Durham byelection: what’s ahead for the Liberal Party? | Burrard Strategy

Durham byelection: what’s ahead for the Liberal Party?

Burrard Strategy

April 17, 2024

By Mark Marissen

Principal, Burrard Strategy

No one expected the Liberals to win in Durham this week, but the decisive margin for the Conservative’s parachute candidate over a local city councilor in this Tory riding was a significant milestone.

Byelections rarely benefit the government, but they can certainly be a good wake up call.

Federal Liberals have some serious soul-searching to do.

The Durham byelection results reflect the general trends in the polls, almost all of which have been nothing but bad news for Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberal Party.

How should Liberals respond?

Do they call for Trudeau to retire, and choose a new leader to take on Poilievre?  

Or do they step up their game if Justin Trudeau follows in the footsteps of his father in 1979, and decides to stick it out? 

As they say, a week can be an eternity in politics.

The next election is scheduled for October 2025, and by that time, the political dynamics could be sharply different from today.

History is an interesting guide here, and does not provide easy answers.

Let’s start with the idea of a new leader.  Changing leaders can be risky – sometimes the change can expose fundamental problems, and other times it can reinvigorate a tired party brand.  The best examples are former Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell in 1993 and former BC Premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark in 2010/11.  

The other option is for Justin Trudeau to follow in the footsteps of his father in 1979, and to keep going full-steam ahead.

Let’s examine these two options:

OPTION # 1:  REPLACING THE LEADER

  1. Brian Mulroney replaced by Kim Campbell

Canadian public opinion polls – 1988-1993

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Opinion_polling_for_the_1993_Canadian_federal_election.svg

After becoming the only Conservative Prime Minister to win two majorities in Canadian history, Brian Mulroney and his party were polling in the mid-teens for several years before he resigned in early 1993.  To put this in context, his numbers were much worse than Justin Trudeau’s are today.

At first, it looked like Mulroney’s resignation was just what the doctor ordered for the Progressive Conservative Party.

The new leader, Kim Campbell, looked like she could be a breath of fresh air.

Within days of winning the leadership, she found herself 17% ahead of Jean Chretien in a Gallup poll asking who would make the best prime minister.

When she dropped the writ, her party was tied with Jean Chretien’s Liberals.

But as the campaign unfolded, she wasn’t that great on the campaign trail and she could not escape responsibility for everything that people hated about Mulroney’s government.  

She tragically went down to an historic defeat: two seats, and the end of the Progressive Conservative Party.  

The Tories couldn’t have done worse if Mulroney, an epic campaigner, stayed at his post.  

Perhaps Mulroney shouldn’t have resigned!

Kim Campbell’s defeat was a prime example of the adage “campaigns matter”.

  1. Gordon Campbell replaced by Christy Clark

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_British_Columbia_general_election#/media/File:BC_provincial_polling_since_the_2009_election.png

The situation with former BC Premier Gordon Campbell’s resignation was somewhat similar to Brian Mulroney’s.

His party was in a slightly better position (more like Trudeau’s Liberals now) but Campbell was at a mere 9% personal approval rating just prior to resigning. 

The good news was that the BC Liberals had a lot more time left in their term – close to what Trudeau’s Liberals have left in their term today.

Christy Clark, who successfully sold herself as an “outsider” after being out of politics for 5 years, won the subsequent leadership campaign, but faced serious headwinds in her first two years as the unelected Premier.

The consensus amongst the chattering classes was that NDP leader Adrian Dix was a shoo-in to be elected Premier in 2013, to the point that Dix was so confident himself that he made pre-election announcements about who he would hire for his new head of the public service!

The consensus today is that Poilievre has already won. The same overwhelming consensus existed in favour of a future “Premier Dix” between 2011 and 2013.

What no one expected was how much this dynamic would put Dix on the defensive, and Clark on the offensive.

No one was holding Clark to account because she was “already dead”.

This allowed her to campaign more like an upstart leader of the opposition.

When the writ was issued, the BC Liberals were 20 points behind.

The following four-week campaign became more of a referendum on “Premier Dix” and his involvement in past NDP scandals than it was about Premier Clark or the BC Liberal Party.

Clark won a historic victory, substantially growing her majority, once again proving that campaigns matter.

The parallels with Dix and Poilievre are interesting, given that they were/are both frontrunners who also happened to be partisan pitbulls from previously unpopular governments (Glen Clark’s and Stephen Harper’s).  It’s surprising that the federal Liberals are not making this point more starkly about Poilievre to date.  The BC Liberals were ruthless about this with Dix.

OPTION #2:  STAYING ON

Pierre Trudeau replaced by Pierre Trudeau

Liberals could also go with what they know, regardless of how challenging that may be.

Keeping Justin Trudeau as leader could be less risky than asking him to quit.  He could be replaced by another Kim Campbell if Liberals aren’t careful.

The best example to look back on is probably 1979.

Pierre Trudeau stayed on for the 1979 election and was defeated by Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark, who won a minority government. 

Justin’s father then quit as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, but not long afterwards, the opportunity to depose Joe Clark’s government in the House of Commons came before any leadership vote to replace the Liberal leader could take place.

After defeating the Conservatives in the House of Commons in a non-confidence vote, the Liberal caucus and backroom leadership successfully drafted the resigned Pierre Trudeau to come back to his post.

Pierre Trudeau then led Liberals back to power and began his most important years as Prime Minister, fighting the separatists in the 1980 referendum and bringing in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Trudeau was replaced by Trudeau!

If Justin Trudeau could find a way to hold Conservatives to a minority like his father did, he could give Poilievre an opportunity to govern until voters actually have a chance to see what he’s all about. Then pull the plug on him!

It can be argued that Pierre Trudeau in 1980 was a much better leader to present to the public than Donald MacDonald or John Turner.  

This could also be true about Justin Trudeau being a better leader to present to Canadians than an untested Mark Carney.

Conclusion

There are no easy answers for the Liberal Party.  

While Liberals have the advantage of a big runway until October 2025, they better start figuring out what that their strategy will become.

They can’t operate like they appear to be today – sleepwalking into disaster.

Because the 2025 election campaign already started a long time ago.

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