How Justin Trudeau should use wedge politics to divide and conquer his opposition
Liberal Leader Justin Trueau speaks to the media during a federal election campaign stop at the annual gay pride parade in Montreal, Sunday, August 16, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
No sooner do I question whether Justin Trudeau can play the heavy than he drops a carbon tax bombshell on unsuspecting provincial counterparts. Faced with flustered premiers, Trudeau then tells them to go pound salt. Well, whaddya know, the man is ready to be disliked. Bravo.
Seeing as I’ve got the prime minister’s ear (ha!), I’d thought I’d plant another seed: It’s time for Justin Trudeau to play wedge politics.
Handing out wedgies isn’t, we’re told, this prime minister’s style, but that shouldn’t stop Trudeau from hiking up the Conservative party’s pants. The prime minister should exploit the current leadership circus — officially at seven rings, with the promise of more candidates to come — to splinter the Tories into irreconcilable pieces.
Take the carbon tax. Most Conservatives are against it, but leadership candidate Michael Chong has thrown some support Trudeau’s way. Do rank-and-file Conservatives share his views? Nope. Will Chong end up with the brass ring and get to set party policy? Again, probably not, but it doesn’t really matter. For the Liberals’ purposes, Michael Chong can either be king of the Conservative castle on carbon policy, or the rest of the contenders can be the climate’s dirty rascals.
Carbon’s only one file. There will be lots of other open doors on which Trudeau can push; leadership races split as much, if not more, than they unify. And with wildcards such as Brad Trost and Kellie Leitch in the race, politically dodgy discussions about “values” and gay marriage — and irrelevant ones such as sex education in the province of Ontario — are now back on the table, much to the dismay of sentient Tories. Then there’s Mad Max Bernier (his preferred title) who promises to gut supply management and strafe the tax code. The point being, Trudeau now has an opportunity to make the Conservatives as wild-eyed and crazy as he wants.
The Conservatives, you’ll recall, did this to great effect against the Liberals during the leadership race that crowned Stéphane Dion. In fact, I think I still have one of the “Go for Bob, go for broke” buttons we handed out at the Montreal convention to graft Bob Rae’s early 1990s Ontario NDP record to the 2006-era Liberal party. If the Grits aren’t cataloguing every twist and turn of the Tory race for use against the eventual winner, they’re doing it wrong.
And if the Liberals are feeling ambitious, they could even do the same to the New Democrats. Although, in fairness, it’s hard to see why they should bother. At some point, there are no more holes you can put into the fish as they swim in their — or is that over their — barrel.
The beauty for Trudeau is he not only gets to react to leadership trial balloons, he can also float a few of his own through the House of Commons. The Tory leadership squabbling won’t end until May of next year, which gives Justin Trudeau a lot of policy runway to make contentious decisions essentially unopposed.
Sure, Rona Ambrose will be in the House of Commons dutifully lodging objections, as she has been on Trudeau’s carbon “tax on everything”, but the title “interim” doesn’t, by definition, bear the full weight of the party. Any criticisms she makes can rightly be viewed as drafts awaiting the imprimatur of the new boss, who could be very different from the old boss. Indeed, the new Conservative leader might have to spend the first year of his or her mandate squaring a lot of circles under heavy enemy fire.
To keep the pressure up, Justin Trudeau should scan his platform and focus on the measures that could garner support from one or more of the CPC leadership candidates, then deploy them from the government’s bully pulpit. He should also take issues that unify all Conservatives — such as opposition to his proposed electoral reforms — and shove them on the back burner. Likewise, he should stop spending our money like a drunken sailor, as a gaping deficit is the ultimate springboard for a return to Conservative power.
Even if he doesn’t, there’s still, at the moment, an open goal where the opposition should be. Until May 27, 2017, Justin Trudeau gets to have his run of the House. If he plays his cards correctly, he could be at 24 Sussex — well, after he’s done sinking millions into it and actually moves in — for a good, long stretch.
I suspect Trudeau knows there are two routes to political greatness. The first is to actually be great: think Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War or Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. But the second is to have greatness thrust upon you because you’re opposed by political minnows: precisely the scenario facing Justin Trudeau in late 2016.
Andrew MacDougall is the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London and is a former director of communications to Stephen Harper.