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Chantal Hébert: Liberal collapse in Ontario gives rise to an unsettling feeling in Trudeau’s Ottawa

Chantal Hébert: Liberal collapse in Ontario gives rise to an unsettling feeling in Trudeau’s Ottawa
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Reason suggests Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland does not seriously think Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are headed for a “triumph” on June 7 . Justin Trudeau’s go-to minister on the Canada/U.S. file predicted a big Liberal election victory at a GTA rally on Thursday. But if Freeland really does believe that, she may have had her hands too full on the foreign policy front to give her rose-colored glasses a cleansing.

With less than two weeks to go, the polls all suggest the Ontario Liberals will be lucky to avoid a rout of historical proportions.

By the same token, the prime minister who set aside time in his schedule to vote at the Ottawa-Vanier returning office on Friday certainly knows a show of support via a photo opportunity is unlikely to trigger a game-changer of the magnitude Wynne’s Liberals need to reverse the tide.

On a strictly rational basis, there is no reason why Trudeau’s Liberals would not be content with the election of an NDP government in Ontario next month. From their governing perspective, that would be immensely preferable to a Tory victory.

If he becomes premier, Doug Ford has signalled his intention to go to war with the federal government over its national carbon-pricing strategy . Losing Ontario’s support in that endeavour could tilt the provincial balance towards failure.

Trudeau is also more likely to get buy-in from an Ontario NDP government for the national pharmacare program some Liberal strategists see as a centre-piece of the 2019 Liberal platform. And the two at least share a common belief that governments have an active role to play on the social policy front.

Horwath was a keynote speaker at the February NDP national convention. Given the partisan venue and the location of the gathering, just a few blocks from Parliament Hill, her speech was remarkably free of frontal attacks on the federal government.

As events have since demonstrated, that made strategic sense. If the Ontario NDP leader does make it to the premier’s office next month, it will be on the strength of the support of scores of Ontario voters who voted for Trudeau in 2015. Many of them still plan to do it again next year.

But politics is not just about reason. For Trudeau’s Liberals, little that happens at the provincial level feels more personal than when it involves their Ontario cousins. The current governing parties on Parliament Hill and at Queen’ Park might as well be joined at the hip.

That goes beyond the well-documented backroom connections between the two, connections that lead all the way to Trudeau’s inner circle. For the federal Liberal party, Ontario is as close to an anchor as Alberta has been for the Conservatives.

Without its strong roots in Canada’s largest province, the party might not have emerged intact from the decades it spent out in the cold in Quebec.

Ontario was central to Jean Chrétien’s three majorities.

It largely saved Paul Martin from the indignity of failing to at least once be elected prime minister.

During the subsequent Liberal crossing into the federal opposition desert, Queen’s Park offered Liberal operatives a rare safe haven. And it was from its Ontario base that Trudeau rebuilt his party.

The dominant Liberal place on the Ontario map allows the party to see itself as a national institution even as it has little provincial presence across the Prairies and a B.C. partner that is less liberal than its label would suggest.

Prime ministers do not normally campaign in provincial elections and Trudeau has stayed out of the Ontario fray. But his caucus — from cabinet members on down — has fanned out to lend Wynne’s Liberals a hand.

Many Liberal MPs are rookies who were first elected in 2015 as part of an exhilarating federal Liberal comeback and who have not yet had a first-hand brush with defeat. That is also true of more than a few of the party staffers who have gone home to work on the provincial campaign. Some were not old enough to vote the last time the Liberals were in opposition at Queen’s Park.

After the Bloc Québécois suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the NDP in 2011, Gilles Duceppe described the experience as akin to being trapped on a free-falling elevator.

This month many Trudeau Liberals are getting a taste of that stomach-churning feeling. Judging from Freeland’s over-the-top prediction, it is an unnerving experience.

The June 7 Ontario election comes at a time when Trudeau is no longer walking on water. In Ontario, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have levelled the playing field with the ruling federal party. After this campaign, those poll numbers will likely feel less abstract to many Liberal MPs.
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