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Opinion: Post-election road looks rockier for prime minister

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign stop in Markham, Ont., on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

When we hear a politician was proud to take the high road, he has gone low.

When a prime minister says he has a clear mandate, it is anything but.

Notwithstanding what he said and was said about him Monday, more likely today Justin Trudeau is salving his wounds, looking for culprits, and perhaps gazing in the mirror to find one for his Seinfeld Election – a show about nothing – that nearly self-sabotaged his leadership and took the party with it.

The eerie election result was a tape loop, a time trip transporting us back five weeks, the Groundhog Day of votes without the romantic movie ending.

If there is any high road – as his mother repeatedly insisted Monday night he had travelled – it is Trudeau’s to find. His campaign had to sow division to galvanize his following, and it was sad that he chose confused and fearful – or blithely unconcerned – Canadians on an issue as threatening as the pandemic as his hill to live and die on. It was a successful wedge in salvaging his government, but it effectively set the stage for Trudeau’s sunset if he cannot heal what he has injured.

If there is any clear mandate, it’s to get to work, to use the same intensity of self-preservation he displayed in the final three campaign weeks to tackle the tasks of the fourth wave today and the runway toward record spending ahead. The homework has quickly piled up while he was electioneering.

Trudeau ran on his record of managing the first, second and third waves of a ceaseless coronavirus. He could do worse now than to demonstrate compassion than to demonize the opposition about the pandemic emergency in Alberta. The enmity with a contrite Premier Jason Kenney needs to be set aside to save lives, and Trudeau needs to treat the crisis there as if it were happening in his home province.

Trudeau asserted that he needed this election because of parliamentary dysfunction. He was never believed, but there is nothing that can be done now about the $610-million vanity play except to apply accountability to a prime minister.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole warned repeatedly Monday in his concession speech that another election is coming in 18 months – indeed, Trudeau suggested so only a few days ago. But the prime minister who insisted last April no election was coming this fall now needs to commit to cross-aisle collaboration, the “Team Canada” approach O’Toole said was planned but never executed on the pandemic.

To that end, Trudeau needs to develop a new narrative for a minority government with staying power. There was no new mandate needed in 2021 and there is nothing on the horizon to offer yet another opportunistic tilt at the windmill. The focus that Trudeau found in his early coronavirus leadership has to be the basis of this narrative. It would also help if he stopped throwing around money and find ways to be frugal, if that is at all possible.

The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh gained a couple of seats in the Commons, but he has to be careful not to overreach. His 27 or 28 seats in a 338-seat chamber are not a national endorsement for everything he espouses. He can push a progressive agenda – it seems even Conservatives were comfortable with that – but he is young enough that he will be around when the bills need to be paid and when he learns there are not enough Canadian billionaires to plunder.

Trudeau will need to have one of those long walks in the snow that his father took in 1984 to deliberate on his leadership, but he has hardly lost the nation yet and needn’t make his decision soon. But there will be pressure in his party to signal if he is going to fight to stay – and it would be a fight, even if many who would oppose his leadership are there because of his leadership.

What he will find in due course is that many of his ambitious plans eventually start costing money, that the money has to come from somewhere, and that the somewhere is almost always someone. In politics that is when larger numbers no longer like your objectives but find them objectionable, when your campaign is less about laying out a vision than defending it. Trudeau got a taste of that over the last five weeks, but it is nothing like what he would face next time.

The prime minister got a trillion-dollar free pass in the pandemic. Next election we could be counting nickels and dimes. He wriggled free of folly this time, but it’s hard to see if he would have that much of a fight in him next time. Or if his party or the country would approve.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.