PRIME Minister Justin Trudeau looked like a contented man.
On Monday night, in a medium-sized meeting room at the Inn at the Forks, Trudeau delivered a tight, 10-minute mini stump speech to about 50 donors from the Laurier Club and a contingent of journalists. He cracked a few jokes, rattled off a list of his government’s greatest hits during the past three-and-a-half years, received some solid applause, and then retired for the evening.
It was a mostly older crowd, full of current and former provincial and federal MLAs and MPs. Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand was there, as was a smattering of other Indigenous leaders. The rest of the audience was made up of life-long Liberal supporters, fundraisers and organizers, all of whom will play a key role in this fall’s election.
Normally, an intimate event such as this would not be open to the media. Allowing journalists into the event — only for the 10-minute stump speech — was a shameless attempt to show the rest of the country that Trudeau is still loved by (most of) his party. That’s a critically important message for the Liberals as former cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott continue to accuse Trudeau of inappropriate political meddling in a criminal prosecution of Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.
It’s also solid proof that this controversy is forcing Trudeau to wage war for his political future on two fronts.
First, there is the challenge he faces in the broader general public, where support for Trudeau and his government has waned significantly since the Wilson-Raybould story broke in February. Before the controversy became public, the Trudeau Liberals were already in a tight race; since the SNC-Lavalin affair became part of the nation’s political lexicon, any small advantage the Liberals enjoyed over Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives has vanished.
But there is a second battle Trudeau must wage within his own party for the hearts and minds and cheques of party members.
In these critical months before the October election, Trudeau must maintain the support of all the candidates, strategists, official agents, fundraisers and street-level volunteers who form the backbone of a federal campaign. Without these mostly volunteer ground forces, no party could hope to win an election of this scope and importance.
Trudeau’s stump speech was pretty standard, except for a section where he directly appealed to those in the room to get out and start re-enforcing the Liberal brand as a progressive and inclusive party, a brand that has suffered serious damage in the past month. Trudeau told them that his government has shown Canada that "government done well, done responsibly, done through always staying connected with people... can make a real and positive impact in people’s lives."
And then, he brought it home. "Those are the conversations I need you to be having over the coming months. Conversations with your neighbours... your co-workers and your colleagues, your family and your friends." In other words, get out and push a message to combat the one that Wilson-Raybould, Philpott and opposition parties are broadcasting from Ottawa.
There is no doubt we have reached a critical point in the lead-up to the next election, as demonstrated by the events of Saturday, a so-called "national day of action" for Liberal election readiness. On this day, the party wanted all nominated candidates, including incumbents, and their volunteer supporters out knocking on doors in every riding in the country.
If lots of people show up to canvass, organizers generally see it as a sign that support for the leader is strong; if only a skeleton crew materializes, then there is some reason to be concerned. It’s hardly a scientific assessment of internal support but it does reveal some sense of the broad mood of party members.
On days like this, the party tracks both attempts (doors knocked, phone calls made) and actual live contacts with voters. Again, although there is no definitive measurement, senior officials in the Manitoba wing of the federal Liberal party were "not displeased" the the numbers, as one official put it. Volunteers showed up, doors were rapped, conversations were had.
Those conversations were not just between Liberals and voters; the Liberals were also talking among themselves and re-enforcing a growing narrative within the party about how and why Wilson-Raybould and Philpott are sparring so openly with Trudeau.
The talking points that party officials frequently summon argue that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott are working on behalf of someone or a group of Liberals who want to bring Trudeau down and force a leadership race. "It looks pretty well orchestrated," was a line uttered by numerous Liberals contacted Monday.
To support their theory, a number of Liberals point an accusing finger at former Chretien-era strategist Warren Kinsella, an operative who has been largely ostracized by the Trudeau Liberals. The talking points theorize that Kinsella is exacting his revenge by instructing both Wilson-Raybould and Philpott on how to subvert a sitting prime minister. The evidence of this conspiracy is pretty thin; Kinsella’s wife, Lisa, has been seen with Wilson-Raybould and Philpott in Ottawa, including a well-publicized hug immediately after her testimony to the Commons justice committee.
As unlikely as this narrative seems, it could be pretty effective at keeping diehard Liberals lined up behind Trudeau. It completely ignores the SNC-Lavalin affair, and focuses all of the attention of party members on the motivation of the two prominent dissidents, both of whom claim to want to run for the party even as they attempt to reduce it to rubble.
And it reminds Liberals that they have been through this before.
Working quietly to unseat a sitting prime minister is actually a long-standing Liberal tradition. John Turner was scuttled by Jean Chrétien, who in turn was stabbed in the back by Paul Martin. "We’ve seen this movie before," one senior Manitoba Grit said Monday night. "It never ends well for us. When parties show people that they can’t govern themselves, it convinces voters they can’t govern the country."
This most recent visit to Winnipeg is clear proof that if Trudeau is going to convince Canadians he can still govern the country, he’s going to need a lot of help from his remaining friends.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Monday, March 25, 2019 at 10:13 PM CDT: adds photos
March 26, 2019 at 3:49 PM: adds missing word