Justin Trudeau’s MPs are more nervous than ever about the Liberal party


MONTREAL—On Monday, Justin Trudeau’s government will enter a make-or-break parliamentary season. Given the average life of past minority governments, this could well be the last full year of the prime minister’s third term. More than a few Liberals fear it could also be the closing chapter of their party’s tenure in power.

Back in 2015, Trudeau rode to power on a cyclical wave of change. In the next election, the Liberals will be running against the tide. In recent Canadian history, no federal incumbent has ever managed to win a fourth consecutive term. This prime minister has never lost a political battle, but there is a first time for everything.

Over his first two terms, Trudeau’s team was ultimately well served by the unexpected challenges that were thrown its way.

The NAFTA renegotiation and the pandemic put the spotlight on the government’s management of two different but equally existential threats at the expense of the day-to-day missteps that inevitably occur under any government.

By virtue of necessity, those two unforeseen events forced many constituencies to set aside their differences with the Liberals in the name of addressing a common cause.

But in this third term, the government’s biggest challenge is on the economic front and even within the Liberal family, there is no consensus as to the way forward.

On this front, some of the most pointed criticism of the Liberal fiscal course comes from inside the tent.

As deputy minister to then-finance minister Paul Martin, David Dodge was on the front line of the mid-’90s Liberal battle on the deficit. Along with other former blue-ribbon Liberal advisers, he cautioned this week that the government could be setting the country on a fiscally unsustainable path.

Those warnings built on Bill Morneau’s recently published memoirs of his time in the federal cabinet. In his book, Trudeau’s former hand-picked finance minister painted a less-than-flattering picture of the government’s approach to economic policy.

The blue Liberals — as the more fiscally conservative constituency within the Liberal party is known — have long been fretting about a decline in their influence under Trudeau. They are becoming more vocal at a sensitive time in the life of the minority government.

But internal unease within the Liberal ranks is not limited to fiscal management.

On the eve of a critical first ministers’ meeting on health-care financing, several MPs — mainly but not exclusively from Ontario — are uneasy over Trudeau’s apparent decision to give premiers such as Doug Ford a pass for expanding the place of for-profit private medicine in the health-care system.

In a recent interview with the Star, the prime minister described Ontario’s decision to contract out various surgeries to the private sector as an “innovation.” This week, veteran GTA MP Judy Sgro told The Hill Times the prime minister’s wait-and-see reaction was “disappointing.”

By all accounts, Sgro is not alone in that sentiment. The Ontario Liberals, for one, happen to be on the same page.

For their part, Trudeau’s rural MPs along with the government’s Indigenous allies are still wondering how it managed to derail its latest gun control legislation by casting its net so wide as to trigger a hunters’ revolt.

The move came as an unpleasant surprise to the Liberals’ NDP partner and caused a rare public rift between the government and the Assembly of First Nations. A fix has yet to be put forward.

On the Quebec front, some of Trudeau’s MPs have serious concerns over the impact of the government’s proposed new version of the Official Languages Act. Trudeau’s bid to increase protection for the French language, coming as it does on the heels of the Quebec government’s tightening up of the province’s language law, is causing a backlash within the party’s anglophone and allophone base.

At the same time, the heat is increasingly on Trudeau’s Quebec MPs over the apparent incapacity of the government to plug the loophole that has seen tens of thousands of irregular refugees walk their way from the United States to the province.

The prospect raised this week by federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser — that U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Canada will not result in significant progress on the file — has again raised questions as to whether Trudeau is serious about resolving the issue.

The mounting caucus discomfort with the government’s handling of some central files is not — at least for now — translating into unrest over Trudeau’s leadership. That may in part be because there is not in the line of succession a leadership aspirant that fits the profile of a saviour.

But there is no denying that Trudeau’s ranks include more nervous Nellies — as Jean Chrétien used to call those in his caucus who channelled their concerns over their reelection prospects into second-guessing their government — than at just about any time since 2015.

Chantal Hébert is an Montreal-based freelance contributing columnist covering politics for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert


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