February 25, 2024

Failed Shuffle and a Broken Marriage

In 2023, Trudeau tried to regain traction amid spiralling economic anxiety. In July, he remade his Cabinet — attempting to signal the government was seriously focused on economics. But he left his top money advisers unchanged: Chrystia Freeland stayed in finance; François-Philippe Champagne remained in industry and Mary Ng kept international trade.

Instead of sparking new momentum, the Cabinet shuffle discombobulated the Liberals and created staffing issues at the start of a tumultuous fall sitting. Discord within Trudeau’s team fermented as approvals slid. MPs couldn’t believe the party was sitting on its hands as Poilievre slagged them across Canada.

At the same time, Trudeau’s picture-perfect marriage had unravelled. According to Abacus Data, Poilievre’s
10-point lead

widened to 14 points
after Conservatives launched a post-shuffle, national ad campaign starring Poilievre as a family man. The ads appeared days after Trudeau announced
his separation
from his wife of 18 years.

Since then, the Israel-Hamas war has rocked the faith of Arab and Muslim staffers on the Hill and elsewhere, setting up another litmus test on the Liberals’ advertised progressive ideals.

Support from Arab and Muslim Canadian voters locked Trudeau’s victory in 2015 after a photo of the body of a three-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach turned the Syrian refugee crisis into an election issue. Trudeau was elected, in part, on a promise that Canada would take in 25,000 Syrian refugees in his first year.

Now, Middle East politics is shredding Trudeau’s clout and splitting his voter base. At the close of 2023, he was
booed at a mosque
and chased out of a Vancouver restaurant by pro-Palestinian protesters chanting “Cease-fire now!”

A surge in antisemitism has left many Jewish voters feeling Trudeau hasn’t done enough to make communities feel safe. When the prime minister spoke at a conference hosted by Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in Ottawa nine days after the Hamas attacks on Israel, his measured remarks against antisemitism and praise for “diversity” drew a tepid response — in contrast to the thunderous applause that met Poilievre’s fiery accusations of Iranian involvement and “false and misleading headlines” in the media.

Trudeau’s new position in support of an “immediate humanitarian cease-fire” in Gaza has riled key players in his own caucus. The war has also exposed the lack of a strong Arab or Muslim voice around his Cabinet table, aggravating emerging fault lines in his embattled party.

The Clock is Ticking

Despite the quiet and building consensus that it’s time for Trudeau to go, POLITICO also spoke to Liberals who are convinced his idealism and optimism still holds wide appeal. Many fret that a party defined from the get-go by a single star player won’t be able to win without him.

Horse race numbers don’t matter between elections, insists Dan Arnold, the chief strategy officer at Pollara and senior adviser at Alar Strategy Group, who was formerly head of polling for the PMO under Trudeau and was a key architect behind the Liberals’ 2015, 2019 and 2021 victories.

“Voters are not that engaged,” he said.

Arnold said if the next election gives an opening for Liberals to focus on helping the middle class, that would allow Trudeau to rekindle past success. The Liberals have
telegraphed that they plan
to run on
hot-button topics
: abortion rights, the carbon tax and climate change.

“If the question is who’s going to manage the economy the best — that’s never great turf for the Liberals,” Arnold said.

The prime minister himself has acknowledged the challenge.

Aspirational messages don’t appeal to people stuck “at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Trudeau said during a panel discussion last fall at the Global Progress Summit, a sort of communications boot camp that offered progressives a chance to learn from populist playbooks.

The invite-only event in Montreal drew Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, U.K. Labor Leader Keir Starmer, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair and their dozens of staff. The Canadians joked that only well-dressed visiting Europeans could get them to wear their suits on a Saturday.

During a private evening reception, Trudeau dropped his guard. He warned the progressives in the room that “moralizing” or “looking down” at the world could fuel populist tropes about them being elitist.

Out on stage, Trudeau made clear he understands communications is a problem — not just for him, but for incumbent progressives around the world.