With Trudeau's leadership under fire, Liberals try to regroup before October

Federal and provincial Liberals who spoke to CBC News concede what was unthinkable just months ago — that in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, Justin Trudeau’s leadership has gone from one of the party’s greatest strengths to one of its biggest liabilities.

The SNC-Lavalin affair helped turn the party's best political asset — the prime minister — into a burden

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become a drag on the Liberal Party's re-election chances, prompting some soul-searching in party circles. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015 in part because he changed the way many Canadians felt about politics. But if Trudeau is going to be reelected in 2019, party insiders admit he needs to change the way many Canadians feel about him now.

Federal and provincial Liberals who spoke to CBC News concede what was unthinkable just months ago — that in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, Trudeau's leadership has gone from one of the party's greatest strengths to one of its biggest liabilities.

It's even an issue in Atlantic Canada, the region the party swept in 2015. Provincial candidates in Newfoundland and Labrador — where the Liberals were reduced to a minority government on Thursday — were surprised at the amount of anti-Trudeau sentiment they encountered while going door-to-door.

Many voters in the energy-reliant and financially-challenged province were worried about the impact Trudeau's environmental agenda would have on the local offshore oil sector. Others were angry about the Liberals' approach to immigration. Those issues, combined with the SNC-Lavalin controversy, have transformed voter attitudes about Trudeau.

What a difference three months made

"Three months ago he would have been an asset for us," said one senior Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal. "Now, not so much."

That dynamic is showing up in private focus groups that are reinforcing the public polls: Trudeau's reputation as a strong leader has been badly damaged by the SNC-Lavalin affair — a public conflict between Trudeau and his then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that saw both the minister and her colleague, Jane Philpott, resign from cabinet to protest what they alleged was high-level pressure to secure a deal to allow the Quebec-based engineering company to avoid a trial on corruption and fraud charges.

Independent Members of Parliament Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould speak with the media before question period in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday April 3, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The collapse of the Crown's case against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, with its accusations of political interference on the part of the government, merely compounded the party's image crisis.

"I don't think something happened in the broader environment that forced the change. I think it was what happened here in Ottawa with SNC-Lavalin," said David Coletto, CEO of polling firm Abacus Data, in a recent interview.

"That was a moment that seems to have completely reset people's impressions of the prime minister and now he's living with the consequences of that."

Pharmacare, finances over climate change

One of the consequences of that "reset" is an effort by Liberals to recalibrate how they're positioning themselves to seek re-election. The Liberal climate plan is an important part of that. But there is a deep recognition in party circles that talking about climate change alone won't be nearly enough to save the government.

Many Liberals acknowledge that the Conservatives have smartly tapped into the issue of affordability and economic anxiety. This was reflected in the Ontario Liberal caucus's ranking of platform priorities, leaked to CBC News, that put personal financial security ahead of climate and reconciliation. At the top of the Ontario MPs' list was a national pharmacare plan, which is certain to be a centrepiece of the Liberal platform.

But a platform can only work if the leader can sell it. There is a hope among senior Liberals who spoke to CBC News — both elected officials and political staff — that a busy slate of international travel over the next few months can help rehabilitate Trudeau's reputation as a leader.

'A desire for change still requires an acceptable alternative'

The prime minister is expected to attend the G20 in Japan in June and the G7 in France in August. Trudeau was in Paris this week sharing the global spotlight with French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a summit to denounce online extremism.

(From left) French Culture Minister Franck Riester, French chief architect of Historical Sites Philippe Villeneuve, Notre Dame cathedral rector Patrick Chauvet and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stand together after visiting the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris on May 15, 2019. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

The Liberals hope that events like this will help strike a contrast between Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whom the Liberals have accused of cosying up to extreme political elements here in Canada — a claim the Conservatives angrily deny.

That direct contrast with Scheer is a key factor in Liberal re-election hopes in the face of dismal polling. Many Liberals point to past victories by Ontario Liberal premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne — two leaders who entered election campaigns trailing their Conservative opponents but won in the end.

The theory is that turning the election into a choice between Scheer's agenda and Trudeau's favours the Liberals. But if the election becomes a referendum on Trudeau alone, it favours the Conservatives.

"You either have to get people to reconsider their views of the prime minister or, what's more likely ... get them to think differently about the alternative that's waiting in the wings, and that's Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives," said Coletto. "A desire for change still requires an acceptable alternative."

PMO staff changes

But to get there, multiple Liberal insiders say they need to improve the performance of the Prime Minister's Office as well. The hope is that the recent addition of Ben Chin as a senior adviser will add some urgency to the PMO's communications and issues-management efforts — work that some Liberals say needs to accelerate from a think-tank's pace to war-room speed.

Senior Liberals also concede that the party needs to sharpen its pitch to suburban swing voters while it attempts to deepen the contrast between Trudeau and Scheer. Seats in British Columbia, and in that the wide band of ridings that run between Windsor, Ont. and Quebec City, are key to the Liberals' re-election hopes. But the party finds itself fighting a mood of economic uncertainty, in spite of blistering job growth numbers in many of these areas.

In the party's plus column, Liberals like to point to a solid party infrastructure that ought to serve them well in the upcoming campaign. The appointment of Jeremy Broadhurst as campaign director has rallied some Liberals who have grown disillusioned during recent months.

And while the Conservatives have raised more money at the national level (the party enjoyed a massive first quarter this year), the Liberals have raised significantly more funds at the local riding level than in 2015. This, party insiders say, will allow candidates to open their headquarters months before the official start of the campaign.

Of course, this entire strategy depends on an assumption that the fallout from the SNC-Lavalin and Mark Norman controversies are largely over, the government avoids any more self-inflicted wounds and public opinion stabilizes to the point where the Liberals can see a possible path back to government.

"If we're within the margin of error, bring it on," said one Liberal.

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