Gerald Butts on the election so far: ’A tie game with a lot of hockey left to play’

Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary talks to Shannon Proudfoot about why the Liberals ran into trouble, what the early polls missed, and how Canada sees Trudeau
Trudeau departs Ottawa on Aug. 22, 2021, en route to campaign in Atlantic Canada (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau departs Ottawa on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, en route to campaign in Atlantic Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Shortly before the TVA leaders’ debate last week, Maclean’s talked to Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary and a key architect of the 2015 and 2019 Liberal campaigns. Now vice chairman and senior advisor to the Eurasia Group, Butts talked about whether he really is sitting on the sidelines, illusory public opinion love letters and his lack of surprise at the current state of play.

Q: How do you view your role in this campaign? You have no official one, but who are you these days when you’re commenting on things?

A: I have no role in the campaign, other than as someone who’s had some experience in them in the past and is making public commentary on it. I work for a firm that analyzes geopolitics worldwide, part of our work is in Canada, [and] I know this is very strange for some people to accept, but I’m not taking a partisan role in this campaign. I obviously have a lot of friends in the government, I support the government, I’m a Liberal, but I’m trying to see this as an experienced practitioner through an analytical lens more than a partisan one.

Q: When I asked you for this interview, you mentioned you’d been thinking of writing something. What were you think of writing, what’s your take at this point?

A: I was thinking about writing about the first half of the campaign, and essentially how I thought it was going to start after Labour Day. My joke in my previous political life was unless you could project messaging on the flip-side of Canadians’ barbecues, you’re not going to get much of their attention in August. I think a lot of the analysis that has gone into the first two weeks will be looked back upon as relatively immaterial to the outcome of the campaign. With one exception, of course, which is that the calling of the campaign itself has obviously reset the public mood in a negative way toward the government, which I don’t think is a surprise to many close observers of politics in Canada. I don’t think there was a great appetite for this campaign, and it’s on the government now to make the case for why we’re having it and why they should be re-elected.

Q: What is your read on the mood of the electorate right now, what people want and where we are, collectively and psychologically?

A: You hear this all the time, people say ‘What’s the ballot question in this campaign?’ and the truth is that for most campaigns—at least the ones I’ve been intimately involved in—most campaigns are about a bunch of things. They always have a macro theme, but in this case, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a campaign that’s more about one thing, which is how do we end this nightmare we’ve all been living through and get some semblance of a normal life back?

I think the Liberals ran into trouble in the first few weeks of the campaign because they seemed to be addressing a bunch of issues which, in and of themselves are important, but is not the key issue on people’s minds. They were diffuse, and you have to give the Conservative campaign the credit of being very focused on that one issue, the pandemic and the recovery.

I’ve said this publicly, and may eat these words by the end of the campaign, but I thought a couple of months ago the Conservatives were in real trouble. But you have to give them their due, they had to punch their way back into contention in the first half of the campaign and they did that. But as it stands now, the government has lost, let’s call it a two-goal lead, and now it’s a tie hockey game with a lot of hockey left to play.

Q: We had election speculation for months as the Liberals were so firmly in the lead in polls, and that seems to have evaporated since Aug. 15. Are you surprised by how things are unfolding?

A: No. At Eurasia Group, we look at this trend all over the world. One of the most interesting pieces of research we did was analyzing which incumbent governments around the world got bumps during the pandemic. And it occurred to me that what we were really measuring was the magnitude of a given electorate’s ability to transcend their own partisan viewpoints in a crisis. So if you’re in a country where partisan adhesion is relatively weak, then you saw massive bumps for incumbent governments because people didn’t really care which party was in power, they just wanted the government to do well.

Canada was at the far end of that spectrum, so in the early days of the pandemic, the same people could give Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau a 20-point bump in their approval rating. Whereas in the United States, which is at the other end of that spectrum, Donald Trump’s ceiling was really low because Democrats would never give a Republican president, let alone that one, credit for anything. But that gets translated in horse race numbers in between elections, which are utterly meaningless once the writ is issued.

That is a very long-winded way of saying that I never thought the lead was particularly real or solid, and I expected that it would reset to somewhere around where the campaign ended up in 2019. And within a margin of error, that’s where we are.

Q: This is all very persuasive and interesting, but if I can be ruthlessly cynical, a lot of people will say, ‘Well, of course, his best bud is up there at the head of the party and he was in that shop for a long time and aren’t these some nice justifications for how everything is going to turn out okay.’ What would be your response to that?

A: I don’t think there is any guarantee that things are going to turn out okay. Believe me, I think this campaign is very much up in the air. Campaigns are about potential pathways to victory when they start for the various parties involved, and those pathways narrow as the campaign goes on. The Conservatives in the first half of the campaign have expanded their potential paths to victory and the Liberal paths have narrowed, at least if you consider a Liberal victory to be a majority government, which is where the bar was set by the public commentary when the election was called. I think that is very, very much up in the air.

I am in the business of assessing probabilities these days, and I would say that’s, to be generous, a 15 per cent probability, maybe 10 of a Liberal majority. If you believe the public opinion polls alone, it was more like 35, 40 at the beginning of the campaign. I just never believed those polls.

Q: A lot of the speculation the last week or so as my kind has decided the ship needs righting is that maybe a clever thing to do would be to bring you back. Would you be open to that?

A: No. No, I think that would be crazy.

Q: Why?

A: Because these things don’t change overnight, they’re months in the planning. I think about the 2015 campaign, there was a core group of us who spent morning, noon and night planning that campaign for months and months. And even if I were willing to do that [now], which I would not be—and I should say, I have not been asked to be—then I think it would be a bad move for all involved, because I’m not close enough to know what to do and the people involved in planning it are much more deeply versed in the particular context of this campaign, and they’re all their own animal. Every campaign is different.

Q: When was the last time you communicated with Justin Trudeau?

A: We had a friendly conversation just before the campaign started, and it was really just to wish him well.

Q: What about the PMO? You can be on the outside in an official capacity, but still a smart guy that friends will lean on and ask for advice. Is there any unofficial advice-giving going on?

A: No. I really believe that once you’re gone, you’re gone. When I was in the job, one of the things that drove me craziest was people who were in the job doing interviews and telling me how to do the job. I committed to the team when I left that I would never be one of those people. But I think enough time has passed that there is at least hopefully some interest served to your readers in hearing from someone who’s been through these things before, how they actually work.

Q: Do you miss politics? Is it hard to watch a campaign when you don’t have your hands in it?

A: No, I don’t at all. In fact if anything, I’m looking forward to this campaign being over.

Q: Have you been surprised by the effectiveness of the Conservative campaign?

A: I’ve always been one to say never underestimate your opponents. You can’t go wrong by swinging a heavy bat in the on-deck circle. Take all your opponents very seriously, try to understand them better than they understand themselves, and that way you’ll have a really good sense of how to react. Mike Tyson’s line about strategy, that everyone’s got a great plan until they get punched in the face, that is very true about election campaigns, in my experience. If you understand and have put the time into thinking through how your opponents are going to react to given sets of circumstances, then you’re going to have a leg up when the puck’s dropped, to mix the sports metaphors.

Q: By what parameters do you think this campaign should be judged a success or failure for Trudeau and the Liberals?

A: Success or failure is obviously whether you won or lost, and I think a lot of the post-mortem analysis of campaigns, which is always easier than the play-by-play during it, tends to focus on, “Who really won this?” Well, I’m old-fashioned, and the party that the people elect to government are who won the campaign. So within that context, obviously the bar has been set at a majority government, and a lot of people will be disappointed if that’s not achieved.

But at the end of the day, it’s about winning and losing. And it’s really hard to win a majority government in this country. In my lifetime, there have been two Liberal leaders to form a majority government against a united Conservative party, and they’ve both been named Trudeau. It’s really hard.

Q: How do you think Canadians see Justin Trudeau differently than they did six years ago, or do they?

A: Look, I think that anybody who’s been in power for more than half a decade, as the Prime Minister has been, is going to accumulate chinks in the armour as he goes on. It’s always been the case in Trudeaulandia, as I used to call it, that it’s 10X, that the lights on him have always been brighter.

I remember when we launched the leadership campaign back in 2013, I made a joke to Ben Chin—who was helping us with the leadership launch, who’s now of course back in a senior role in PMO—I looked at him and said, “I think there are more cameras in this room than we have members of our caucus.” He’s been a unique candidate from the day he stepped forward to seek the nomination in Papineau, and that meant that the normal burn rate for political exposure was accelerated for him from the day he started. It helped him early on, it’s been a mix of a help and hurt throughout his career, but I think like every other politician that’s been around a long time, people remember the good and the bad, and I think that will be the case as long as he’s there.

Q: If you were drafted into an election pool, what would be your prediction as it stands now?

A: It’s too soon to tell, but if the election were tomorrow—and I mean that, if it were tomorrow, because the debate could change this—I would say the Liberals would be returned with something close to the status quo ante. By that I mean somewhere between five fewer or more seats than they had a dissolution.

Q: A lot of people would decide that’s a failure, that we did this big, expensive thing that everyone was too tired to do, for nothing. Do you think that would be a correct view?

A: I think it’s a bit reductive to give a thumbs-up, thumbs-down to something as complex as an election outcome. I think a lot will depend on the dynamics, so I wouldn’t want to give a Roger Ebert-style judgment on that.

Q: That’s predicated on the thinking that the reason they triggered an election is that they wanted a majority, so it’s pundits and the media deciding what the parameters were and then deciding, well, if they weren’t met, why the heck did we do this?

A: Look, the challenge that the party has had since the Prime Minister visited the Governor General has been a compelling explanation for why we’re doing this. So some others would see a return to the status quo as a bit of poetic justice. [laughs]