There’s a litany of potential explanations for the disastrous drop the Trudeau Liberals have seen in their polling numbers over the last 12 months, from rising interest rates and growing cost-of-living concerns to Pierre Poilievre’s image makeover. But the one that stands out from the rest is the one that might be the hardest for them to fix: “Team Trudeau” is really, really bad at doing politics.

This wasn’t always a problem for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, of course. If anything, they’ve survived the last two elections because they’ve been better at doing politics than their Conservative opponents. But whether it’s pandemic fatigue or just a government that’s long in the tooth and short on talent, they keep stepping on their own feet when they try to walk.

Case in point: Steven Guilbeault’s declaration on Monday that “our government has made the decision to stop investing in new road infrastructure.” It came as part of his keynote speech at a fundraising luncheon for a public transit advocacy group called Trajectoire Québec and probably wasn’t intended to serve as fodder for Opposition attacks on his government. It’s not clear whether he didn’t think his comments would reach the broader public or he didn’t care, but the net result is the same: they represented an act of political self-harm at a time when his government is already bleeding out.

Yes, yes, Guilbeault says his remarks are being misinterpreted, but it’s literally his job to reduce the risk of that happening. And sure, what he said is grounded in research about the climate impacts of so-called “induced demand” that comes from building new roads and highways. It’s true the federal government has been clear for a while now that it would shift its funding towards infrastructure projects like LRT and other public transit. No matter. The job Guilbeault signed up for is called politics, not policy, and his comments were supremely unhelpful in that respect.

“There will be no more envelopes from the federal government to enlarge the road network,” he said. “The analysis we have done is that the network is perfectly adequate to respond to the needs we have.” This will come as a surprise to people in places like the GTA and Greater Vancouver, where traffic remains an enduring frustration that’s only growing thanks to the federal government’s ambitious immigration targets. Yes, roads and infrastructure are a provincial jurisdiction, but Guilbeault’s comments and their dismissive tone are going to make it exceptionally easy for the politicians there to shift the blame on him.

Oh, but he wasn’t done shooting himself in the foot. “We must stop thinking that electric cars will solve all our problems,” Guilbeault said. This is a very weird message coming from the environment minister of a government that keeps leaning conspicuously on electric cars as a solution, whether it’s the 2035 mandate for 100 per cent zero-emission vehicle sales or the tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and tax credits it keeps throwing at EV battery manufacturers. Again, there’s a kernel of truth in what he’s saying, but it’s going to get lost in the language he’s using to communicate it.

Conservatives in Canada right now might be terrible at climate policy, but they’re no slouches when it comes to politics, and Poilievre, Scott Moe and Danielle Smith didn’t miss their free shots. At some point, Guilbeault and the rest of his cabinet and caucus might want to decide to stop handing them out like free candy on Halloween.

This isn’t a completely new problem for the Liberals, either. The handling of the carbon tax rebate, which was rebranded this week, has been a years-long example of political malpractice. It’s allowed conservative politicians and pundits to confuse Canadians about the impact of the broader carbon tax — the Liberal government's signature climate policy — and pretend that it’s driving the cost-of-living crisis everyone is facing right now.

At first, the Liberals included the rebates as an income tax deduction, which was described as the “Climate Action Incentive Payment.'' When it became apparent people weren’t noticing it or that their tax preparers weren’t drawing sufficient attention to the rebate, they shifted to a direct deposit system. But even then, they couldn’t get the banks to label it consistently — and still insisted on using opaque bureaucratic branding rather than simple language.

Justin Trudeau's political comeback depends on things like inflation going down and the economy doing better. But none of that will matter if he can't get key members of his team to take their jobs — you know, politics — more seriously.

They’ve fixed most of that now, it seems, but Band-Aids don’t tend to stop this amount of bleeding. If they have any hope of cutting into Poilievre’s lead in the polls, much less taking one of their own, they need to start doing the work of politics as well as policy. Housing Minister Sean Fraser seems to get that. So does Immigration Minister Marc Miller and Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan. But until the entire cabinet and the prime minister himself start appealing again to the hearts of Canadians instead of just their heads, they’re going to keep getting their butts kicked by Poilievre and his growing legion of supporters.

The political beatings will continue, in other words, until the politics improve.

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Hope the liberals read your column, they need to!

There is much about our current society and human nature, more broadly, that prevents us from effectively addressing the polycrisis currently threatening a declaration, not too far down the road, of End of Life on our species (not to mention the collateral damage we inflict on our fellow travelers as we flail and drown, or scream and burn). It's unclear to me, however, how Mr. Fawcett's criticism of a particular phrase uttered by M. Guilbeault, without accompanying context, will effect positive change.

The issues underpinning the current status of the biosphere are complex. While effective communications from leadership is certainly vital, some ongoing journalistic curiosity about why humans are so reluctant to alter behaviour would benefit us all, I think.

Or does CNO believe that humans can have it all without changing how we operate?

Here's a 'for instance' of a broader look that, while acknowledging benefits of an EV compared to an UCE vehicle, points out that just switching to a different fuel doesn't address the most fundamental aspects of car culture.

(If you're blocked by the paywall, I'd suggest you try gaining access through your public library's services)

Great recommendation re: public library, a relatively unappreciated resource.

Another possibility is the Wayback Machine. Just search the term, and when you get to the page, past in the URL of the article you can't read ... the rest of it is more or less intuitive, but there is a how-to FAQ on the site. The articles aren't always readable the day of publication, and sometimes the paywall affects the performance of some of the copies posted, but I've not yet been unable to find a copy that doesn't deliver the article.
Same goes for WaPo and Toronto papers.

I was going to write respond to this article but see you took the words right off my keyboard. It's high time pundits and journalists of other stripes stop responding to polls in various ways and start asking questions about the impact beyond them.
I'm sure Max understands the gravity of the climate change emergency so his articles should reflect that instead of the minutiae of these kinds of stories.


What it's high time for and what is going to happen are two different things. My ideas about how society should be run are probably the most radical around here, but how society IS run right now involve concentrated media with a horse-race mentality, and if you want to do the right thing (which, really, is at best an open question with regard to the Liberals, but moving on) you have to fight to win, because losers enact no policies. And one part of fighting to win is dealing with the media environment. Pretending a politician can just say all the high-minded things in ways that are easy to distort and that will lead to any positive results is foolish.
Although that doesn't mean Guilbeault should back down, or for that matter try to explain himself in a defensive way. Now that he's said the thing, one lesson we can learn from the hard right's successes is, doubling down on things that seem like mistakes can work out better politically than backpedaling and looking weak. Another such lesson is that the mainstream media are in many ways a bunch of wusses, who will, if you have power, give you better coverage if you treat them like shit and threaten them and threaten to deny them access, than if you behave in a civilized fashion with them.

(Not a lesson relevant to radicals or progressives near the edges of the Overton Window; for them the lesson is always that the mainstream media will never stop treating you like shit, so you are better off finding ways around them and/or saying things so outrageous that they involuntarily give you coverage, than trying to be conciliatory enough for them to give you positive coverage--because you can NEVER be conciliatory enough until you find your name has actually changed to Tony Blair)

I support Steven Guilbeault and what he is trying to do. He understands the Climate Crisis and is trying to move Canada in a direction that addresses the problem, even though the fossil fuel industry blocks his way. Yes, it's unfortunate that he didn't think first before making that comment. However, we do need to move away from large highway infrastructure projects, or they will become stranded assets just like the TMX will probably be. Unfortunately, most Canadians don't get that. And yes, rural Canadians are still dependant on roads for transportation.

What is more deplorable is the fact that Conservative politicians are playing games with our future, attacking the Liberals wherever they see a weak spot. Maybe that's just "politics" but we can't afford this type of behaviour now.


Guilbeault: “Our government has made the decision to stop investing in new road infrastructure
“We must stop thinking that electric cars will solve all our problems”

If statements like that are enough to bring the government down, maybe the Liberals are not on solid ground to begin with. Though no doubt drivers stuck in traffic jams will now blame the federal Liberals.
Bungling carbon tax rebates and allowing the opposition to control the narrative on carbon pricing and bigger pocketbook issues are more serious. "Axe the tax" is simply and effective. Explaining how most households receive more in rebates than they pay in fuel charges is not.

Guilbeault’s minor flubs may fire up the opposition and provoke scandalous 36-point headlines from Postmedia's rage-farming scribes, but these are unlikely to alienate the Liberals' progressive base.

What issues are likely to cause Liberal voters to stray or stay home?
#1) Pocketbook issues like inflation and housing, with related issues of immigration, homelessness, and crime.
Inflation is largely driven by global oil and gas prices, pandemic-related supply chain issues — out of any national government's control. The carbon levy + rebate play only a minor role in rising prices.
Housing is largely a provincial matter. Fairly or not, voters will blame the current government. Does the opposition have any real solutions?

What else? Incoherent climate policy. Doubling down on fossil fuels. Approving an oilsands pipeline the day after declaring a climate emergency. Huge subsidies for carbon capture.
Hypocrisy on indigenous issues.
Uncritical support for Israel and gross failure to defend the human rights of Palestinians. The slaughter of innocents — the latest in a long series — enabled by Western governments will seriously damage Biden as well as Trudeau.

Ending funding for endless freeways and highways, taking the focus off EVs, and more funding for real transportation solutions like public transit are not the Liberals' biggest threats.
Do not lay the blame at Guilbeault's door. The one competent, dedicated minister the Liberals have.

Perhaps they need a speech writers, or to be given "talking lines" rather than talking points.
I consider myself to be progressive, though I don't agree with the "progressive line" on everything. But it's been a long time since the Liberals were actually a progressive party.
Unfortunately, they slid further to the right, to try to fill in what they considered to be a gap the Conservatives would likely fill, instead of holding their ground and letting the NDP keep what was seen as the "far left" and as a result the NDP itself has slid right-ward, as well.

Max, you're succumbing to the conservative "narrative" again.
That's not really the right word though because it has a mild-mannered, literary connotation when what conservatives have utterly ruined our public life with more closely resembles an active, frenzied "gamer" culture characterized by an intense, predominantly male focus on serial, serious destruction, thumbs flying. Poilievre exemplifies that and was chosen leader for that reason in a rare, accurate reading of the room.
And Trump's incorporation of that into a real-life political narrative, an unprecedented abandonment of common, human civility, has galvanized what the idiots involved want to call a revolution but is of course a "devolution." The shocking uptake has shown that he tapped a nerve, but it's very much been aided by the pandemic/social media and so will continue until we pull the plug, or it's somehow stopped by the insipid political left, or someone gets killed. Society simply cannot continue to evolve under such a noxious, obstructionist influence, although that may be moot in the truly predominant context of climate change.
On the news yesterday:'s%20intelligence%20agency%20is%20warning,continue%20over%20the%20coming%20year.
So in the context of the aforementioned, ongoing frenzy it doesn't really matter what's said, only what's done. Arriving at bottom lines and/or the truth have always been our only real hope, especially when we're running out of time, so we should be thinking of conservatives like we all think of Putin now. Although the little maggot has been allowed, courted, cajoled and sparred with for decades, there's no more denying that he's a monster. And Navalny, the true-blue democracy guy, is dead.

"...the climate impacts of SO CALLED "induced demand" from roads..."

Max Fawcett's phrasing is a big tell. Induced demand is a vital part of the transportation planning calculation. In fact, it's best practice. It applies to roads and transit equally. It is poorly understood by pundits like Fawcett and policy makers and the public, but, when ignored, it can have an absolutely crushing impact on road traffic, transit ridership and our quality of life in cities and the massive financing required for all of it.

As far as I am concerned, this article should not be about giving faulty advice on political communication to a politician, but about the effects of induced demand on cities and how it can be used extremely effectively to fight climate AND induce young voters to vote for climate adaptation measures like transit and better zoning that also help generate affordable housing and jobs.

In one respect Fawcett is practicing the very thing that he criticized the Globe's Andrew Coyne and Eric Reguly for -- knocking EVs based on flawed and out of date data, not to mention anti-EV propaganda. In reality, EVs are not that important as a solution. Correcting a highly flawed and out of date understanding about basic urbanism is essential.

EVs are only a temporary step to lower emissions by immediately negating the demand for petrol. And that's where their benefit stops. The central problem is sprawling outer cities whose main byproduct is mass car dependency and the unsustainable urban economics inherent in road infrastructure.

Fawcett's previous articles on afforable housing also illustrate a misunderstanding of urban planning. Basically, throwing massive density increases willy nilly across our cities is the farthest thing from intelligent land use planning, especially when such a highly effective life partnership can be carefully constructed between transit and city building.

The minister is absolutely correct to fault roads and praise transit. Now it's time for him to expound on transit and the opportunities transit projects present to rebuild the suburbs and convert them into intricately connected, self-contained towns and villages each with 30% of all new housing designed and funded to be affordable rentals, and create thousands of jobs in the process while also seeing an overall reduction in emissions across the board.

While I agree that the Liberals need to do a better job at “politicking”, the main solution to rectify their dismal position in the polls is for Trudeau to park his ego in the closet and resign as leader of the Liberal Party. My choice for a new leader would be Sean Fraser, the current Housing Minister. He is remarkably and impressively articulate and intelligent and an up and coming natural leader. Just what the tired ranks of the Liberal Party needs.

The other thing the Liberals and the rest of the progressive parties need to do is to consistently and relentlessly challenge the lies of Pierre Poilievre and the CPC. Surely the CPC stance on climate change (basically that it’s not real) is a vulnerable weakness in today’s world of severe climate impacts.

Totally agree.

I am curious how Max would suggest that politicians convey the truth that he admits underlies Guilbeault's contentions, and enact policies that reflect those truths.

One thing I don't see a lot of in Fawcett's crtiques of the Libs is the fact that Trudeau et al have been trying to appease conservative views all along with pipelines, billions and billions in public money directed to unworkable carbon capture and so forth, to no political benefit whatsoever other than a few weak affirmations from conservative media.

Maybe it's time to promote truthful policyspeak on climate initiatives loudly and clearly instead of advising ministers with facts, efficacious policies and sound economics behind them to tone it down.

Any politico who attracts the wrath of oil industry sock puppet Danielle Smith -- who represents just 1/7th of Canada's population -- is a politician worthy my vote.

Yes, politicians, please be honest, truthful, and constructive please. We are running out of time.

At this point, given the abysmal track record of the Liberals in addressing the climate crisis and their cowardly decision to scrap electoral reform (whoops, not the soundest decision in hindsight now, was that?) their electoral slaughter in the next election will be well-deserved.
For anyone arguing a CPC majority would be terrible, you are entirely correct, but we are being ruled by a complacent personality cult complacency to our ruin, and at least the CPC in power would galvanize the kind of grassroots politics we actually need.
Let the Liberals sink, they have blown it time after time, time for them to learn their lesson.