Politics·Analysis

Summer can't come soon enough for Trudeau's Liberals: Chris Hall

The bad news for the Liberals is May was a month of apologies and abandoned power grabs. The good news for Liberals, Chris Hall writes, is the month is over and their self-inflicted growing pains could go away over the summer.

The government experienced plenty of self-inflicted growing pains in May

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized repeatedly for his behaviour in the House of Commons last month. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It's early yet in the life of this Liberal government. So this past month, difficult as it was with the loss of a cabinet minister and repeated apologies from the prime minister himself for a bout of intemperate behaviour, will likely be dismissed as little more than growing pains.

Uncomfortable, certainly. But temporary.

Temporary because nothing that happened in May appears to have dented the public's enthusiasm for the prime minister or his government.

Despite "elbowgate" and an abandoned attempt to seize near total control of Parliament's agenda, Trudeau's approval rating runs much higher than those of his opponents, according to the CBC's new Leader Meter.

Support for the Liberals, likewise, remains higher than it was back on Oct. 19 when the party won its majority.

But the thing about May is not that it ranks as a less-than-stellar month for the government. It's that the pain was almost entirely self-inflicted.

A look at the Liberals' bad month. 1:22

Miscues and miscalculations

Start with the Liberals' decision to surrender their superior numbers on the committee that will recommend a new system for electing MPs.

For weeks, the government's lead minister on the file, Maryam Monsef, had trouble convincing anyone that the results of what her party calls a flawed electoral system should be the basis for fixing those very flaws.

She and other ministers ignored the opposition's howls of outrage that the government was stacking the deck to come up with a new system that would benefit, well, the Liberals.

The opposition accused Minister for Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef and the Liberals of trying to stack the electoral reform process in their favour. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

It was a fundamental political miscalculation for a party that had campaigned on a platform of collaboration and consensus-building.

This week, the Liberals relented, agreeing to an NDP motion that would give no one party a majority on the committee.

It marked the second miscalculation the government needed to correct. Two weeks earlier they withdrew a plan known as Motion 6 that would have taken away the ability of the opposition parties to delay government business.

That decision came after the prime minister — figuratively and literally — tried to elbow aside the opposition's attempts to stall a vote related to the bill to legalize doctor-assisted dying.

The Liberals wanted to get Bill C-14 through Parliament by the Supreme Court's deadline on Monday. The end result is all but certain to still be in the Senate next week.

On Friday, the prime minister was asked in Winnipeg what he's taken away from the setbacks. He was ready for the question.

"We are focused on staying true to the commitment we made to Canadians not just to do different things, but to do things differently," he said. "That means a level of openness. A level of frankness. A level of accountability. A level of respectful collaboration we haven't seen for a number of years before this change in government."

Yes, his concession came with a partisan shot. But it shouldn't have come to that.

Message mismanagement

The difficulties of the past month weren't limited to what was going on inside the House of Commons.

Even a seemingly innocuous comment from Sophie Grégoire Trudeau that she could use more staff to deal with the requests for her time sparked a short-lived but intense debate over the role of the prime minister's spouse.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau took plenty of criticism for suggesting she could use more staff to help with her charity work. ( Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)

The opposition pounced. The government scrambled. And the real issue – Grégoire Trudeau's desire to lend her name and time to as many worthwhile causes as possible – was all but obscured by the clamour.

And there was this week's other big story, the sudden departure of Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo to deal with what the prime minister curtly described in a written statement as "addiction issues."

Trudeau said it was Tootoo's choice to leave cabinet and caucus after what he called "a difficult situation." But his tone suggested something more.

Trudeau offered no support, as he had when another Liberal MP, Seamus O'Regan, announced he was entering a program to deal with alcohol abuse, and no assurance that Tootoo would be welcomed back when his treatment was over.

"I have nothing further to add," Trudeau told a reporter who wondered how this was another example of the Liberals' promised openness and transparency.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reads a brief statement about Hunter Tootoo's resignation from Cabinet and the Liberal Caucus. 0:21

There's a legitimate argument that Tootoo is entitled to privacy. But far from being the final word, the prime minister is providing fodder for another chapter, with no control over the storyline.

So it's been a tough month. But there's some good news for Trudeau's Liberals now that May's finally given way to June.

The prime minister will play host to his fellow North American leaders, the Three Amigos, at the end of the month. U.S. President Barack Obama will address Parliament, a speech in which he's expected to touch on themes such as climate change that dovetail neatly with Trudeau's own priorities.

The government says it will introduce its much-anticipated proposals for parliamentary oversight of Canada's national security agencies.

And the Commons will break for the summer, as it always does, giving the Liberals time to recover from their self-inflicted growing pains.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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