Liberal-NDP pact creates opening for Jean Charest

Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a pact reached by the Liberal Party and the NDP on March 22 that will see both parties agree to a Supply and Confidence Agreement until Parliament rises in June 2025, much ink has been spilled on what this sudden development will mean for the political fortunes of both parties.

But much less has been written about how this historic agreement will impact the standing of the Conservative Party — now in the throes of its most divisive leadership contest since the party’s inception in 2003. The agreement comes at a fascinating juncture in our country’s history — and one that is increasingly marked by a polarization between the political left and right in Canada. This undeniable trend has been building since Trudeau’s Liberals swept to power in 2015, but has been exacerbated by a global pandemic that both the right and left have weaponized for political gain.

In last week’s federal budget, the Trudeau government unveiled tens of billions in new “targeted” spending over the next five years. This year, the government’s deficit is projected to be about $114 billion, albeit down slightly from what was projected in Finance Minister Freeland’s last fiscal update. While Freeland signaled a return to more fiscal prudence last week, her government’s fiscal record since 2015 has not been one marked by restraint.

We are witnessing a hollowing out of the once-powerful center of Canadian politics where majority governments have been historically won and lost for decades. The Liberal and Conservative parties were historically centrist brokerage political entities, capable and more than willing to swing left or right when circumstances warranted.

Canadians have arguably not had a centrist political option to choose from for more than a decade. Since 2015, the Liberal Party has gradually embraced permanent deficit spending and a willingness to significantly expand the size of the state, while much of the Conservative Party appears intent on doubling down on Trump-style populism. If these trends continue unabated, Canadians will find themselves in the crosshairs of a permanent political system polarized by left and right with no centrist option.

While Trudeau’s eventual departure might lead to a more substantive debate around the nature of modern Liberalism — and whether the party should remain left-leaning or return to its centrist roots — it now appears that the leadership contest is unlikely to take place before 2024. But with a Conservative leadership race well underway, that party has a historic opportunity to inject new, more moderate blood into its membership base, ultimately influencing who is chosen as its next leader.

Moving to the political center

While a majority of CPC members appear inclined to support the brand of US-style populism that front-runner candidate Pierre Poilievre is peddling, this leadership contest provides a window for Tories to reimagine their party as one that straddles the political center with broad appeal among every demographic and region across Canada.

The best placed candidate to accomplish this ambitious project is clearly Jean Charest, the former Quebec premier and leader of the federal PC Party. Charest’s almost 40-year career in politics and government has positioned him impeccably for the leadership of the CPC and the monumental task of uniting the many disparate factions of that party. If he can win over the party, his odds of winning the country will be extremely good. Rarely, if ever, has a leadership candidate been so qualified for this monumental task.

The recent Liberal-NDP pact not only creates an opening for the return of moderate conservatism but plays to Charest’s political strengths when compared to his chief rival Poilievre. There are two reasons why this agreement should not only buoy Charest’s leadership bid but also bolster his prospects of becoming prime minister.

Opinion: @JeanCharest_ is the leadership candidate best placed to move the @CPC_HQ to the middle of the political spectrum that appeals to the greatest number of potential voters, writes @andrewaperez. #cdnpoli

First, the fact the Liberal Party has entered into a three-year agreement with the federal NDP will only solidify the perception among many that Trudeau’s Liberals have lurched too far left at a time when rising inflation and deficit spending have reached an inflection point.

Prominent pollster, longtime Liberal operative and podcaster David Herle recently argued on his Curse of Politics podcast that the Liberal-NDP pact poses longer-term difficulties for the Liberals, jeopardizing their hard-earned reputation as a party of the centre. Herle argues a long-standing governing agreement with the NDP creates brand dilution for the party, aligning the Liberals too closely with Jagmeet Singh’s NDP at a time when the center of the political spectrum has increasingly become a wasteland. Herle’s implicit suggestion that the traditional brand of fiscally prudent, socially progressive Liberalism must endure well beyond the Trudeau era could not be more prescient.

Although the Liberal caucus has so far remained tight-lipped on the agreement, The Hill Times reported that at least some MPs say they weren’t consulted on the pact and believe their party is leaving the center of the ideological spectrum “wide open.”

While most party luminaries have remained quiet under Trudeau’s watch, former Liberal cabinet ministers like Scott Brison, Anne McLellan and John Manley have all voiced concerns about the prime minister’s lack of focus on a “growth agenda” since assuming office more than six years ago.

Upon first blush, one might argue the Liberal-NDP supply and confidence agreement plays right into the hands of Poilievre, who recently dismissed the deal as a “socialist coalition power pact.” But once cooler heads have recognized prevailed, Canadians will the agreement is not one-dimensional and includes both positive and negative aspects.

Indeed, there is much that is good and just in this agreement. Conservatives will quickly rub up against voter wrath if their only approach is to assail the agreement’s public policy aims. Opposing a new dental care program for those on modest incomes, a national pharmacare program, or railing against policies that will move the needle on the housing and climate crises will be an uphill battle that is unlikely to succeed.

But focusing on the government’s lack of a sound fiscal plan amid scaling budget deficits and ballooning debt levels is far more likely to pay political dividends. As a centrist who led a government in Quebec for almost a decade composed of federal Tories and Liberals, Charest can draw significant support among middle-of-the-road suburban voters in Canada.

While he faces obvious challenges winning the leadership, Charest’s refreshing appeal as a Conservative is that suburban voters won’t question where he stands on carbon pricing, a national child-care program, or on critical social policy issues that impact women and LGBTQ+ Canadians. These voters will also be assured that he won’t shamelessly court social conservatives. This should empower Charest to focus his campaign on the pressing challenges of our time from a small-c conservative lens — whether that be championing issues like deficit and debt reduction, affordability and the need to better develop our pipeline infrastructure in a way that brings prosperity to First Nations communities.

But it’s not merely the big-spending nature of the Liberal-NDP pact that might buoy Charest’s prospects. It’s also the political stability that will accompany the agreement — a longevity that Charest can use to his advantage against his rival chief. That’s because Poilievre’s entire political offering (and vacuous message on “restoring freedom”) is one characterized by hyperbolic stunts that attract emotional support and clicks in the short term but can’t be sustained in a Parliament that will likely exceed three years.

If he’s elected CPC leader, Poilievre will be woefully unprepared for the job of “permanent Opposition leader.” His modus operandi is expressly designed for the immediate political hit job — and the angry clickbait that accompanies his antics.

In contrast, Charest is well-positioned to assume the Opposition leader’s role as a statesman-like figure for an extended period. It plays to Charest’s strengths from him as a nimble leader able to quickly adapt to changing political circumstances. He’s done precisely that throughout this 40-year career: resurrecting the near-defunct federal PC Party three decades ago; playing a decisive role on the “Non” side during the 1995 Quebec referendum; and then squaring off against Parti Quebecois premier Lucien Bouchard as Opposition Leader in Quebec’s National Assembly for several years.

It’s often said that the Opposition leader’s role is by far the worst job in Canadian politics. Over the past 30 years, only two Opposition leaders — Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper — have gone on to form governments.

Charest would assume the role as a battle-tested veteran ready to face Trudeau and his successor. More time on the Opposition benches would empower the former Quebec premier to chip away at the Liberal government’s weaknesses as it approaches a decade in power.

As we look ahead to one of the most divisive leadership contests in Canadian history, the dynamics at play cannot be divorced from the changes that are afoot in the governing party. But as the political center becomes more deserted in this country, our leaders risk alienating a growing segment of the electorate that soundly rejects Trump-style populism with the same vigor they reject governments that have no discernible growth agenda.

Charest could not be more equipped to serve as an antidote to the polarization of our politics. His success, or lack thereof, will have far-reaching impacts on our political climate for years to come.

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