Yesterday’s byelection in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord was bad news for the Liberals. That’s aluminum country and Liberals were surely hoping the tariffs would translate into a Trump-bump. They didn’t. Does that kill any chance of a national election?
No. There is a serious argument to be made for an election, but it turns on Canadians’ national interest, not ephemeral shifts in the polls.
When the Liberals came to power in 2015 they had a strong mandate and agenda. Perhaps ironically, they now find themselves with neither a plan nor a mandate to deal with what is arguably the most important issue of their term: managing Donald Trump.
As we know, Justin Trudeau did his best to work with Trump on NAFTA and was rewarded with tariffs. Now Trump has his sights on the auto sector. No one knows where this will end, but we’ve seen enough to know that the situation is deadly serious. The leader of the most powerful country on earth – and our closest ally – is turning on us.
So far, leaders like Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford have risen to the occasion. They are standing “shoulder to shoulder” with Trudeau against the tariffs. Nevertheless, cracks are already showing; and, as Trump’s agenda advances, these will deepen.
That’s not bad. There are genuine and legitimate differences over how to respond, but no leader can choose them all. They take us in different directions. Deciding between them – or even prioritizing them – will be difficult and controversial for the government.
The situation cries out for public discussion and debate. There is too much at stake here to make these decisions in isolation or behind closed doors. If the government wants a plan Canadians can stand behind, it needs to engage them.
A national election is the obvious option. It would allow for a full and searching debate, establish a direction that the country could stand behind, and confer a mandate to act on the next government. The task this poses for Canadians is focused and manageable: consider what Trump stands for, how his policies could affect Canada, and how we should respond.
But there’s another reason an election is attractive. The debate over how to deal with Trump raises some very basic questions: Should we stand up to a bully? Is this a battle we can win? Is it wise to poke the bear?
From an engagement perspective, these are the kinds of questions the public can sink its teeth into. They are urgent and weighty, but not overly technical or complicated. They deal with some very basic human experiences that everyone understands.
The real point is that leaving ordinary Canadians out of the discussion would be more than a mistake. It would be undemocratic. There is an opportunity here for an historic debate, perhaps not unlike the Free Trade Election of 1988.
Note, however, that the prospect of a G7 country like Canada engaging in an election on Trump would almost certainly attract international attention. Indeed, it would be reported on around the world. How would Trump respond to this? Might we be poking the bear?
In fact, this could be a first step toward reining him in. Trump has built his base around a populist narrative in which government is accused of having been taken over by elites; mainstream media peddles Fake News; and immigrants take American jobs and corrupt American values.
The story is, of course, fiction, but it speaks to a genuine insecurity among Americans about their government, the economy, and their way of life. Trump’s special talent lies in his ability to use the populist narrative to stoke these fears.
The basic lesson here, however, is that his grip on his base is only as strong as the weakest link in the narrative. The way to break that grip is to create a counter-narrative that Americans find compelling.
That likely is a key step in a larger plan, but it is still down the road a piece and will probably require an international dialogue on democracy and populism. So, it must wait for another day.
For now, let’s remain focused on the prospects here in Canada, where an extraordinary debate on our future is within reach. The question now is whether the prime minister is inclined to grab it.
Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@bell.net or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan