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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Canada, similar to other western democracies, has a political cycle that perpetually shifts from the right to the left, and from the left to the right. “It works like the swing of a pendulum, like the upsand-downs of a seesaw,” author and journalist Victor Lauriston famously wrote in Maclean’s on July 15, 1931, “and the result is a curious sort of automatic balance between the Canadian political parties.”

It’s impossible to predict with pinpoint accuracy exactly which way the political pendulum will swing. Issues, ideas, strategies and elections can sometimes produce clear signs and indicators. Situations can occasionally be adjusted or manipulated. Some political narratives are successfully crafted and maintained, while others become toxic and combustible. There are also moments when unforeseen events turn everything on its head, too.

During the height of COVID-19, the political pendulum was clearly swinging to the left. Many Canadians were unable to go to work, or even work at all. Businesses suffered, and quite a few were forced to shut down. Government spending went through the roof in terms of emergency relief funds for individuals, families and companies. The national debt was eye-popping, and the federal deficit ballooned to record highs.

Things have changed the past few months, however. The political pendulum has started to swing to the right.

Canada still has to deal with aspects of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, and perhaps forever. Several years of social distancing in society, combined with the wider availability of vaccines, have given us a new lease on life. Many people want to return to normal, or simply exist in whatever the “new normal” entails. They’re tired of government restrictions and requirements, and are often euphoric when they’re removed. They’re also largely fed up with politicians acting like drunken sailors on a 24/7 basis, and desire a return to free markets, capitalism and private enterprise.

Our political environment has also transformed during the political pendulum’s shift in winged allegiances.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has looked weaker and more vulnerable than ever before. He was blamed for maintaining COVID-19 restrictions longer than most democratic nations, and taking positions during the pandemic that were comparable to those of Communist China. Provincial governments on the right and left both pushed back heavily against Ottawa’s wasteful spending policies as well as the PM’s pet project, the federal carbon tax. Recent polls from Angus Reid, Leger and Mainstreet Research have shown the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals, and Ipsos has new Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre in front of Trudeau as the best candidate for PM.

Jagmeet Singh and NDP are nearly broke, spent, and plummeting in the polls. The federal leader of Canada’s socialist alternative also became embroiled in an embarrassing situation involving the Saskatchewan NDP. The provincial outfit recently voted against inviting Singh to its party convention this month, and instead asked him to supply a video message. While he’s obviously tried to downplay this stunning development, it hasn’t worked. There’s really no way to put a positive spin on being rejected by the province that first embraced socialism with the CCF/NDP, as well as the party of Tommy Douglas.

The Green Party has also turned into a complete shambles. It began with the wild battle between then-leader Annamie Paul and various Green MPs and activists last year, which spilled into the public arena and left many bad tastes in people’s mouths. The situation continued with Amita Kuttner, where an issue with the interim leader being misgendered with the pronouns “she/elle” during a Zoom conference – Kuttner identifies as non-binary and pansexual – led to an eruption and resignation of then-party president Lorraine Rekmans. Now, the party has cancelled the first round of voting for a new leader. Why? Interim executive director Dana Taylor reportedly said, “we did not have the capacity to deal with it,” while Michael MacLean, federal council representative for Prince Edward Island, suggested there was a “collapse of volunteer motivation and morale.”

It’s interesting to note that the Bloc Quebecois hasn’t suffered the same slings and arrows of its left-leaning countrymen. When you only run candidates in one province, there are ways to avoid the political pendulum’s full effect. Will it finally catch up with them? Time will tell.

This is a huge moment for Poilievre and the Conservatives. They need to make the most of their opportunities to sell the important message of small government, lower taxes and more individual rights and freedoms. They need to consistently point out the political and economic damage the Trudeau Liberals have done to this country in seven years, often with the support of the other left-leaning parties.

And all of this needs to be done before Canada’s political pendulum shifts once more.

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

As part of his year-end interview with the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt, prime minister Justin Trudeau reflected on the state of his party, and its ups and downs before he became the leader. When Delacourt asked Trudeau whether his inevitable departure, whenever that happens, will throw the party into a similar existential crisis to where it found itself a decade ago, Trudeau laughed off the suggestion, and insisted that the party was now in a better place because they made a deliberate decision to connect with the grassroots.

“The Liberal party … had become too much of a closed-in club, and wasn’t actually allowing Canadians to engage with it and shape it,” Trudeau told Delacourt. “It is now an open party.”

This is completely specious nonsense. The decision to eliminate memberships in favour of free “supporters” does not actually open up a party, in spite of the PR hype. Rather, it merely focuses the power in the leader—accelerating a process that has been slowly building since 1919—while claiming openness by virtue of the number of supporters who sign up. It’s pouring gasoline on the tire fire of Americanizing our political institutions, in the name of recreating presidential primaries instead of doing genuine grassroots outreach or engagement. It’s also a particularly cynical move that pretends that the size of one’s electoral database is equal to grassroots engagement. Yes, it encourages more knocking on doors, which has been key to the Liberals’ electoral success in 2015 and beyond, but this is not actual grassroots engagement.

There was nothing particularly “closed-in” about the previous system of party memberships. The nominal membership fee encouraged people to have skin in the game, and there was genuine grassroots engagement, whether it was about policy development or open nominations for whose name would appear on the ballots. I had a roommate, many years ago, who told me about how she and her friends got together and proposed a particular policy solution, it got voted by their local riding association to advance to the biennial policy convention, and from there it was adopted, and became party policy, and the party, then in government, implemented it. This is how our system is supposed to operate. The Liberal Party no longer operates like this, where policy development is a bureaucratized process with multiple levels of gatekeeping to keep the number of resolutions that arrive at a convention to a minimum, and where the resolutions amount to mere suggestions, as leaders often dismiss them out of hand. But hey, it’s free, and their database appreciates what you’re generating.

During the Liberals’ “rebuilding years,” when Bob Rae was named interim leader after Michael Ignatieff’s devastating election loss, there was a series of conversations that the party engaged in when it came to how they redefined themselves. On a journalistic assignment, I sat in on an Ottawa Centre riding association meeting one night where the members were engaged in these kinds of discussions, about what they wanted from the party, and whether they needed to “shrink” the party in order to grow it. At the same time, the party leadership was also engaged in a rethink process, which is when they happened upon the idea of open memberships, coming from the Liberal Party of Alberta, who proclaimed that it grew their database by 1000 percent. Of course, within two election cycles, that party lost all of its seats and is on the precipice of political extinction, so I remain unconvinced that this was the genius move they think it was.

There was also an impetus on Rae to try and make the party’s structure less convoluted, with jokes about how byzantine its organizational chart was. While Rae oversaw the process of open memberships, he also did centralize the party’s financial operations in Ottawa, which many saw as a common-sense development that would free those provincial and territorial organizations to focus on their ground game and policy work. In the end, a new party constitution was voted on under Trudeau’s championing in 2017, which wiped out all of the accountability mechanisms that the old federated system, as convoluted as it was, had going for it. A few dissenters pointed this out at the convention where it happened, but they were drowned out by those who were salivating at the notion of a “modern” process, and the promised gains to the party database.

Of course, we are also now seeing Conservatives agitating for the open membership concept, convinced that it will be the way that they can escape their current conundrum of being structurally beholden to their social conservative base. If anything, though, open memberships won’t be able to overcome the problem, even if they attract more “supporters” during a leadership contest, because those same social conservatives are the party’s backbone in terms of fundraising and volunteering. More to the point, it’s an indictment of the fact that the party isn’t able to attract enough mainstream members, which keeps them beholden to the social conservatives—an existential problem that they need to grapple with instead of finding a new way to populate their database.

Open memberships are not actually opening up a party. It’s merely about populating a database, and providing a means of providing more justification to a party leader who is centralizing authority, because it allows them to claim the “democratic legitimacy” of tens of thousands more supporters than the old system of paid memberships. It builds and reinforces cults of personalities instead of stable political parties. None of those are hallmarks of an “open” party, especially when those parties have taken over their own policy development process and turned it into a process of Big Data justification, and turned open nominations into central casting. Cheap memberships, a genuine grassroots system in the riding associations, and accountable leaderships are hallmarks of open parties, not the farce that Trudeau is perpetuating and trying to pass off as a democratic good.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Does political branding work? Is it real?

Some, like this writer, say yes. Some say it’s a lot of Madison Avenue gobbledegook and mumbo-jumbo: Pepsi versus Coke, whatever.

Trust me: political branding works, and it’s very, very real. Don’t believe it? Then take a look at what happened in three ridings on election night, right across the country: Vancouver-Granville, Spadina-Fort York, and Fredericton.

A summary:

In Vancouver-Granville, the Liberal candidate – Taleeb Noormohamed – was caught flipping houses and making millions, a practice the Liberal Party platform promised to outlaw. Noormohamed skipped all-candidates meetings, refused to get up and knock on doors, and was a disaster in media encounters. He won anyway.

In Spadina-Fort York, the Liberal candidate – Kevin Vuong – withheld the fact that he had been charged for sexual assault (a trial didn’t take place because the alleged victim could not participate in the trial). When the sexual assault charge was made public, it was too late to remove Vuong’s name from the ballot. The Liberal Party initially defended Vuong, but – when outrage grew – dropped him as a candidate. He won anyway.

In Fredericton, the Liberal candidate – Jenica Atwin – was elected in 2019 under the Green Party banner. In 2020, Atwin defamed the Jewish state, accusing it of the racist policy of “apartheid” – despite the fact that Israel has Palestinians in its government, military and judiciary.  She was thereafter welcomed into Justin Trudeau’s caucus and told the media she was “not alone” in her anti-Israel position there, reaffirming that she “certainly stands” by her smears about the Jewish state. She won anyway.

Noormohamed, Vuong and Atwin represent the very worst in politics. They are unfit to run for dog-catcher, let alone a seat in our highest legislature. Allegations of anti-Semitism, sexual assault, illicit personal enrichment: these people do not in any way belong in Parliament. But to Parliament they were elected.

Some will lay the blame with the media – but it was the news media which made the allegations against Noormohamed, Vuong and Atwain public, and rained ignominy down on them. Others will accuse clueless urban voters of complicity – but Fredericton is comparatively very tiny, and Atwin was elected there by only a few thousand votes.

So why? Why, why, why were these creeps elected, when we all knew how disreputable they were?

Because branding. Because all three shared one thing: the Liberal Party brand.

Like it or not, the Liberal Party is the most successful political vehicle in Western democracy. It has ruled Canada for most of its history.

The Liberal brand means different things to different people – managerial competence, national unity, accommodation of newcomers. But its brand is stronger than the Conservative brand, or the New Democrat brand.

In one of my books, Fight The Right, I argue that big political choices are emotional, not rational. They are made in a voter’s heart, not his or her mind. Political branding works because it is all about emotion – it’s essentially repeating a word or phrase or logo, over and over, until it lodges in a voter’s gut.

For those of you who are appalled by Justin Trudeau, like me, rest assured, you are not alone: two-thirds of Canadians feel as we do. The 2021 federal election was “won” despite Justin Trudeau, not because of him.

Trudeau clung to power – with Noormohamed, Vuong and Atwin right behind him – because most people vote for a brand, not a person. They all ran under the Liberal brand, which is the strongest political brand in our history.

Can voters be persuaded to abandon the Liberal brand? Sure. Coke drinkers regularly become Pepsi drinkers (I did).

It’s a long, laborious, labyrinthine process, however. It ain’t easy.

But if you want to defeat Trudeau, Noormohamed, Vuong and Atwin next time, it’s the only way.

Kinsella was Jean Chretien’s Special Assistant and Vice-President of a Vancouver ad agency.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.