Butts returns - and Trudeau's putting the band back together for October

Almost everything about the federal political landscape has changed since 2015 - except the people the Liberals are counting on to put them over the top in October.

His participation suggests the Liberals aren't all that worried about rehashing the SNC-Lavalin affair

Katie Telford, left, and Gerald Butts look on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his opening remarks during the meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press )

Among the 60 people who gathered at a downtown Ottawa hotel for a day and a half this month to discuss the Liberal government's campaign for re-election was Gerry Butts, the senior adviser and close friend of Justin Trudeau who left the Prime Minister's Office five months ago in the midst of Trudeau's painful spring.

In February, Butts stepped away because his presence — and the suggestion that he was somehow involved in inappropriately pressuring the former attorney general — threatened to be a drag on the government's ability to pursue its mandate. From the outside, Butts was able to mount his own defence against Jody Wilson-Raybould's accusations.

The return of Butts (who was widely credited with helping to define the Trudeau Liberal message and narrative in the first place) might reassure Liberals who valued his contribution to the 2015 campaign and the first three-and-a-half years of the Trudeau government.

His return is also a significant part of the Liberal band getting back together in the hopes of recording a follow-up to their smashing breakthrough in 2015 — even though this re-election bid is bound to be a very different challenge.

Butts's exact role in the campaign is unclear. Speaking to HuffPost Canada in May, Butts indicated he was looking toward the private sector. He also acknowledged that he would be readily available to any Liberal who came calling and suggested that his own enthusiasm for the mission hadn't dimmed.

The new-old Liberal crew

"It's no secret that I have a lot of friends who are still actively involved, whom I care about very deeply, and I care about my country very deeply," Butts said. "And I think that what is happening and how we're experiencing it in Canada, we're at a really important moment, in particular on the issues that I care most about, like climate change. We're at a turning point and it's important for people who care about those issues to get involved and try and make positive change happen."

Trudeau is more closely associated with Butts than he is with any other single adviser. But since he launched his quest for the federal Liberal leadership in 2012, Trudeau has gradually accumulated a slate of long-serving aides who will accompany him into the 2019 campaign.

In the beginning there was Butts, a friend to Trudeau since university, and Katie Telford, a friend of Butts's from their time together as senior figures in Dalton McGuinty's government. Telford got to know Trudeau when she was running Gerard Kennedy's campaign for the Liberal leadership in 2006, which Trudeau had endorsed. Telford became Trudeau's chief of staff after the 2015 election and formed an inseparable duo with Butts.

Tom Pitfield, a childhood friend of Trudeau's (Pitfield's father, Michael, was clerk of the Privy Council under Pierre Trudeau), was enlisted to begin building Trudeau's digital operation. Mike McNair, who had worked with Telford in Stéphane Dion's office, was recruited to help with policy.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and Gerald Butts walk in the loading dock of the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council during NAFTA talks on Sept. 30, 2018. (Canadian Press)

After Trudeau won the Liberal leadership, he convinced Kate Purchase, director of media relations for interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, to stay on to oversee communications. Jeremy Broadhurst, Rae's chief of staff, became national director of the Liberal Party, then a deputy to Butts and Telford, then chief of staff to Chrystia Freeland when the Trudeau government was reorienting itself to deal with Donald Trump. In May, Broadhurst was appointed Liberal campaign director, a title held by Telford in 2015.

Suzanne Cowan, who oversaw advertising in 2015, is now the party president. Brian Clow, who led the rapid response team in 2015 and later helmed a special unit in the PMO dedicated to Canada-U.S. relations, likely will take on a similar task again this fall. Cyrus Reporter, Trudeau's chief of staff during the two years in opposition and then a senior adviser in the PMO for two years, will return to play a role. John Zerucelli, who managed Trudeau's travel operations in 2015 and then for another two years in the PMO, is returning to oversee Trudeau's tour.

The pros and cons of experience

Ben Chin, an adviser in Trudeau's office who is also expected to fill a senior role in the campaign this fall, was not involved in 2015, but he was in attendance at the weekend retreat in the summer of 2012 when the nascent Trudeau campaign began to take shape.

That an incumbent campaign would return to the same people who helped it win power is not entirely unusual; Jean Chrétien's re-election team in 1997 bore a strong resemblance to the team that helped build the Liberal victory in 1993. In theory, an experienced team should offer Trudeau an advantage against Conservative and NDP leaders facing their first federal campaigns.

Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, prepares to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the SNC Lavalin Affair on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Still, Butts's involvement might offer a handy excuse for the Liberals' political opponents to re-litigate the SNC-Lavalin affair, at least for a news cycle or two. The ethics commissioner's report on the affair is expected to be released sometime before the official campaign begins, which likely will revive the story regardless. Butts and Trudeau have maintained that Butts did nothing wrong. As long as the ethics commissioner agrees, they might not have to revisit those assurances.

Among the attendees at the Liberal retreat this month were the national campaign co-chairs, including Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains (Dominic LeBlanc, another co-chair, is being treated for cancer and did not attend) and a few officials who already had taken leave from their senior roles in ministers' offices to join Broadhurst at the Liberal Party's headquarters in Ottawa.

According to a source, the meetings focused particularly on the campaign's field and digital operations. The Liberals' digital game could be enhanced by whatever Pitfield learned while assisting provincial and international campaigns over the last four years.

But the participants also discussed how much has changed since 2015.

The faces around the backrooms of the Liberal campaign might be similar, but the field is certainly different in 2019. In July 2015, the Liberals were polling in third place, the New Democrats were leading and the Greens were barely seen as a factor.

Maxime Bernier was a minor minister in Stephen Harper's cabinet. "Misinformation" and "foreign interference" had not yet entered the political lexicon. "Populism" was a quaint notion.

And Trudeau now has a record in office, with all the good and bad that entails.

All of this remains to play out. But regardless of the outcome, Trudeau will go with the team that helped get him here in the first place.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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