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Is Trudeau about to make Peterson’s mistake?

By Jim Creskey       

David Peterson tried to 'realign' his government with the electorate and tripped over his dropped writ, lost his own seat, and resigned. The Trudeau government does not need realignment at the ballot box. It needs to take its 2015 promises and start delivering results, writes Hill Times publisher Jim Creskey.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should heed the lesson that David Peterson learned: calling unnecessary early elections can have disastrous results, writes Hill Times publisher Jim Creskey. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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It’s the right time to call an early election, despite the fact that the government is barely three years into its mandate, said the pundits and some, though not all, Liberal insiders.

The trade arrangements with the United States were worrisome and there were plenty of signs that some kind of recession was in the cards for Canada.

The great political minds argued that it’s time for the Liberal government to “realign itself with the electorate” because so much has changed since the last election. Really?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might do well to place a framed photo of former Liberal Ontario premier David Peterson at his bedside as a reminder that calling unnecessary early elections can have disastrous results.

Flash back to September 6, 1990. My wife and I were at a small and informal dinner party at the New Edinburgh home of the U.S. press attaché, Steve Seche. The other guests were mostly political reporters and editors and a few mid-level diplomats whose jobs had to do with the press. There was no Internet, no BlackBerries, smartphones or even flip phones. People carried on conversations in the kitchen and all around the house.

The main topic was freedom from apartheid in South Africa. But some people chatted about the Ontario provincial election that was taking place that night. The Liberals, led by David Peterson, had been polling at about 50 per cent, and even though many people thought an early (too early) election was a cynical idea, most expected the return of a Liberal majority.

If that night in New Edinburgh were replayed today, virtually everyone in the room would have heard their phones buzzing. But the result, in 1990, was an analog one.

A young man—I can’t remember if he was a Canadian Press reporter or a U.S. Embassy staffer—came bounding in the front door of the little house, down the hall and into the kitchen, shouting, “The NDP has won a majority government in Ontario!”

That was news delivered more memorably than the buzz of a tweet.

Which brings us to September 2018, just around the corner.

The whole world of punditry seems to be arguing that Trudeau should do the same thing David Peterson did nearly 30 years ago for eerily similar reasons.

The U.S. free trade agreement, the precursor to NAFA was beginning to take effect, and Peterson, who questioned the deal, was nervous about the impact it would have on Ontario.  A recession was definitely looming and the Conservatives were still in disarray—and disregarded—because of their slide into Reagan-Thatcherism, after more than four decades of moderate PC rule under Bill Davis.

Peterson went for it three years into his mandate with the result that Bob Rae, the man who many believe is still the greatest prime minister Canada never had, became a premier  too soon. Too soon for his time, too soon for his party, too soon for Canada’s largest province.

David Peterson tried to “realign” his government with the electorate and tripped over his dropped writ, lost his own seat, and resigned. Justin Trudeau, I think, could easily find himself in the same place.

More than anything, the Trudeau government does not need realignment at the ballot box. It needs to take its 2015 promises and start delivering results.

Most Canadians know what this means on First Nations reserves. It means concrete actions and measurable improvements.

The refugee agenda drove the election of 2015. It could again but in a negative way if the Liberals don’t hold firm and don’t allow the debate to drift into mindless nativism.

The same can be said of an enlightened foreign policy that projects Canada’s ideals though its active diplomacy and not though its defence contractors or Twitter addicts.

And finally, there is Donald Trump, NAFTA, and the environment. An election wouldn’t make any of these problems go away.

Instead of a dropped writ, the Liberals need to get their hands dirty fulfilling the promises that got them elected in the first place.

That photo of former premier Peterson on Justin Trudeau’s bedside table might even warrant a little votive candle placed in front it.

Jim Creskey is a publisher of The Hill Times.

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