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Opinion

Summertime no vacation for party leaders, MPs

By Tim Powers      

Bigwigs in each party will be doing their best to polish their public image, while MPs will be scrambling to touch base with voters in their ridings.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Toronto's pride parade on June 25. Mr. Trudeau will have to balance style with substance this summer, to ensure he doesn't alienate Canadians focused on pocket-book issues, writes Tim Powers. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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OTTAWA—Summer is upon us and so is a new political season. It is one that matters a lot for different reasons to our biggest political parties.

For the opposition Conservatives, the Andrew Scheer roadshow begins. The new leader will be trotted out in communities across the country to, first and foremost, build faith among supporters that he is capable of competing against the Liberals. Party members will want to feel like they matter, and need to see the goods the guy has to offer so they can commit to work for him when the time comes.

The Scheer Show will also want to display both warmth and wisdom to the broader public in parts of the country where the Conservatives need to improve their electoral performance. So it was hardly surprising to see the new opposition leader pop up in Québec and Atlantic Canada as his roadshow kicked off. Watch for him to do lots of local media and important local community events to demonstrate he gets the vibe of the people he is trying to sway.

Not to be unkind, but Tom Mulcair could go on a farewell tour and no one would likely care or come. But this summer New Democrats want to feel some energy from their leadership contestants. Of the three main parties, they are likely the one still dealing with doldrums. A new orange government in British Columbia may offer some hope for employment opportunities for a few federal staffers, but it doesn’t signal the resurgence of the federal party.

Touring NDP leadership candidates not only need to advance their own personal agendas for winning, they also have to make their race matter outside the party. Summer is a busy time for political theatre, and it might be hard to get heard on the bigger stage, where most audiences outside of the engaged tune out more than they normally do. The NDP must fight against being an afterthought in the bigger public square.

Summer politics were made for Justin Trudeau. From international summits to selfies in Saskatoon, he thrives in the light and breezy environment of this season’s political engagement. Brand saturation has worked for the Liberals so far, at least when the PM is front and centre, and there is no reason to think they will discontinue it any time soon.

However, the prime minister will have to find a balance between going too far overboard with the showmanship, and being seen as disconnected when it comes to the affordability challenges more people face, particularly the millennial cohort. Recent media stories have noted the heightened debt loads Canadians are carrying, as well as the concern many citizens have about their inability to buy a home. While there are no quick fixes to either of these conundrums, the prime minister can’t have a shirtless response to the mounting anxiety felt by many.

A government at its midway mark can drift if it overestimates its appeal, underestimates its opponents, and has a tin ear to the street. Losing steps on the affordability conversation is not something the Liberals want to do. So the PM will need to show some steak with all that sizzle.

Lastly, for all Members of Parliament the summer is about reconnection. While others may go on holiday, a lengthy vacation for a politician is ill-advised. Constituents want to at least have sightings of those they send to Ottawa. No MP wants to become as rare as a UFO, because if they can’t identify you, they most assuredly won’t vote for you in 2019.

As the old song goes: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy”—unless you’re an MP, in which case you ought to be working your butt off.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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