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The Liberals' Freeland Dilemma
On The Potential Need For A Change
It’s impossible to start a column about the current state of this Liberal government without acknowledging that they would be fucked worse than a Leafs fan when they lost that 4-1 lead a decade ago if the election was now. The reason I don’t really talk about the polls much these days isn’t a denial of that reality, it’s that that reality makes it fairly boring. Plenty of smart people are on that beat, as it were, so no need for me to duplicate their work (and likely do it worse).
What is interesting is all the discourse around this basic truth – whether they’ll get wiped out, whether they’ll flirt with 20%, whether the NDP might finally get a rise from this – but what’s most fascinating is what I’d do if I was suddenly given the keys to the car. It’s a valuable intellectual exercise mostly because of what it dismisses, at least for me. The idea of a Trudeau leadership change is mostly absurd because the only place this government is doing well is in Quebec. Yank the Quebecer for Freeland and Anand and you might gain back in Ontario, but you might gain back with JT anyways, and you’re likely fucked in Quebec without him.
On the policy front, anyone who is selling an easy solution back to the top of the polls is patently lying to you. Rishi Sunak has been running what you might call the One Quick Trick government – every week there’s some new entirely invented dividing line drawn to try and engineer a rally in the polls. First it was his 5 Pledges and then it was some tough on immigration shit and then there was some stopping the War On Motorists crap and then on Thursday night the Tories lost two of their 60 safest seats. Anyone who claims that Trudeau can press a magic button and solve his ills is peddling snake oil.
So, what can they do? Conceding there’s no silver bullet in either the personnel or policy ranks diminishes the sexiness of this column, but it also makes clear the path for the government. It involves letting Sean Fraser keep bullying municipalities and provinces into Building Some Fucking Housing, obviously, but it also might involve a fairly radical change at the heart of the government.
Is it time to consider life without Chrystia Freeland?
I’m not sure I believe this, but the case for Freeland exiting as Finance Minister – presumably with some cushy international job lined up – is more persuasive than I thought it would be. She did what the Liberals wanted from a Finance Minister when Bill Morneau resigned/was fired/stepped in front of the train before he was pushed, but since the election, the government has tried to chart what could be best described as a no man’s land fiscal path – not sufficiently radical or redistributive for people to notice the help, not sufficiently austere that she was able to stem the tide of rate hikes.
The fact that this has been a failure is apparent – the Liberals are in the mid 20s in the polls and they’re ditching their fiscal strategy for an austerity 2024 budget to throttle demand in the economy and induce rate cuts – but for some reason there’s been little focus on the Finance Minister who’s having to ditch her entire strategy. In terms of the Liberals offering someone as a symbol or a totem, there’s very few people it can be. You can’t move Joly during a war and during whatever the fuck we’re calling the Israel-Hamas situation, Anand’s only been a prominent figure for so long, and Trudeau isn’t going anywhere, come hell or high water it seems.
Having Freeland deliver the punishing austerity budget this government needs to deliver and riding off into the sunset – allowing the next Finance Minister (Anand) to ride the benefits of the rate cuts that would follow while also having some added fiscal room for a sweetener in the 2025 budget to go into the election with. It’s not a guaranteed election winner, but as far as a strategy where all the parts fit together, it seems plausible enough.
Nothing else the government really has feels like it could be plausible enough on its own. Governments can get lucky – either by Opposition failure or by more benign economic conditions than expected. Whether this government thinks they can win from here without a material shift in their strategy is unclear – I know they wanted the summer shuffle to be their last shuffle before the election, but that was when their deficit was at worst 10 points and on average around 7, not in the mid teens.
If the government insists on running this government to the end, then it’s both their right and not necessarily the wrong move. But everything else the government could think about doing short of something truly radical won’t be enough. Even if the Liberals imposed draconian limits on immigration and foreign students, that would merely hold rents where they are because of the people who have already come, and it would also be (not incorrectly) seen as the LPC throwing immigrants under the bus to make up for their fuckups elsewhere, which could have generational impacts.
Nobody seriously believes the housing crisis can be fixed by the next election, even if Sean Fraser is carrying this government on his back these days, and there’s no other issue with the cutthrough for the Liberals to use as a lever to turn back the exodus of the young and socially liberal voters they’ve lost. And so, it comes back to Freeland.
It’s also fair to point out that Freeland has been wounded, at least anecdotally, by the whole clapping in Parliament for a Nazi incident. Of all the people in the House who know that fighting the Russians in World War II meant you were on the wrong side, she knows. I am usually anti-anecdote, but I know more than a few Liberals who wanted her as the next leader who are now looking for anyone else. In full disclosure, that includes myself.
I know that this will be controversial, and I don’t love the notion that the solution might be to dump the high profile woman in response to collective failure (though I think Anand should replace her and am starting to think Anand is the right next leader), but I can’t escape the idea that the government’s next term might come from a change of deputy. Freeland’s exit, if well timed, could be the thing that saves the government – or at least saves them from a much worse defeat – and it would also enable her to deliver the budget this country needs in 2024.
Whether the Liberals will consider this is beyond me – I have my doubts, but who knows. All I do know is that the road to salvation might run through a deeply uncomfortable conversation between the PM and his Deputy. Let’s hope they at least consider it.