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Memo To The Liberals: Fuck Around Or Dig In
2025 Is Winnable, Act Like It
I’ve been in a bit of a hiatus on Federal thoughts, at least in longform, recently only because I don’t have much new to say. The polls are still bad for the Government, the Conservatives would still probably get a majority government if an election was this week, but it’s not and there’s limited utility to panicking about this shit outside of writ periods. (You’ll note that I haven’t written about or attempted to model anything about Ontario, despite a run of bad polls for Ford, because this is actually a non-partisan idea.)
The one thing that’s been sticking with me is the amount of coverage of the recent Conservative Convention as though Poilievre is some messiah for the party, as opposed to the Liberals just being on the nose. The reason it’s important is that how the Liberals come back – or at least try to – depends very much on getting the cause of their present discontent correct.
Before we get into what is causing the Liberals to decline in the polls, let’s rule out some of what it’s not. It’s not that Poilievre spent the summer campaigning while the Liberals didn’t, because spoiler, every Opposition always launches a summer tour. The vast majority of the time – most notably, Andrew Scheer’s 2018 tour or the various Mulcair tours – they don’t fucking work. The mere act of campaigning, or “campaign-style” events, doesn’t just automatically raise boats.
The reason they don’t automatically work is because usually nobody pays attention. Nobody cared what Andrew Scheer had to say or what Mulcair was saying, so they didn’t work. The reason the Liberals led for much of 2013 and 2014 was mostly their ability to say nothing at all. The Liberals’ polling decline coincided with the point where they started to make choices, because for the first 18 months of the Trudeau leadership they were an empty vessel for whatever your reason for opposing Harper was.
Similarly, Poilievre is right now mostly an empty vessel. To the extent people have heard anything he’s said, it’s likely that he cares about housing, which instantly signifies him as a New Kind Of Conservative in some people’s minds. The fact that he’s put a genuine moderate in charge of the file is also a sign to those paying some attention that he’s not the same old, and it’s a shield on some level to the idea that he’s some extremist.
Now, he’s not a New Kind Of Conservative, he’s a traditional Tory with a worse policy on vaccines and a greater tolerance for lunatics and cranks in general and a better one on abortion and housing. It’s not a good mix, but to call Poilievre some extremist ignores that the Liberals are running against a candidate who has said that he’s pro-choice clearly, without hesitation, on TV, and against a candidate whose housing focus has at least opened the door to an overperformance with the young.
That said, it’s absurd to think this is particularly about Poilievre. Tim Hudak had two polling leads in Ontario at times when nobody was focusing on what he had to say because the government of the day was in the shits, and the second he had to actually articulate anything, he fell apart. Adrian Dix was able to paper over all of the internal contradictions of the BC NDP’s attempts to appeal to both disaffected ex-Liberals and Green-friendly leftwingers right until a campaign started and he kept getting asked about Kinder Morgan until he finally relented to the Greens at the expense of his centre flank.
The problem for a lot of the Liberal-inclined is that they want this to be about something else – they want it to be that Skippy is winning the ad war or he’s campaigning early or his makeover when that’s not why he’s winning. He’s winning right now because the country isn’t happy with the government. The government’s approval is down 6 points in a year and they’re down double digits on net approval in 12 months, both per Abacus. That’s why the government’s in trouble. The current malaise is about the government, and only the government will get itself out of it.
The search for a reason beyond “The Government has to do better on the issues voters care about” is understandable, but nonsensical. If you like this government, and if you have benefited from this government – say, a middle income suburban family who bought ten years ago with kids who benefit from the Child Benefit and doesn’t get crushed by the housing price rise, or someone who benefitted from the reversal of Harper’s increases to the retirement age – then your instinct is to look for someone else to blame. In this context, there’s one culprit.
It also makes it easier for this government to recover – if they still have the capacity to. It’s easier to kid ourselves and pretend that there’s nothing to be done because Poilievre is some force unto itself, but that isn’t true. Wrest back the narrative with a legislative agenda worth defending, and take the next two years and fucking fight.
Whether or not that will be successful is unclear, but it’s an actual, tangible strategy. More housing deals (at much bigger scale) with municipalities, more requirements on post secondary institutions for housing if they’re going to be so reliant on foreign tuition dollars, a proper strategy for fiscal prudence that eases demand-side pressure and lets the Bank of Canada cut rates next year, and you’re looking at some way back to 33% and government.
For a government that’s clearly in a bad spot, they actually hold a large number of the cards in their hands. It’s not much, but it is notable just how much they control their destiny from here. Poilievre is not winning because he has solved some grand mystery of the electorate, he’s winning because the country’s pissed and the government’s had a disastrous year. That feels worse for the incumbents, but it’s actually better, because if the cause of the present discontent is Liberal failure, the Liberals are the ones who can right the ship.
Can doesn’t mean they will. But if the LPC lose the next election, it’ll be solely on their shoulders. Fuck around or dig in. At the end of the day, whether 2025 is competitive or not is only about the government, and not Poilievre.