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Opinion | To hold off Pierre Poilievre, Justin Trudeau has to counter a familiar — and effective — playbook

“Everything feels broken,” laments Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre each time he’s in front of a microphone.

“Justin,” as he calls Prime Minister Trudeau, has made everything worse, he says. From rising inflation to soaring rents, to opioid deaths and to the wave of violent crimes on the TTC. Canadians, Poilievre says, “deserve better than this. And better is what they will get.”

If this sounds familiar, it is. Poilievre has borrowed from Trudeau’s successful 2015 campaign slogan “better is always possible.” He’s also appropriated from David Cameron, the former Conservative leader in the United Kingdom whose “Broken Britain” campaign saw the Tories successfully argue Labour’s big government promise had failed to deliver.

Poilievre follows the same playbook, hoping for the same result.

It may be tempting to dismiss his over-the-top rhetoric. Liberals may want to argue things are better for a lot of Canadians. That the Canada Child Benefit made a big dent in poverty rates, that $10-a-day daycare is a life changer for families with young children, that publicly-funded dental care will offer many a better quality of life.

But if Trudeau wants to remain prime minister, what he should really focus on, when MPs return to the House of Commons Monday, is making the case that government works. He needs to demonstrate that the federal government is competent; that things run smoothly, ethically, and fairly; and that problems are addressed and rectified swiftly.

It sounds simple, but it’s not.

It’s a tall order, especially for a government entering the sophomore year of its third mandate with an ambitious opposition leader driven to demonstrate that things are not working.

Add to that the fact that Trudeau’s caucus is increasingly restless (when there are diminishing chances of upward mobility, i.e. cabinet appointments, MPs suddenly seem to find the need to unburden themselves with criticisms); that a recession is on the horizon, and that a likely strike by public servants may impact the delivery of services (though the union’s demands may spur government sympathy).

There are also several upcoming committee probes that will cause the government headaches and call into question its capabilities.

One study focuses on Liberals’ close relationship with the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and its former global managing director Dominic Barton (who later served as Canada’s ambassador to China). Another looks into the government’s ability to keep the trains running on time, focusing on a holiday disaster that saw some Via Rail passengers stuck on board for 18 hours and thousands of airline passengers stranded over Christmas. The Canadian Transportation Agency, which handles complaints, faces a 33,000 case backlog — leaving travellers in the lurch, a point Poilievre is happy to repeat.

And then, there are the investigations into the multimillion-dollar fiasco that was the ArriveCan App, where Ottawa paid middlemen millions more than it needed to; on Canada-China relations and the discovery of illegal secret police stations in Canadian cities run by Chinese authorities apparently without consequences; and on the processing of veterans benefits — where several veterans reported they were encouraged, by a now-fired civil servant, to end their own lives through medical assistance in dying (MAID) — cases the minister recently referred to the RCMP.

There is also a committee probe on women and girls in sport which will likely get more attention after former sport minister Kirsty Duncan accused her government, on CBC Friday, of pushing back against her efforts to stop abuse.

If that isn’t enough, last week the head of the Canada Revenue Agency told MPs it is not worth the government’s time to chase after the more than $15 billion in pandemic wage benefits that the auditor general flagged as likely having gone to ineligible recipients. For workers who returned their Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) overpayments and those who played by the rules, this announcement that Ottawa plans to let some companies cheat without any consequences shows the system is clearly unjust, unfair, and yes, broken.

Trudeau’s vision has always been that government is a force for good. Since 2015, the Liberal leader has advocated for bigger government, for more investments to make the country and its people healthier and stronger.

Poilievre believes the opposite. Whether it’s by attacking “gatekeepers” that pick winners and losers, or pointing out the failures of the state to rectify social problems, he’s making the case for smaller government.

The Conservatives’ desire to make the next election a change election rests on the assumption that Poilievre can show that the status quo isn’t working — and he’ll be helped by an economy that will likely leave many more on the outside looking in.

It’s up to Trudeau to show that he’s not only not making problems worse, but that the promise of big government can actually deliver.

Althia Raj is an Ottawa-based national politics columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @althiaraj


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