Liberal MPs meet to prep for fall sitting, as Trudeau stares down slumping polls

LONDON, Ont. — Liberal MPs are gathering in London, Ont., this week to plan theirstrategy as the party grapples with rising discontentment over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's handling of the economy and the growing housing crisis.

"This is not necessarily just (MPs) mad because they didn't get into cabinet," Greg MacEachern, a longtime Liberal strategist, said about what the prime minister might hear from his MPs.

"They're mad because this is what their constituents are telling them."

Most of the party's 158 MPs will meet in the southern Ontario city for three days to plot out their strategy for the fall parliamentary sitting.

Polls show the Liberals have sunk to their lowest levels of support since taking government in 2015, largely to the benefit of the Conservatives.

The caucus retreat comes after a number of media reports quoted backbench MPs as saying the party isn't communicating well and that Trudeau isn't listening to the concerns of MPs who are not in cabinet.

MacEachern said senior Liberals seem to realize they missed the emergence of housing and affordability as key issues until Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre used both to soar in the polls.

He believes the government had its eye on issues such as supply-chain woes, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic. The solution, he argues, is to introduce legislation soon after the House of Commons resumes that aims to help ease the cost of living and housing concerns.

"There's a lot of criticism of the Liberals' inability to communicate. But before you have good communication, you have to have strong policy that's easily translated, easily understood," he said.

MacEachern added that polling data has riled up MPs, who can't imagine losing to a party that is campaigning on resentment and anger that Liberals feel is reminiscent of the former Reform and Canadian Alliance parties — predecessors to the modern Conservative party.

"The thought of losing to a party that (they feel) is going to take Canada backwards, it is concerning," said MacEachern, who this month launched his own lobby firm, KAN Strategies.

For example, he said Liberals had a visceral reaction to images of Poilievre at the Calgary Stampede in July posing with a man wearing a T-shirt bearing the words "straight pride."

Poilievre's office said the leader hadn't read what was on the shirt and didn't support its message, which is widely seen as bigoted. But MacEachern said it's the type of incident that jolts Liberals into action.

This week's caucus meeting kicked off Tuesday with gatherings of small caucus groups, including women, Indigenous and rural MPs. Wednesday and Thursday will feature meetings in regional and national groupings.

MPs will also have a chance to touch base through various receptions and dinners, and they're expected to speak with reporters between the events.

The Liberal caucus chair, Quebec MP Brenda Shanahan, said midday Tuesday that MPs were already talking about what their constituents have flagged as problems, so the party can sort out how to tackle them.

"We're having very frank, very open discussions," she said in an interview.

"We're doing the work, and it just needs to get delivered in a way that's more effective and where Canadians are feeling the impact."

Yet some of Trudeau's front bench feel the party's current plans are working, and that they just need to better sell their platform to the public and wait for economic problems like inflation to subside.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he believes through personal encounters that voters still feel the Liberals are the best option.

"Polls are polls; I tend to deal with people on one-to-one," he told reporters Tuesday afternoon on the sidelines of the retreat.

He said the caucus retreat lets the Liberals make sure they stay focused on the concerns of Canadians, but rejected the idea that the party is out of touch with the electorate.

"I don't have the same reading because you know what, I see people and they tap me on the back and say, 'Keep on going,' so maybe my perspective is different."

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault argued last week that the Liberals can turn things around by sticking with existing plans to ramp up social supports, such as dental care and daycare.

"We believe that we will be in a better position in the coming months," he told reporters gathered outside the Conservative party convention in Quebec City.

"There are good signs, but we need to keep working hard to ensure that with Canadians, we make it through this tough patch."

Shanahan said there will be some guests at the caucus, but no big-name speakers. She noted that London Mayor Josh Morgan will make welcoming remarks at a reception.

MacEachern said London is a strategic choice for the Liberals as it includes demographics they will need to court to win key ridings, such as young families seeking child care and university students of voting age.

Trudeau was expected to arrive in Ottawa late Tuesday night after a mechanical issue delayed his departure from the G20 summit in New Delhi.

That would allow him to attend Wednesday afternoon's national caucus meeting, when the vast majority of Liberal MPs will be in one room.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 12, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press