By Hershell Ezrin
In the federal election campaign that could come anytime following the April 19 budget, the futures of several party leaders are at stake.
Electoral performance is always the key element in determining leadership longevity.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may be riding a recent personal popularity surge following the delivery of his government’s initial COVID-19 responses and the fulfilment of his vaccine acquisition promises.
Mr. Trudeau remains a contentious figure in broader Canadian politics, equally loved or scorned across the country. His ability to convert his government’s COVID-19 achievements into a future electoral majority and mandate is still to be proven.
As a government, the Liberals enjoy what Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson once described as the “discipline of power”, keeping internal party criticism under control.
But rumours about potential successors will continue to swirl, even though Mr. Trudeau has shown no signs of moving on.
Stirring the pot is that the federal Liberals have a well-earned reputation of never shying away from bold internal renewal to satisfy the hopes of longer-term electoral success.
Among the numerous internal candidates mentioned quietly are two Ministers, Chrystia Freeland and Francois-Philippe Champagne.
Having significantly outperformed expectations with her success in negotiating the renewed NAFTA, Ms. Freeland’s intellect, rolodex of international contacts and communications skills have catapulted her into the Deputy Prime Minister role.
Freeland’s justified reputation for excelling in new challenges will be put to the test in tabling her first budget April 19.
Her ability to navigate an ongoing deficit trap while delivering a plan for future economic development post COVID-19 will test both her political acuity and salesmanship. Politically, Freeland is yet to be tested in the bruising party organizational arena.
Mr. Champagne, the current Minister of Science, Innovation and Industry, who had previously been Global Affairs Minister, may be less well known to some Canadians. He remains surefooted, politically and business savvy, with excellent international business connections and access to a strong Quebec Liberal base.
A few Liberals as well as the Ottawa press corps have always been attracted to the prospects of an external successor to follow Mr. Trudeau. Former Bank Governor Mark Carney, a strong proponent of climate change-based business policies and the emerging ESR social accountability sector, fits the bill. Fluently bilingual with a proven track record and top-drawer international credentials, Carney has spent some time recently privately advising the Trudeau government, as the former Finance Minister Mr. Morneau found out to his own chagrin.
After the disappointments of the Scheer regime and the 2019 campaign, the Conservatives had hoped that the selection of Erin O’Toole could help appeal to the broader Canadian political centre.
Mr. O’Toole’s leadership has been facing headwinds that were previously highlighted in the two bruising leadership campaigns following Mr. Harper government’s defeat. The multiple internal rifts (struggles among social conservatives, the West, a dwindling progressive conservative group, certain immigrant communities and long-time stalwarts in Ontario and Quebec) within the party appear to have grown more distinct.
The latest internal dissension within the party over climate change, rejecting a leader-supported position, and social policies such as abortion (the leader’s team successfully pushed anti-abortion floor resolutions to the side) were on display at the recent Conservative policy conference.
O’Toole’s attempts to stamp his control over his shadow cabinet have also met with mixed reactions and pushback within his own caucus and party.
Recent public opinion polling shows Mr. O’Toole slipping behind NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in having the qualities of a good Prime Minister; both remain significantly below Mr. Trudeau in that aspect.
O’Toole’s performance in the next election campaign will go a long way to deciding his future longevity leading a party seeking to restore itself to the glory of the Harper years.
While the performance of the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh has improved markedly from the disappointments of the 2019 election, there has been no internal resolution as to whether the NDP is a social movement designed to advance a policy agenda or a populist political party intent on gaining power. It is also reflected in the tensions between the federal and provincial wings of the party.
This NDP dilemma is further complicated by the emergence of the Green Party on a national scale and election of a woman of colour as its leader, the first time that a black woman has led a Canadian political party. The prospects that the Greens could siphon off votes from NDP candidates (and vice versa) haunt supporters of both parties.
The Green leader Annamie Paul, who has only been in office for six months, already faces serious internal dissension and challenges.
A recent Toronto Star exclusive was headlined “senior Green officials are sabotaging (Paul), disgusted insiders say”. According to this analysis, Paul has endured “significant resistance from high ranking officials on the Green party’s most powerful governing body.”
The story describes the party as riven by internal discord and quotes disgruntled members about the “toxic” dynamic in the organization. Several sources “who only spoke on the condition they not be named, said they believe a coterie of top officials remains more committed to May than the current leader — a charge that May categorically rejected.”
If Paul cannot successfully win the Liberal stronghold of Toronto Centre in the next go-around, (she has run there before unsuccessfully), her future as party leader could be compromised.
Two years is the normal course for a minority government. Of course, the pandemic may change this perspective as it has so many other political factors.
As the election speculation ramps up federally, the future of Canada’s current political leadership could all be affected at the same time.
Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.