It’s no real surprise the Liberal Atlantic premiers failed to kick up a fuss when the Justin Trudeau Liberals confirmed they’ll let stand the Harper government’s damaging changes in health and equalization transfers. Partisan considerations certainly come into play, although the phenomenon of provincial Liberals confronting their federal counterparts is not unknown in Canadian history. But in the present circumstances the mood of cooperation that pervades relations between Ottawa and the Atlantic Provinces has an added dimension – Justin’s Trudeau’s popularity in the region and the impact of that popularity on the political fortunes of at least some of those premiers.
It is clear from looking at public polling between 2011 and 2015 that the fortunes of provincial Liberals in Atlantic Canada and Justin Trudeau are closely tied together. The poll aggregator, ThreeHundredEight.com, provides a record of month-by-month polling data. Sifting through it shows the profound impact that Trudeau’s ascension to the Liberal leadership had on Liberal support in Atlantic Canada. At the same time, quarterly reports by Halifax polling company Corporate Research Associates (CRA) show the positive effect this rise in federal Liberal support under Trudeau had on provincial Liberals.
To start at the beginning, Liberals were at low ebb following the May 2011 federal election. They were reduced to third party status in Ottawa and, with the exception of Prince Edward Island, out of power provincially in the Atlantic region. A CRA poll conducted weeks after the 2011 federal vote put the governing Liberals at 50% on the Island, but hovering near 20% in the other three Atlantic Provinces.
The Liberals’ national picture began to improve in the fall of 2012, with the news that Justin Trudeau would run for leadership of the party. In the spring of 2012 the New Democrats had been slightly ahead in national polls, maintaining a bounce that began with the selection of Leader Tom Mulcair in March of that year. The Liberals were a distant third at about 20% support through most of 2012, but that changed abruptly in October as Trudeau officially launched his leadership campaign. The ThreeHundredEight.com aggregate of the only two national polls conducted that month showed a three-way race, with less than the margin of error separating the NDP and the Liberals for second place.
Love at first sight
The results for federal Liberals in Atlantic Canada were even more dramatic. In September, 2012, the aggregate of five polls had put the NDP at 39.5%, with the Conservatives and Liberals virtually tied at 28.2% and 27.7% respectively. Three months later a series of national polls put the Liberals in the lead and the NDP slipping badly.
- A poll by EKOS conducted between Nov. 20 and Dec. 3 had the Liberals at 36% in Atlantic Canada, followed by the Conservatives at 31% and the NDP at 26%.
- A Leger poll (Dec. 3-6) had the Liberals at 39%, the NDP at 24% and the Conservatives at 17%;
- A poll by Abacus (Dec. 7-8) had the Liberals at 45%, the NDP at 24% and the Conservatives at Conservatives at 20%.
As the numbers above show, Atlantic Canadians’ love affair with Trudeau began months before he became leader. When that ascension did take place in April, 2013, the bond was further cemented. Aggregation of four polls conducted in April showed the Liberals at 53% support in Atlantic Canada, with the Conservatives and NDP around 20% each. The Trudeau Liberal popularity remained close to or above that level for the next two years, during which time new Liberal provincial governments were elected in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, while the Liberals in Newfoundland were just a writ-drop away from taking power.
Trudeau was not the only factor contributing to the provincial Liberal surge. In Newfoundland, bizarre internecine squabbling by the governing Conservatives and the erstwhile poll-topping NDP practically handed the election to the Liberals. In Nova Scotia, the Dexter government was running into trouble even before the Trudeau wave washed over the region’s body politic. And on Prince Edward Island, CRA quarterly reports show the provincial Liberals – comfortably ahead since at least 2009 – doing ok without Trudeau.
However a comparison of CRA’s quarterly reports from September 2012, just before Trudeau launched his campaign, and nine months later, after he became leader, is revealing.
- In Nova Scotia provincial Liberals went from 41% to 45%;
- In New Brunswick they went from 32% to 41%;
- In Newfoundland from 22% to 41%;
- In PEI from 42% to 52%
And in the only poll that counts, provincial Liberals rolled up four straight post-Trudeau provincial election victories: Nova Scotia in October 2013; New Brunswick in September 2014; PEI in May 2015 and Newfoundland in November 2015.
Boots on the ground
The Trudeau-led Liberal contribution to provincial parties went beyond merely boosting the Liberal brand in the region. Trudeau and his operatives took an active part in the three Maritime provincial campaigns, with at least two campaign appearances in Nova Scotia and one in Prince Edward Island. In the New Brunswick campaign, Trudeau and company were practically joined at the hip with Brian Gallant and the provincial Liberals. The provincial campaign co-chair was Trudeau ally (and now cabinet minister) Dominic LeBlanc, and the party approached New Brunswick as a testing ground for its national campaign organization.
Combine that history of close co-operation with an influx of new Liberal MPs and staffers from the region who owe their jobs to Trudeau’s coat-tails (hello Darren Fisher, Andy Fillmore and the guy who beat Peter Stoffer) and you have the makings of one big happy Liberal family, loath to make an issue of something as arcane as transfer payments. But things do change.
Trudeau has been even closer to the Ontario Liberal government than he has been with any Maritime Liberal regime. To show his support for Premier Kathleen Wynne and her crew he took the unusual step last month of campaigning in a provincial byelection in Whitby-Oshawa, a seat previously held by unsuccessful Ontario Conservative leadership candidate Christine Elliott.
The federal equivalent riding, once held by Elliott’s late husband, Harper Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, went Liberal in the federal election. Wynne, with Trudeau’s help, wanted to repeat that success as a poke in the eye of Patrick Brown, the new Conservative leader who won the job over Elliott. The plan bombed, as the Conservatives held the seat with 53% of the vote, more than twice Elliott’s margin of victory. The Trudeau effect was not nearly enough to overcome the sinking popularity of the Wynne government.
(Coming soon: Liberal Land Part 3: Looking further into the Ontario connection.)
In Part 1 of Liberal Land, I took a swipe at the Atlantic Premiers for combining government business with party fund-raising at last month’s meeting with federal cabinet ministers in Fredericton. Well, mea culpa. It turns out that everyone is either selling access to politicians or piggybacking party fund-raising on public events. With regard to the former, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley took heat recently for being the guest of honour at a $10,000 a plate fund-raiser put on in Toronto by the Ontario NDP. As for using public events to raise party funds, the Trudeau Liberals showed remarkable inventiveness. They conducted a draw on a trip for two to Washington to coincide with the Prime Minister’s visit last week. (Apparently the winners didn’t get to go to dinner, were allowed to hang around places where they may run into Trudeau). A lot of this tacky stuff would go away, at least at the federal level, if we restored the public financing for political parties abolished by the Harper government a few years ago.