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Tom Mulcair: With Trudeau spiralling, Mark Carney waits in the wings

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When federal public service unions recently threatened a summer of discontent, it would have been easy pickings for Justin Trudeau to clear his throat and deliver a heartfelt "fuddle duddle" for and on behalf of hard-pressed Canadian voters.

It wasn’t to be.

Having recently signed generous collective agreements with the major public sector unions, one could have expected Trudeau’s Liberal government to be given a bit of a break, but just the opposite happened.

It was almost comical. A bevy of federal union leaders held a press conference and began chewing the scenery. They were outraged that the federal government asked its members to go into the office for -- wait for it -- three days a week.

Never mind that after a lengthy strike, the federal government, as employer, retained the right under the new collective agreement (signed by those same unions) to make exactly that type of management call.

The exceptionally competent Treasury Board President Anita Anand was pulling her punches and simply said it was a management right before, and after, the new collective agreement.

The unions were having none of it and frothed dark warnings, even mentioning possible action at the border and at airports, as if Canadian travellers haven’t already suffered enough.

One of those union leaders, longtime Public Service Alliance President Chris Aylward, decided to pack it in shortly after the botched news conference.

That Trudeau would sit in the woods, instead of trying to express his own outrage on behalf of Canadians, said it all. There appears to be no fight left in the man.

Conservatives Leader Pierre Poilievre, showing strategic restraint, simply chose to let Trudeau twist in the wind, and is refusing to say what he’d do about the ‘three days at the office’ decision.

There’s an old rule in politics, when your opponent is busy beating himself up, do nothing to interfere. Poilievre seems to have internalized that rule very well.

As the threatened summer of discontent turns into a summer on the BBQ circuit for Trudeau and Poilievre, there may still be a few surprises to watch for.

Many of Trudeau’s MPs will be doing their duty and holding fundraisers to help try to fill Liberal party coffers in the lead-up to the next election.

Liberal candidate Anna Gainey arrives to greet her supporters after winning the federal by-election in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace-Westmount riding on June 19, 2023 in Montreal (Christinne Muschi / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

One newcomer, Anna Gainey (who easily won Marc Garneau’s Westmount riding in a by-election), has an important draw for an upcoming event that she’ll be hosting: Mark Carney.

Gainey, it turns out, knows the former Bank of Canada governor very well. The two have had leadership roles in a major Liberal think tank, Canada 2020.

Gainey, it should be recalled, is as close as you can come to Liberal royalty. She was a two-term Liberal Party of Canada president. She is also extremely close to Trudeau as is her husband, Tom Pitfield. Both played crucial roles in Trudeau’s leadership campaign. Both accompanied the Trudeaus on what turned out to be an ill-starred trip to the Aga Khan’s billionaire Island in the Caribbean. That earned Trudeau a rebuke from the federal ethics watchdog for breaking the law.

Ground level political scuttlebutt in Montreal now has Gainey joining the ranks of those trying to give Trudeau polite hints about his best before date. Apparently Trudeau develops spontaneous hearing problems whenever the subject is broached by senior volunteers or MPs.

If there is an unofficial frontrunner in the (eventual) race to replace Trudeau as Liberal leader, it has to be Carney.

Sure, there are other really experienced and talented people who’d no doubt try for the brass ring, Chrystia Freeland first among them. But she, like Anita Anand and Dominic LeBlanc and any other cabinet minister, will have to carry the full weight of the Trudeau years in any election campaign and that is a very heavy burden to shoulder.

It’s also a burden that many taxpayers are saying they can no longer afford to bear.

Against the backdrop of those union threats, it's worth bearing in mind that Trudeau has managed to increase the size of the federal civil service by 109,000, which is a whopping 42%, since he came to power in 2015. As a comparison, Canada’s population grew by 14% over the same period. In clear terms, the civil service has grown three times faster than the population. With nothing to show for it.

Recent polling shows that inflation is still top of mind for Canadians.

Trudeau has shown no interest in reeling in government expenditures at a time when Canadians are having trouble paying for their groceries. The disconnect is showing in the polls where the Conservatives now hold a consistent 20-point lead.

The fact that Carney is the biggest threat to Poilievre was best illustrated when the Conservatives tried to invite him to a parliamentary committee, because, they said, he clearly wants to replace Trudeau. Carney derided the "performative nature" of the invitation, pointing out that it had been sent to media and not to him.

The Conservatives are indeed very worried about Carney, and they should be.

Carney did show up in the Senate and made short work of the appointed Conservative hacks who tried their best to corner him on the carbon tax.

Mark Carney at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland on Nov. 3, 2021 (Alberto Pezzali / AP Photo)

Carney is from a modest background with an ability to speak to people engagingly and with deep knowledge of economic and environmental issues. He has held the highest positions in the world in both areas. Of course the Conservatives are worried. The sophomoric fiscal nostrums of Poilievre would be as quickly exposed as his climate change denial. Bay Street would take a shine to Carney as much as Main Street.

Many Canadians who just want Trudeau gone could easily be convinced to give the Liberals another look with Carney at the helm.

The reflex put-down that I automatically get from Liberal pundits is that Carney is 'just like Michael Ignatieff.' Boy, are they wrong.

I knew the aloof Ignatieff and I know Carney, and they have nothing in common. I was able to invite Carney twice to the Université de Montréal where I’ve been teaching since I left politics. One of the events was a major keynote, the other a lecture to graduate students on issues of resource development and sustainability. He was engaging and generous and he shone at both.

Carney grew up in the Northwest Territories and in Edmonton. He didn’t just graduate with highest honours from Harvard and Oxford, he played hockey at both. He’s exactly the type of adversary the Tories fear. That’s why they’d like to try to get in their potshots early. He’ll make minced meat of Poilievre if he’s given the chance.

Trudeau is indeed the only person who’ll decide if and when he leaves and he’s earned that right. But the pressure will begin to build as the pointlessness of another Trudeau campaign begins to discourage MPs, potential candidates and the party faithful.

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

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