Are the Liberals shopping for a new leader?
The Trudeau government’s troubles arising out of its close relationship with WE Charity keep growing.
This past spring, the WE organization entered into a sole-sourced agreement with the government to manage nearly a billion dollars of public money. Then, Canadians found out WE had paid the prime minister’s mother and brother to make speeches, and that the finance minister’s daughter worked for WE.
WE pulled out of the agreement and reimbursed the government for any money it had received, while both PM Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau apologized for failing to recuse themselves when the cabinet made its decision on WE.
But the bad news kept on coming.
First, we learned that the agreement was not with the principal charity, WE, founded by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger in the 1990s, but with a recently formed spinoff organization, which has a very thin resumé of accomplishments.
Then, on Tuesday, July 22, Morneau revealed that he and his family had received more than $40,000 worth of paid travel from WE, which he only, belatedly, repaid last week.
Add to that the swirling concerns about the way WE manages its affairs — mixing profit with charity and holding tens of millions of dollars in prime real estate in Toronto — and you have the recipe for a political disaster for the governing Liberals.
Nobody wants to force an election
For the time being, the government seems to be safe, however, despite the opposition parties’ rhetorical outrage. Nobody in Parliament seems to have the slightest interest in bringing down this minority government in a time of pandemic.
In fact, just as the WE scandal was reaching a boiling point, all parties in the House of Commons put partisan interests aside to quickly enact new government COVID-19 spending measures. Those measures include an extension of the wage subsidy, which enables struggling businesses to keep their staff working, and funds to aid Canadians living with disabilities.
While Charlie Angus of the NDP — to choose one opposition party — was effectively eviscerating Trudeau and Morneau for their ethical lapses, his leader, Jagmeet Singh, was taking credit for a number of the new spending measures the Liberals adopted.
On the Liberals’ agreement to increase support for disabled Canadians, Singh explained his party’s role this way:
“The earlier proposal by the government, if you recall, would only help about 40 per cent of Canadians living with disabilities. We were able to push them to include more help to more Canadians living with disabilities, which gets the number of a majority of Canadians that live with disabilities. It’s still not enough but we’re going to continue fighting.”
On the new wage subsidy provisions Singh boasted that “we broadened the scope of the wage subsidy program so that more people would get the help they need to get employed or to stay at their jobs.”
The Conservatives said that in exchange for their support for fast passage of the new spending measures they got the government to agree to continued sittings, throughout the summer, for the Commons’ Canada-China and public safety committees.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet had been most vociferous in calling for Trudeau to step down because of the WE scandal, and yet the Bloc was the first party out of the gates to offer support for the Liberals’ new spending measures, without, apparently, any conditions.
Opposition parties sincerely believe it is their role to hold the government accountable over its management of the WE fiasco — and, naturally, they also hope to gain political advantage from it. But they’re obviously not ready to push the crisis to its limit and vote non-confidence in the government.
Some Liberals are losing confidence in their leader
Indeed, if there is any threat to Trudeau’s leadership, it comes from his own party. A good many Liberals are growing weary of the prime minister’s questionable judgment, and of the — at best, inadequate — advice given by the members of his inner circle.
Disgruntled Liberals could not blame Trudeau’s advisers for the vacation he and his family took at the Aga Khan’s private Bahamas island, in the winter of 2016-2017, for which the ethics commissioner rebuked him.
But many Liberals were, privately at least, extremely unhappy with the entire management of the SNC-Lavalin affair prior to the last election. There did not seem to be any adults in the room when the prime minister and key cabinet ministers made some fateful choices, they said. They attributed the flaws in that process to Trudeau’s shunning of seasoned political counsellors in favour of his youth brigade.
In the end, there was no effort at a coup before the 2019 election. Since then, and especially during most of the pandemic, the consensus is that Trudeau had been doing just about everything right. Opinion polls certainly bore out that view.
The entirely self-inflicted WE affair has severely shaken many Liberals’ confidence in Trudeau. Some among them are starting to talk about getting themselves a new leader before the next election.
And who could that be?
Everybody mentions Chrystia Freeland, currently deputy prime minister. She has somehow managed to distance herself from the WE decision, even though she was sitting at the table when cabinet took that decision.
Few would doubt Freeland’s intelligence and knowledge. She was a rookie in politics when she took over former interim leader Bob Rae’s Toronto seat in a byelection before the 2015 vote that swept the Liberals back to power, but has come a long way since then. Her greatest success was in quarterbacking the renegotiation of the NAFTA agreement with the dysfunctional and irrational Trump administration.
Freeland is difficult to categorize, ideologically, and does not seem to belong to either the more progressive or more small-c conservative wing of the party. In her previous roles at trade and global affairs and her current role as, in effect, the government’s chief operating officer, she has taken a managerial approach.
She does not give the impression that she has any deeply held ideals or that there is any great goal she wants to accomplish for Canada — even as the pandemic forces many to reconsider their ideas of economic, environmental and social justice.
As a leader, Freeland would inspire confidence, but would not likely excite.
There are others in the cabinet and the Liberal universe who might be interested in the leadership, should the opportunity present itself.
Among those are Navdeep Bains, minister of industry and science, and Catherine McKenna, who had been environment minister and now heads the big-spending infrastructure ministry.
Current treasury board minister, Jean-Yves Duclos, an economist, might be convinced to run, if for no other reason than to have a Quebec candidate. He would more logically fit in the finance minister job, should the current minister, Bill Morneau, decide to fall on his sword.
A saviour from outside?
There is another name, however, someone outside of politics (for the time being), who does actually excite Liberal insiders: Mark Carney.
The last time the Liberals chose a non-politician they got Michael Ignatieff, and it turned out to be a disaster. But Ignatieff was a lifelong intellectual with zero managerial or leadership experience — and he had cozied up to the George W. Bush regime in the U.S. He supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for instance.
Carney headed both the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, which gives him well more than a decade in senior managerial leadership roles.
At the Bank of Canada, he took bold action during the crisis of 2008, when, still new to the job, he slashed the interest rate by half a point to help make credit more available to a floundering economy. He was ahead of the curve then. His European colleagues were still raising rates.
Recently, Carney has moved somewhat to the progressive side of the political field, working on climate change for the United Nations. More important, he has written tantalizingly about how the current pandemic has made it necessary for us to radically rethink our ideas of equality, fairness, opportunity and of the sacrosanct market economy itself.
Carney outlined some of his thoughts in an article for The Economist magazine in April. A good deal of what he had to say is tantamount to heresy in the world of investment bankers, where he cut his teeth.
“We have been moving from a market economy to a market society,” Carney wrote. “Increasingly, to be valued, an asset or activity has to be in a market. For example, Amazon is one of the world’s most valuable companies, yet the Amazon region appears on no ledger until it is stripped of its foliage, and converted to farmland … In this crisis, we know we need to act as an interdependent community, not independent individuals, so the values of economic dynamism and efficiency have been joined by those of solidarity, fairness, responsibility and compassion.”
Carney is a banker and an economist, and so one could not expect him to abandon ideas of “efficiency.”
But when he evokes solidarity and compassion, Carney opens the door to a far more interventionist, even socialistic approach to governing than we would expect from a one-time denizen of the Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs.
He just might be a game changing leader for the beleaguered Liberals.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.