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‘Justin Trudeau does not do shakeups’: Liberals tell rattled candidates to hold the course as campaign trail gets bumpy


‘Justin Trudeau does not do shakeups’: Liberals tell rattled candidates to hold the course as campaign trail gets bumpy

OTTAWA — Nobody’s ringing alarm bells at Liberal campaign headquarters but candidates going door to door and senior officials admit the start of the 2021 campaign is “tougher” than anticipated.

Afghanistan has emerged as a “challenging” and unpredictable factor in the campaign; early attempts to wedge the Conservatives on mandatory vaccinations, abortion and privatized health care haven’t “yet” gained the traction that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau might have hoped; and polls have tightened “even more” than Liberal campaign organizers expected.

Yet those running the national Liberal campaign are sending a clear message to any nervous candidates: Keep calm and campaign on. There is no plan to change strategy, to advance the timing of the platform drop, or to shift senior campaign staff.

“Justin Trudeau does not do shakeups,” said a senior Liberal official speaking on background. “That is not in his nature.”

That has not quelled questions among some candidates.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the Liberal incumbent in Beaches-East York, said he believes the national campaign should have articulated more clearly why Trudeau called the election. But he said he’s having no trouble getting that message across to voters in his canvassing.

Erskine-Smith said while the Liberal government did benefit from collaboration with opposition parties during the minority Parliament, the stretch from January to June was “the most broken I’ve witnessed in my six years of doing this.”

“We need to move forward on our agenda, especially as it relates to recovery (from the pandemic) … The election is Sept. 20, we’re going to get back to work, and that’s what you need to do, you need to send us back to work,” Erskine-Smith said.

“Do I want the national campaign to have better articulated that? Yes. Do I think we can articulate it locally and successfully? Yes.”

Incumbent Karina Gould, who has held two cabinet portfolios since her first election in 2015, admitted that the party needs to “focus the narrative” around the election but said there is ample time to do that — particularly with voters being less than tuned in during the early days.

“There’s still three and a half weeks left of the campaign and … that’s an eternity in politics,” Gould said.

She has a simple message for rookie candidates.

“The national conversation is going to be going on, and it’s an important one, and it matters. But your job is to stay focused,” said Gould, now looking to win her seat in Burlington for a third time.

“Go out there and talk to people in your community. Get to know them, understand the issues that matter to them, and demonstrate that you’re going to be a good representative. Your job is to just stay focused on the local election and do everything you can to win your seat in your riding.”

The Star granted anonymity to candidates who declined to be named in order to speak about their perspectives after 12 days on the hustings.

Two Liberal candidates seeking re-election accepted that any prospect of a runaway majority has faded, pointing to the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan as an issue that could sandbag the party as the race narrows.

“There’s a worry that that’s going to have an impact on the campaign. It’s a situation that I don’t think is necessarily attributable alone to the government, but of course, it’s playing out in the middle of an election and it’s probably not helpful,” said one.

A different Liberal candidate who declined to be named suggested a problem arises if Afghanistan is viewed by voters as a question of broader government competence.

But a senior Liberal official insisted, “I think the vast majority of people recognize there’s not one party, one country to blame,” suggesting most understand the crisis has been driven by the withdrawal of American forces and the speed of the Taliban resurgence that took all allies off-guard.

Two candidates suggested that when they were door knocking, Trudeau’s popularity isn’t high. One said it’s been necessary to put some distance between the local campaign and the national one.

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“I think you really have to make it about your brand,” the candidate said. “You can still both vote for me and hope that there’s someone else as prime minister, if that’s really your goal. So there has to be a lot of jockeying to make it about your own personal brand.”

Other candidates who have not previously won seats said they are neither anxious nor complacent.

“I don’t feel concern, but that doesn’t mean that I’m overly confident,” said one Ontario candidate.

Another rejected the idea that Canadians are displeased with the Liberals for calling an election during the pandemic, saying the issue has never come up on doorsteps, and while polling shouldn’t be ignored, there’s still time to turn things around.

“We are in week two of campaigning. We still have four weeks until election day. A lot can happen,” said the candidate, also from Ontario.

At Liberal headquarters, senior organizers privately acknowledge that week one was a challenge. “I think it was tougher than anticipated because of world events,” said the senior official speaking on background.

But the Liberal campaign feels that in week two, Trudeau delivered messages that will resonate with Canadians — with repetition — on health care, with a pledge to hire more doctors and nurses, on housing affordability, on taxing banks, and on financial relief for seniors, and said there are more “heavy hitters” to come. And they are not worried by “anti-vaxxer” protesters on the campaign trail.

A platform is expected before the two major consortium debates, and several officials insisted voters are not fully paying attention to the campaign — that they will only really tune in after Labour Day and the debates that follow.

So while some minor message adjustments have been made, there have been no big changes and none are contemplated.

Several senior Liberals shrugged off the noise from well-meaning party supporters and former organizers who are outside the campaign team.

“It’s natural to get nervous. It’s natural to worry that the ‘kids in short pants aren’t being smart about stuff,’” said one insider. “But what I’d say is, our pants might be short, but that’s just because we’ve put on too much weight in their old age. This is a very experienced team, it’s a calm team that is going to get the job done.”

If the early narrative that the Liberal campaign has stumbled out of the gate has distracted Spadina-Fort York candidate Kevin Vuong, he’s not showing it. Instead, the rookie politician is sticking very closely to the party’s script, as he attempts to keep the riding for his party in what could be a close battle with NDP candidate Norm Di Pasquale.

“I think everyone recognizes that (the 2019 election) was a long time ago … There was no pandemic. And there’s a lot of uncertainty as we look ahead,” Vuong said.

Still, a senior campaign official admitted that incumbent candidates are not as “nervous” as those who are running for the first time, or who have not won before.

“When the polls do tighten up, then you get a lot of people calling, giving ideas and suggestions and wanting to make sure that we consider every possible angle as we move forward.”

However, that insider insisted, “It’s not like 2019, where we were feeling, especially … when blackface unfolded, the prime minister was on the defensive. ” Heading into that campaign, after the SNC-Lavalin affair and the loss of two high-profile former ministers, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, “it was just a very different mood.”

Now, the Liberals believe the campaign remains “on the offensive.”

“Our strategy is built on the 2015 narrative, on supporting the middle class and helping Canadians, but we’re doing it now in the context of the post-pandemic and saying we need a mandate how to rebuild an economy for everyone.”

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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