Max Valiquette must love a challenge. The 50-year-old marketer and branding expert, who founded a youth-oriented market research company called Youthography, just joined Justin Trudeau’s office as his new executive director of communications. His job? Turn around the party’s increasingly desperate situation with younger voters.
The scale of that challenge was laid bare — again — in a recent poll from Abacus Data that had the Trudeau Liberals a staggering 19 points behind Pierre Poilievre’s Conservative Party of Canada. As Bruce Anderson, veteran pollster and former Abacus Data chair, said: “I don't know that I've seen more challenging numbers for an incumbent in Canada since 1993.”
Some of this, to be sure, is a reflection of the broader global environment. David Coletto, chair of Abacus, describes this as “inflationitis,” a disease that has already felled the New Zealand Labour Party and threatens the reigns of the Tory government in the U.K. and even François Legault’s CAQ in Quebec. Periods of rising inflation are rarely good for incumbent governments. That’s especially true when they’ve been in power as long as Trudeau’s Liberals.
But there’s also something else going on here that’s unique to Canada. The Abacus poll has the Liberals trailing Poilievre’s CPC by 21 points among voters 30 to 44 years old, and 12 points behind voters aged 18 to 29. For a party whose surge to power in 2015 was animated by enthusiastic younger voters, this is a stunning turn of events. Ironically, the Trudeau Liberals are now most popular among baby boomers and older Canadians.
Believe it or not, it actually gets worse for Trudeau’s team. When asked who they trusted more to make childcare more affordable, respondents put the Liberals two points behind the CPC — and this is after a landmark childcare deal already reducing costs for parents by hundreds and even thousands of dollars a month. When asked who they trusted to take action to deal with climate change, the party that has invested so much time and political treasure on that file is only three points ahead of Poilievre and his “What, me worry?” approach to climate change.
Young people are the ones who benefit disproportionately from the government’s multibillion-dollar childcare program, and they’re the ones who should be most invested in climate change and the pursuit of solutions. So why doesn’t anything the Liberals do resonate with them? Why don’t they care much about the facts here?
As James Carville might say: it's the housing market, stupid.
The Trudeau Liberals have finally found religion on the importance of this issue, and Sean Fraser, minister of housing, infrastructure and communities, has demonstrated that you can move political mountains when you’re willing to weaponize the power of the federal chequebook. But for all the new housing he’s been announcing, it will still take years before it shows in the data — and the prices people are paying. The recent fall economic update, which gave the government an opportunity to demonstrate its sense of urgency, left most housing advocates conspicuously underwhelmed.
As housing expert and economist Mike Moffatt noted, the federal government is “leaving housing demand from population growth untouched, making minor tweaks that won't go into effect until 2025, refusing to make transformative changes. I am deeply, deeply worried about the mess we're going to be in next year."
In 2015, young voters propelled Justin Trudeau to power. But if current polls hold, they'll be the ones who sweep him out of it. Can his new communications guru do anything to turn the tide?
Poilievre, meanwhile, just keeps hammering the government on this issue. In a 15-minute video he released on Twitter, Poilievre guides viewers through a series of charts, old media stories and even some decidedly wonkish infographics about monetary policy to build a case for laying all the blame at Trudeau’s feet.
I can pick plenty of holes in that video (and I did) that involve Poilievre’s misuse of the data or misrepresentation of the economic realities behind it. But if you’re a young person trying to find housing right now, that doesn’t do you any good — and it doesn’t change the most essential aspect of his argument. Housing is far more expensive today than it was in 2015, and the situation is much more dire and desperate for people who don’t already own a home. As a government, especially after eight years in power, you have to take some measure of responsibility for those outcomes.
That’s what Valiquette and the rest of the Liberal team are up against right now. They’re also up against the growing sense among Canadians that change of some sort is required. Indeed, the Abacus poll showed that 85 per cent of Canadians think we need a new government. In that sort of political environment, the Liberals could be making the most intellectually impressive arguments — they’re not, to be clear — and I’m not sure it would matter all that much. When so many Canadians have tuned out the Liberal government’s communicator-in-chief, there’s not much he or anyone else can say to change their minds.
Maybe that means it’s time for Trudeau to go. Maybe it means bringing in new star talent like Mark Carney and establishing a clear line of succession for him as the next leader. Or maybe it means that after rescuing the Liberal Party of Canada from political oblivion, Trudeau will end up returning it there once he’s done. There’s a certain symmetry there, if nothing else — especially if it’s young voters who ultimately end up sealing his fate.