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Tom Mulcair: Which party leader will have the best end-of-summer report?

From left: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet (CP IMAGES combination photo) From left: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet (CP IMAGES combination photo)
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'How I spent my summer vacation.'

That classic was often the first composition asked of students when they returned to class in the fall.

What could the essays of the various party leaders look like at the end of this summer’s break?

Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way past reporters to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill, Tuesday, June 18, 2024 in Ottawa (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Although Justin Trudeau has two very different potential stories, both could have the same opening sentence: 'Everything changed after the by-election in Toronto—St.Paul’s riding.'

From there, depending on the outcome next Monday, two very different stories could be written by Trudeau about the rest of his summer.

In one, Trudeau holds onto the emblematic Liberal stronghold. The Liberals have won Toronto—St. Paul’s through thick and thin (i.e. through Dion and Ignatieff). Trudeau has to win it now.

Commentators will parse the percentages, looking for evidence of a continued Liberal downward spiral. Even if he wins by the slimmest of margins, there will be a lot less weight on Trudeau’s shoulders and his composition will talk of how he got back the spring in his gait on the barbecue circuit.

Conversely, if the unthinkable happens and the Liberals lose, the heretofore gentle nudging and hinting that has been aimed at him would get much more insistent. Trudeau could spend much of the summer with his back to the wall, trying to avoid the knives.

Byelections are an opportunity for voters to send a message. I benefited from that phenomenon when I won the Liberal bastion of Outremont with Jack Layton in 2007. I went on to win it four times.

Then NDP candidate Thomas Mulcair celebrates with party leader Jack Layton, right, after winning the byelection in Outremont riding in Montreal on Sept. 17, 2007 (Ryan Remiorz / CP PHOTO)

At the time of the byelection, Stephane Dion was the Liberal leader. He was highly unpopular and many Liberals stayed home or voted NDP to 'send a message.'

It helped me that Mr. Dion’s candidate was on the record as saying that Hamas was the legitimate elected government of Gaza. Suffice it to say that many members of the riding’s large Jewish community saw things differently.

It’s once again on an issue of Middle East politics that the Toronto—St. Paul’s byelection may prove tricky for the Liberals. Trudeau has been anything but consistent during the current conflict. His muddled positions on South Africa’s accusations of genocide have not cast him in a good light. It could cost him dearly with the historically Liberal vote of the Jewish community there.

Despite that, by pulling out all the stops and calling in every living, breathing Liberal organizer in the GTA, Trudeau could still hold onto Toronto—St. Paul’s. If he doesn’t, the mood of his back-to-school essay could be somber indeed.

Pierre Poilievre

Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks during a rally in Ottawa, on March 24, 2024 (Spencer Colby / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The Conservative leader can write his composition in advance because he has been writing and saying the same things ever since he was a teenager.

No surprise, then, that his composition would start with a litany of the social and economic shortcomings of his adversaries. He’d need to use a thesaurus to find synonyms for "incompetent," which is his favourite word to describe everyone else.

The teacher will be looking to see if he sticks to the assigned topic. He's supposed to talk about how HE spent his summer vacation, not what the other guy does wrong.

He could go on to boast that he had more people at his barbecues than Justin Trudeau and that will probably be true.

But what about his experience?

Poilievre is a black-belt opposition leader who’s been winning round after round against Trudeau. Somewhat ironic given Trudeau’s famous boxing match.

Yes, the list of Trudeau’s failings is long, starting with pocketbook issues and the cost of living. Trudeau has been an abysmal economic manager. Those issues have become Poilievre’s bread and butter.

Younger voters, who’ve been dealt a rotten hand under Trudeau, are now listening to Poilievre. He could write an entire paragraph about how they turned out in large numbers and cheered him on during the summer.

But he’ll also talk about how he slammed the Liberal/NDP government and all of its spending and taxation. Trudeau has indeed brought in several new and very important social programs cadged from the NDP playbook: childcare, pharmacare and dental care first among them. Many Canadians count on those programs. Will Poilievre have an answer for their concerns or will his breathless report of his own performance be the only topic of his essay?

Poilievre has scored heavily by complaining about the carbon tax, but young voters really care about the planet that’s being left to them. Could their numbers at Poilievre’s rallies diminish as they start to realize how they could lose even more with him? Will student Poilievre even give it a mention in his composition, or will he just be content to say that he had a successful summer, complaining and mocking his adversaries?

What those reading him are hoping to find out is what he’s actually planning to do. He ended 2023 swearing to never touch social programs. He began 2024 with a much different tune, leaving the door open to cancellation of key Liberal/NDP policies. Which ones are on the chopping block? That has to merit at least a sentence in his composition.

His first essay after the return to class may be a blank sheet on that score because, following the advice of his mentor Stephen Harper, he’ll go to all of those barbecues without ever talking about his own plans. He’ll only speak about his adversaries’ shortcomings, real or invented.

The reader will want to know how his story ends and it may just depend on whether or not he’s able to vary his tone and start saying some positive things, instead of always whinging about how bad the other guy is.

He has the energy for a long story, but that may get cut short if he fails to consider his reader’s interest.

Jagmeet Singh

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pumps his fist before taking questions from reporters about a tabling of anti-scab legislation in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on May 27, 2024 (Justin Tang / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The NDP leader has every right to a victory lap of sorts on the summer circuit. He has seen longstanding NDP policies enacted into law pursuant to his supply and confidence deal with Trudeau.

What will be interesting to watch is how many people are actually showing up at his barbecues. He’s got serious bragging rights but the incumbent is Trudeau, who also gets to claim paternity.

Singh will be talking to the party faithful and pleading with them to remain faithful. How does his essay describe that deal with Trudeau now?

Singh knows that the oldest trick in the Liberal playbook is telling progressive voters not to 'split the vote.' This time they’ll be able to use it while pleading that the 'barbarians are at the gate.' The unholy horde Trudeau says he wants to hold back is 20 points ahead of him in the polls. Catastrophe awaits if they’re not stopped and NDP voters could help bridge that gap.

Singh’s essay will have to say whether or not he senses he’s losing some of his supporters because of the Liberal invocation of the dire Conservative threat.

His stump speech will have included a classic NDP rallying cry not to trust the Liberals but that may prove a bit more difficult this summer, given the fact that Singh has been giving them his confidence for years.

His essay will say that his summer went smoothly but that may not say everything about his chances when the election rolls around.

Yves-Francois Blanchet

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill on June 4, 2024 (Spencer Colby / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The leader of the Bloc Quebecois, meanwhile, doesn't appear to work a lot during the holidays. It may be different this time.

Lots of Blanchet's supporters are drifting over to the Conservatives. The Bloc vote is extremely fragile and Quebecers can turn on a dime.

If the electorate senses that Poilievre is going to form a government, Quebecers will want to have good representation around the cabinet table. The first ridings that will be added to the Conservative “win” column will be Bloc ridings and there could be lots of them.

In his essay, Blanchet better be able to boast about the number of times he waved the flag in public, or he could be in for a very nasty surprise.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017

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