Re-elected, newly elected and defeated Liberal MPs will gather Thursday on Parliament Hill for the first time since Canadians clipped the wings of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government in the Oct. 21 election.
The two-hour get-together is not a formal caucus meeting, just a chance to congratulate winners and commiserate with losers.
Nevertheless, it will doubtless give Trudeau a taste of the mood in what is likely to be a more assertive Liberal caucus, one less inclined to obediently follow the lead of a prime minister who no longer exudes an aura of electoral invincibility.
Trudeau’s reputation as a champion of diversity and tolerance took a beating during the bruising 40-day campaign when it was revealed he’d donned blackface repeatedly in his younger days.
His grip on power was ultimately weakened; the Liberals won 157 seats — 13 shy of a majority in the House of Commons — and were shut out entirely in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where Trudeau’s name is now political poison.
Unlike Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Trudeau does not face a potential revolt over his leadership but returning Liberal MPs do expect him to make some changes.
Among them: pay more attention to the views of caucus, bring more diverse voices into his inner circle, drop the nasty personal attacks that dominated the campaign, return to more positive messaging and, in particular, concentrate more on communicating the Liberal government’s successes on the economic front.
“I really think there’s an opportunity here for caucus maybe to be heard more,” Prince Edward Island veteran MP Wayne Easter said in an interview. “We were four years in government and the strong voice of caucus and avenues for caucus to be heard maybe in a more substantive way must be found.”
Vancouver MP Hedy Fry said the people who have their finger on the pulse of the nation are the MPs.
“As a physician, I can say if you don’t take vital signs, you make mistakes. The centre isn’t getting that.”
Montreal MP Alexandra Mendes hopes the minority government, which will require more collaboration with opposition parties, will result in all parliamentarians, not just cabinet ministers, getting more input into bills during Commons debates and committee study.
“Many of us were elected on our merits, and not just because of the party, and people expect us to prove that trust is warranted,” she said in an interview.
Along with the demand to engage more with backbenchers is a widespread feeling that Trudeau can no longer rely solely on advice from his tight inner circle — what one MP refers to as “the triumvirate echo chamber” of Trudeau, chief of staff Katie Telford and former principal secretary Gerald Butts.
Telford is staying on as chief of staff. However, Butts, who resigned in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin affair, has no plans to return to the PMO, although he was a key player during the campaign. That leaves an opening for a new principal secretary and some Liberal MPs see that as an opportunity to bring in a senior adviser from the West and maybe also from Quebec, where a resurgence of the separatist Bloc Quebecois is cause for concern.
“I do think that there have to be more diverse voices around the PM, in terms of not just having a very Ontario-centric team,” said Mendes.
A number of Liberal MPs bemoan the nasty tone of the campaign, including the Liberal attacks on Scheer’s social conservative values rather than a more positive campaign promoting the Liberals’ economic record: robust growth, historically low unemployment, 900,000 lifted out of poverty as a result of the Canada Child Benefit.
Fry, who just won her ninth election, said she never saw such a nasty campaign that revolved so heavily around personal attacks on the leaders.
The result was that people didn’t know who to vote for because “they thought they were all scoundrels,” she said. And they didn’t know what the government had done on big issues like affordable housing because the leaders were too busy ”screaming at each other about how terrible the other human being was.”
Easter said all leaders have to ”give our head a shake and stop this political rhetoric. The election’s over, let’s get on with governing like Canadians expect us to do.”
Like other MPs, Easter believes the government must do a better job of communicating its accomplishments on pocket-book issues, which he said “nobody seemed to know” about when he knocked on doors during the campaign.
“One of Trudeau’s difficulties is, he so wants to do the right thing and so wants to see the political correctness and so wants to do right on the gender balance and Indigenous (reconciliation) … that he puts himself in such a position that it maybe compromises his leadership position,” Easter said.
“He’s out there on those issues and maybe not out there on the bread-and-butter issues and I think he has to emphasize the other side more.”
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press