Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have a tremendous problem at hand: the Conservatives’ war chest is overflowing with cash, their popularity is soaring, and Canadians appear exhausted with his government that will be approaching a full decade in power by the next scheduled election.
With Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre launching daily attacks at the Trudeau government, typically focused on inflation or housing issues, the Liberals are looking for ammunition to fight back. Liberals will need the high ground, and it’s here that the usually soft-spoken Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault has ratcheted up his rhetoric and is turning into something of an attack dog for the Liberal government on climate change, a file where they sense the Conservatives are vulnerable. Close watchers of Parliament Hill say this is likely a preview of the Liberals’ re-election strategy.
On social media, Guilbeault repeatedly brands Poilievre as #NoPlanPierre for the Conservative leader’s lack of credible climate policy, has highlighted the cancellation of Poilievre’s anti-carbon tax rallies due to wildfires and states Poilievre is jeopardizing up to 700,000 jobs for Canadians by opposing net-zero emission goals. Off social media, Guilbeault has repeatedly swiped at the Conservative leader.
On Wednesday, he said two of the biggest threats to climate action are misinformation and Poilievre, warning: “Any charlatan who comes along promising quick fixes can set progress back by years, even decades.” Earlier in the month, he travelled to Quebec City to hold a press conference outside the Conservative Party of Canada’s annual convention where he accused Poilievre of being a climate denier.
Poilievre is “someone who claims to be a political leader in 2023 who doesn’t even believe in climate change,” Guilbeault told reporters on Sept. 8. Someone “who does not believe we should be doing anything about climate change. Who accused me of being the source of some of the forest fires we’ve seen.
“I suppose environmentalists are also responsible for tropical storms that we’re seeing… The floodings in Nova Scotia, is that environmentalists’ fault? Ice storms? I mean it’s really easy to attack Pierre Poilievre.”
Showing up to criticize Poilievre was premeditated and represents the start of an informal election season, University of Victoria associate professor James Rowe told Canada’s National Observer.
“This was one of the first clear volleys from the Liberals that there's a bit of a change in gear,” Rowe said.
“Right now, Trudeau is the prime minister and there's a certain air and comportment that's required with that position that keeps him from getting in the mud and in the fight that he might want to,” he added. “So it makes complete sense there would be some proxies that would be deployed, and Guilbeault is the right one given that climate is a front where [Poilievre] has tremendous vulnerabilities, and so it makes sense to hammer him at this point.”
Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault seems ready to duke it out with right-wing politicians hell-bent on trying to block climate action. With climate change increasingly important to Canadians, is this a preview of the Liberals' re-election strategy?
Experts interviewed by Canada’s National Observer believe the Conservative Party is weak on climate change, an issue that is increasingly important to Canadians. It’s also an area where the Liberals don’t have much competition from the left, with the NDP’s climate plans roundly dismissed as inadequate in the last election.
For his part, Guilbeault denies the Liberals are concerned about their poor polling, but he’s still taking the political shots where he can. “There will be new polls in the future… We’re working to make Canadians’ lives better,” he said to reporters at the press conference outside the Conservatives’ convention. “What does Pierre Poilievre have to offer? He’s against everything.”
But moments later while responding to another question asking if the Liberals are worried about the polls, Guilbeault said, “No, I think we have to work hard for Canadians. That’s what we have to do, not worry about Pierre Poilievre.”
The message Guilbeault is trying to convey is that Liberals are still governing, not campaigning. But his actions suggest the party is actually attempting to do both.
‘Can’t ram policy down the provinces’ throats’
A broader look at the political landscape shows Liberals are fighting on several fronts that get at what Rowe calls the distinction between governance and electioneering. But Ottawa’s multiple spats with premiers, where Guilbeault often finds himself a lightning rod, is a governance problem that is making it more difficult to implement policies the Liberals want to be able to show off to voters in a year or two.
Nonetheless, the Liberals can’t ram policy down the provinces’ throats without risking their popularity, to say nothing of the expensive and lengthy court battles that could follow. That’s one reason why the federal government launched a working group with Alberta to discuss energy policy, knowing full well that Premier Danielle Smith has built her political brand attacking Trudeau’s government.
“From a governance perspective, even though you can be running into a brick wall with the current regime of Danielle Smith's government in Alberta, you have to be in conversation,” Rowe said. “But from an electioneering perspective and being able to win favour with a majority of Canadians to be able to be re-elected come 2025, they have to have positions of principle and be seen to be fighting to defend the national interest.”
Guilbeault has a ready answer when asked about Ottawa’s relationship with provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan, whose premiers attack federal climate policy at every turn. Canadians don’t have the luxury of time to wait for those premiers to understand the threat of climate change before taking action, he says.
“I would love to be able to do these things collaboratively with all the provinces and territories, the fact that I can't only means that I have to work harder because the federal government has to do more of the heavy lifting,” he said. “The trust that the prime minister has put into me, and the mandate he's given me and the way I need to serve Canadians, doesn't change because of what Danielle Smith says or doesn’t say about our climate strategy.”
Dropping the gloves
Two recent polls, taken together, illustrate the Liberal dilemma. An Ipsos poll published in early September found a majority of Canadians want the federal government to do more to fight climate change and believe Ottawa would be failing them if it didn’t act now. At the same time, a Leger poll published this week found the Tories, whose stated climate plans mostly involve undoing legislation, are leading the Liberals by 12 points. With Poilievre climbing the polls by hammering Trudeau on bread-and-butter economic issues, Trudeau is under the gun. He needs to find ways to lift his popularity — and drag Poilievre’s down.
Once an election is called, Trudeau can get into the ring with Poilievre, Rowe says. When he does, Rowe expects the Liberals will attempt to brand Poilievre as extreme by pointing to things like his links to the deeply unpopular Freedom Convoy.
“What you saw with Guilbeault in Quebec City is the beginning of a fight of positioning Poilievre as extreme and out of step with Canadians,” Rowe said.
With Liberals having been in government for close to a decade, there’s a “complacency” that can set in, he added. But Canadians like to see their government fighting for popular policies, and it makes sense for the Liberals to choose climate change as an issue to highlight the differences between them and the Conservatives, Rowe said.
Keith Stewart, a longtime climate campaigner with Greenpeace Canada who knew Guilbeault before he went into politics, said Guilbeault’s first instinct was always to try to have a conversation to find common ground, “but at a certain point, he will get frustrated.”
“When you're dealing with people who are bargaining in bad faith — which I would say is entirely the position of Danielle Smith's government on discussions on climate change — at a certain point, you've got to stop playing along with someone who is trying to play you for a fool,” Stewart said.
“There's an increasing dropping gloves and squaring off, which I think is a good thing to see. We need to be pushing back on people whose answer to the climate crisis is to make it worse by doubling down on oil and gas and opposing every action to address it,” he said. “But I think it's also interesting politically because it's clear he's been given space to do this.”
With Guilbeault one of the few ministers who survived this summer’s cabinet shuffle unscathed, close watchers of Parliament Hill take it as a sign Trudeau supports his efforts, even if frequent feuds with right-wing premiers like Danielle Smith, Scott Moe and Doug Ford may be politically challenging at times. Not backing down from conservative premiers is a smart move, Stewart says, and reflects Liberals having a better sense of how Canadians feel about climate change than their competitors.
“One of the big shifts I don't think Conservatives have wrapped their heads around is that climate change has gone from an abstract future problem to a real and present danger for a lot of Canadians,” he said.
“It's no longer, ‘Someday your grandkids might be affected by drought, wildfires and more extreme storms,’ it's we're cleaning up in Nova Scotia this week and more of B.C. is burning today because the wind shifted.
“It's a daily litany of unfolding disasters, which Conservatives have no answer to other than burn, baby, burn.”