shockingly bad form,” Penney Collenette, a former director of appointments in the Chretien PMO, said on Twitter.
Trudeau, in Winnipeg Tuesday morning, was asked about those leaks. Citing confidentiality about cabinet decisions, he refused to comment. But what about the leak itself? Isn’t that worthy of condemnation? The Liberal who leaked that information not only threw shade on a sitting judge but, in doing so, would have one conclude Wilson-Raybould was a closet “social conservative”, an epithet that is tantamount to a smear in Liberal circles.
Once, when Trudeau caught wind of a whisper campaign emanating from anonymous Liberal sources who were trying to put Wilson-Raybould in a bad light, Trudeau stood up and condemned that campaign and those who would engage in such character assassination from the shadows. It did, one should note, take about a week for him to get around to doing that.
But confronted with what is inarguably a harsher campaign from the shadows against Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau uttered not a peep and failed to condemn the leak of this confidential information. Maybe he’ll get to that next week.
David Akin is the Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.
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