The future of the Liberal Party—without Justin Trudeau

Paul Wells: The biggest question in Canadian politics in 2022 is whether Trudeau will still be PM when the year is done. The Grits may be forced to consider life after him—and what they even stand for without him.
Trudeau and the newly sworn in ministers in Ottawa on Oct. 26, 2021 (Courtesy of Alex Tétreault/PMO)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the newly sworn in ministers hold a press conference at Sir John A. Macdonald building, in Ottawa, Ontario, on Tuesday October 26th, 2021. (Courtesy of Alex Tétreault/PMO)

On Sept. 20, voters returned a Parliament that will look a lot like the one Justin Trudeau was stuck with before he called the 2021 election. But one big thing did change. In conversation, senior Liberals were remarkably candid about discussing the last days of Justin Trudeau’s government, and the prospect of a government led by somebody else.

“Well, the PM’s going to need legacy projects,” one cabinet minister said, when invited to chat about the government’s priorities.

Another member of Trudeau’s inner circle was matter-of-fact in discussing the danger a leadership change would represent for the governing party. The Liberals had a decade of increasingly disappointing electoral outcomes before Trudeau became the leader, this person said. It’s an open question whether Trudeau’s tenure marked the end of those trends, or merely an extended break before the party declines again.

This sort of talk is new. In a party whose unity of purpose Trudeau did much to restore, it’s long been considered poor form, or wasted energy, for Liberals to contemplate the prospect of life without the leader who brought them back from the brink of irrelevance. This fall, that taboo lifted. It’s as though a screw that had secured some plate in the Liberals’ psyche for nearly a decade had been loosened by one full counterclockwise turn. Suddenly Liberals are granting themselves licence to speculate. And so the biggest question in Canadian politics in 2022 is whether Justin Trudeau will still be Prime Minister when the year is done.

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For what it’s worth, the man himself insists he’s not leaving the top job anytime soon. At his first news conference after the election, a reporter asked Trudeau whether he’ll lead the party into the next election. He replied with an emphatic “Yes!”

That’s pretty much the only way you can answer a question like that. The moment you acknowledge an intention to leave, you’re basically inviting everyone to ignore everything you say. But it may also simply be true. Trudeau has been Prime Minister for only six years. Voluntary departure from the job—because a PM is tired, or wants to arrange an orderly succession, or doesn’t like their chances in the next election—is relatively rare, and normally comes after more than six years. Jean Chrétien gave up the job after a decade, under considerable pressure. Brian Mulroney hit the eject button after nearly nine years, dooming his successor Kim Campbell to a brutal electoral reckoning.

Only one prime minister has ever retired voluntarily by the seven-year mark, which is the milestone Trudeau is scheduled to hit in 2022. Lester Pearson retired in 1968, after not quite five years. But Pearson was over 70. Walking away from the best job you’ll ever have is a big decision, after all. And Trudeau, who has not yet made a decision about home renovations at 24 Sussex Drive, cannot be accused of being impetuous.

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But already the question of Trudeau’s future is becoming a feature of political conversation. A Maru Public Opinion poll days after the September election found that 55 per cent of respondents thought Trudeau should step down. A Nanos poll two weeks later found that 36 per cent shared that opinion. Obviously, most of the people who want to see any leader go voted for a different party. But in both polls, Trudeau was mentioned more than other major party leaders as the one who should leave. If nothing else, these results suggest the PM has a tenuous grasp on the hearts of the nation.

Nowhere is it written that a political leader needs to be beloved. All they really need to do is win. In September Trudeau won his third consecutive election. Excellent work, but not all that rare. Seven of his predecessors also won three in a row, including Stephen Harper, Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau. What would be truly unusual would be racking up a fourth consecutive win. Only John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier have ever managed it. (Mackenzie King, whose first and last days as prime minister were separated by nearly 27 years, lost a couple of times amid all the victories, breaking what would otherwise have been longer streaks.)

These considerations start to wear on a leader after a while. And on his team, which helps explain why the Trudeau inner circle has lately grown markedly more quitty. Catherine McKenna and Navdeep Bains once seemed to reside at the heart of Trudeauism. Bains played a key role at the summer retreat at Mont Tremblant in 2012 at which a small team of loyalists hatched and workshopped the Trudeau leadership project. Now both senior ministers have left. So have important political staffers whose lower public profile spared them from some of the indignities of elected office, people like Mike McNair, Elder Marques and Mathieu Bouchard.

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Every departed colleague stands as a reminder that there’s life after politics, a life with more money and less public scrutiny. The temptation to chuck it and find a beach somewhere must always lurk in the background. Alain Juppé, who served briefly as France’s prime minister, gave this impulse a name with the title of his 1993 book, La Tentation de Venise, the temptation to drop everything and head to Venice. For Trudeau, the poster child for that temptation might be Barack Obama, whose U.S. presidency was capped by a constitutional term limit at eight years but who now makes more money from a single speech than he used to in a year.

Trudeau is likely to resist the siren song of a life away from politics for some time yet. But politics will change even before he leaves. Paul Martin’s ambition was a central feature of Liberal Party life for every day that Jean Chrétien was prime minister. Other party figures who thought they had the luxury of playing the waiting game more coolly than Martin eventually woke up with his footprints on their backs.

If you’re François-Philippe Champagne or Mélanie Joly or Mark Carney or Anita Anand—names that often figure in speculation about Trudeau successors—you have to ask yourself two questions, starting right now. First, are you going to be a candidate for leader? Second, is there a subtle way to stop Chrystia Freeland?

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Surely I deserve some credit for getting this far in an election speculation essay without mentioning Freeland, the finance minister, deputy prime minister and stalwart Trudeau defender. She’s not universally beloved among Liberals. She’s aloof toward caucus colleagues, pays little attention to most briefings from officials, and her oratorical skills land somewhere this side of spellbinding. But so what? Right now her occasional detractors are far outnumbered by those who think she’d represent a substantial improvement over Trudeau in intellectual capacity, worldliness and the possession of a closet blessedly empty of skeletons. Almost alone among reputed pretenders to the throne, she has a network within the government of loyal staffers who could form the basis for a solid campaign organization.

Most importantly, her position as frontrunner is generally assumed. In the Liberal Party of Canada, such assumptions normally carry the weight of self-fulfilling prophecy. Liberals have been voting on their leaders since 1919. In all that time, with only a single exception, the winner has been the person who led on the first ballot. In fact, more often than not, there wasn’t more than one ballot. The exception was Stéphane Dion in 2006. He was in third place on the first ballot. His tenure as leader didn’t go well. More than members of any other party, Liberals live to back winners. Offhand it’s hard to imagine why else anyone would want to be a Liberal. So if your name isn’t Chrystia Freeland and you want to lead this party, you need to do more than make your case. You need to make yourself inevitable. And you don’t have a week to spare.

Right now, Freeland’s detractors are far outnumbered by those who think she’d represent a substantial improvement over Trudeau (Courtesy of Adam Scotti/Liberal Party of Canada)
Right now, Freeland’s detractors are far outnumbered by those who think she’d represent a substantial improvement over Trudeau (Courtesy of Adam Scotti/Liberal Party of Canada)

But it’s probably early to be measuring the prospects of individual candidates who haven’t yet even identified themselves. Liberals face a bigger question: what kind of party do they want to be?

Whatever happens next, Justin Trudeau will almost certainly be remembered as a significant Liberal leader, not only for the way he brought an end to a terrifying decade-long losing streak, but because he provided novel answers to the question of what the Liberal party is for. The change he has wrought was perhaps clearest this past Sept. 14 in Brampton, when Trudeau’s nervous and embattled campaign enlisted the help of Jean Chrétien to nail down voter support in the suburban ring around Toronto.

Chrétien peddled his trademark middle-of-the-road nostrums. “It’s not the time to move to the far right or to the far left,” he intoned. “It is the time to be in the middle.” And the middle, he said, is where Canadians have always known they’d find the Liberal Party of Canada. “The Liberal Party is the same party since 1867.”

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Surely Trudeau had to bite his tongue nearly in half to resist the urge to rebut the old man. Nobody in Trudeau’s party talks about the centre. When presented with evidence of its existence, say in the person of Chrétien or John Manley or really anyone in a suit, Team Trudeau’s normal instinct is to recoil. Trudeau’s Liberal Party is a party of cultural combat, self-consciously designed first as a counterweight to Stephen Harper’s Conservatism, then to Donald Trump’s heady toxic stew, and now to anything that isn’t Liberal. The location or even the existence of some purported “centre” simply doesn’t enter into it.

If pressed to explain themselves, Trudeau Liberals would insist that, far from limiting its electoral fortunes, the contemporary party’s wokeness has actually bolstered and ensured its electoral success. Trudeau didn’t defeat any of three consecutive Conservative leaders thanks to his superior ability as an economic manager. He won as a superior reader of the cultural moment. He didn’t win despite the bundle of diversity, reconciliation, feminism, climate activism and abortion rights that grates on earlier generations of Liberals like fingernails on a chalkboard. He won because of those stances, which put a solid floor under Liberal support and motivated a sufficient number of voters to believe they had something at stake in a Liberal victory.

If enough candidates show up for a post-Trudeau leadership campaign to make things interesting, they will surely debate the merits of a move to the centre. If there are enough candidates to debate, at least one will say: “Sure, the six-year shopping spree started out fun and turned out to be crucial to getting through the COVID crisis. But now recess is over. It’s time to rein in spending, attract foreign investors, grow the economy and do all the other responsible stuff a natural governing party used to worry about.”

One of the other candidates will serve up a rebuttal that may sound like this: “The centre only looks like the place where the votes are. Historically, the centre has often been where you find apathy and a demotivated electorate. That’s what Joe Clark and Tom Mulcair and Michael Ignatieff found, in three separate parties. The middle of the road is where you go to get run over.”

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It’ll be a fascinating debate, one the Liberals have avoided in public for most of a decade. It will also mark a moment of maximum danger for the party, because leadership changes give voters an excuse to shop around for alternatives. The current Conservative and NDP leaders replaced predecessors who were thought to be electoral under-performers—and managed to attract even less of the popular vote. So did every Liberal leader between Chrétien and Trudeau. This, too, will wear on Trudeau’s mind as he ponders his future: does he have the luxury of leaving a party that keeps winning elections under his leadership?

Anyone purporting to know Trudeau’s mind on these questions is guessing. He’ll let us know. Either post-election will drift into pre-election and it will be clear that Justin Trudeau is bidding to enter a pantheon so far occupied only by Laurier and Macdonald; or on some random morning he’ll invite Liberals to try their luck without him. All that’s changed now is that the various considerations behind such a decision are now being discussed, just a little more openly, by the people who’ll live with its consequences.

This column appears in print in the January 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The life of the Party.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.