Justin Trudeau has a communication problem

With the way the Liberal government keeps climbing down on key issues lately, you might think they’ve suddenly become afraid of heights. From their signature gun control legislation to proposed changes to medical assistance in dying and the purchase of F-35 jets, they’ve had to give ground on a bunch of key files and issues.

What really ought to have them scared, though, is the fall they’ve already taken in the polls, one that has them further behind the Conservatives than at any point since their 2015 election victory. If they don’t get their act together quickly, the thing that will end up breaking their fall is the political pavement — and a Pierre Poilievre majority.

This isn’t because of their policies and priorities, mind you. While they were slow off the mark in responding to inflation and the pressure it’s put on household budgets in Canada (and, it bears repeating, around the world), their focus on health care, climate change and economic growth remains broadly popular with Canadians. Instead, it’s because they seem incapable of communicating their ideas effectively, which allows their political opponents to define them first.

Nowhere is this more obvious than on the climate front, where the Trudeau Liberals consistently pair ambitious policies with atrocious communications. Witness the fiasco that is the just transition legislation, a relatively benign attempt to help workers manage the inevitable decline in the oil and gas industry that has instead become a rallying cry for Alberta Premier Danielle Smith.

That’s just the most recent data point here. Their inability to draw a clear, straight line between the carbon tax and the rebate it funds, for example, has allowed Conservatives to confuse Canadians about both its cost and purpose. The decision last year to switch from a tax deduction to a direct deposit helped, but even there it was executed in a way that made it hard to understand for many Canadians. As a result, there are probably millions of Canadians who either don’t know they get carbon tax rebates or refuse to believe it.

This is a weird problem for a government that’s led by a former drama teacher and has a former journalist as its finance minister.

Both Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland are gifted communicators, and the government they lead should be good at telling the story of its achievements and priorities. Instead, they create narrative gaps and informational vacuums that allow conspiracies to flourish and force them to play defence. On everything from gun control to climate policies around fertilizer use, this approach is costing them valuable time and political capital.

This wasn’t a problem early on for Trudeau’s Liberals. His “sunny ways” mentality and the suite of policies he brought forward, from electoral reform to Indigenous reconciliation, were a refreshing change from the negativity and incrementalism that had come to define the Harper government. But after a few years and a failure to deliver on those ambitious ideas, the Trudeau brand became far less potent. And while the revelation of his blackface photos didn’t cost him the 2019 election, it did knock him and his government off their axis — perhaps, permanently.

Federal governments in Canada tend to die of old age, and that’s particularly true of Liberal ones. Time will tell whether the Trudeau government’s current bout of political illness is terminal or merely seasonal. But if there is a path to recovery here, it will have to include a more deliberate effort to tell the government’s story properly.

As Evan Scrimshaw wrote recently, “The Liberals have a good record in government — the Child Benefit, the child-care deals, COVID, and now the likely dental and pharma deals in this Parliament. The problems are real — the ethics record and housing, namely — but there’s a good record to sell. The problem is, they defend the record in pieces, not in the whole.”

The Trudeau Liberals are at their lowest ebb since winning the 2015 election. If they want to win the next one, they’ll have to stop making mistakes — and start telling their own story better. Columnist @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver

They also need to stop playing defence so often. Trudeau may be a counter-puncher by nature, something to which Sen. Patrick Brazeau can attest, but that strategy doesn’t work as well outside the boxing ring. That’s doubly true in our current social media environment, where Conservatives are able to create and sustain their own narratives — and, at times, their own realities.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Trudeau here, despite the Liberal Party’s recent poll numbers. He continues to be blessed with opponents who appear determined to keep him in office, whether it’s Jagmeet Singh’s ongoing attempt to mimic Poilievre’s populism or Poilievre’s own gift for losing friends and alienating people. But while that formula has yielded two consecutive minority governments, not losing isn’t the same as winning.

If Trudeau wants the time he needs to pour concrete on his government’s legislative achievements, he’ll have to do a much better job of telling Canadians about them.

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