Donald Trump is the wild card – the joker, if you like – in Canadian politics this season.
In Ontario, heading to the polls on June 7, Trump is a prominent feature in Premier Kathleen Wynne’s struggle for survival. Her success or failure will rest in part on her ability to persuade Ontarians that Doug Ford, the new Progressive Conservative leader, is another Trump – ill-informed, unprincipled, ignorant in the ways of the province and harbouring a social conservative agenda that would appall moderate voters, if only they knew.
In Ottawa, where an election is still 18 months off (Oct. 21, 2019), Trump, the disruptor, lurks in the wings. He could prove to be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s worst nightmare – or, possibly, his most useful foil.
Let’s start with Ontario. The political community across Canada will be focussed on Wynne-Ford for the next eight weeks. Everyone – practitioners, pollsters and pundits – wants to know whether Ford’s startling victory in the PC leadership a month ago and his evident popularity since then is an aberration, or whether it is a warning that Trump-style populism is securing a beachhead in Ontario from which it will spread into other provinces, much as it is spreading in Europe.
Wynne’s strategy is three-pronged. The first is to generate fear of a Ford government by attacking the leader and his ideas, or lack of them. He is a municipal politician with no grasp of provincial affairs, heading a party that no longer has a platform, but does have a black hole in its revenue projections. He intends to cut government spending, but won’t say where. He has a hidden agenda, which is why he doesn’t want a busload of inquisitive journalists tagging along with him on the campaign trail. That’s the ugly first prong of the Liberal strategy.
The second prong is to ignore the NDP so that voters will focus on the real enemy: Ford.
The trickier third prong is to generate warm feelings about the Liberals. Wynne knows she is personally unpopular. She also knows that, after 15 years of Liberal government, Ontarians are looking for change.
There’s not much she can do to change either of those impressions. But what she can do is to work around them by tailoring election promises to target specific slices of the electorate.
For example, for those who don’t have dental or prescription drug coverage there’s a new $500 million insurance plan. For parents with young children, there’s free pre-school day care. For students, free post-secondary tuition. For seniors who want to remain in their homes, there’s new money for home care and such household expenses as grass-cutting and snow-shovelling – and on and on. Plus more funding to build new hospitals and upgrade old ones, more for a variety of social assistance programs for the poor and disabled, and even money to increase pension benefits for former Sears Canada employees.
The message: Liberals care about your struggles, even if Ford and his tight-fisted ilk don’t.
Wynne is gambling that these expensive goodies will be irresistible election bait to voters who realize they will never get them from Ford, just as Americans know they will never get them from Trump.
As to Ottawa, the Trump wild card complicates the Canada-United States relationship. For Trudeau’s Liberals, it means considerable second-guessing – What does the President really mean? Will he mean the same thing tomorrow? – and much careful handling.
There was a point last week when Trump seemed suddenly to warm to NAFTA, which he previously described as the worst trade agreement ever negotiated and vowed to tear up. Does he really want a new agreement now? Does he perhaps feel that, if he is going to do battle with China and Russia on the trade and diplomatic fronts, it would be smart to make nice to old friends like Canada and Mexico?
Or is it a bluff? Is he toying with his friends to keep them quiet while he works over the big boys? Has anything really changed?
Obviously, Trudeau would welcome an early NAFTA agreement, if it came on acceptable terms. But it would not be the end of the world if Trump reverts to earlier form and makes impossible demands or calls off negotiations.
For a prime minister who will soon be facing re-election, to be seen standing up to Donald Trump might have a certain attraction.