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Liberals find anti-Trudeau sentiment on campaign trail in Prince Edward Island

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OTTAWA — When voters in Prince Edward Island go to the polls next week, they’ll be making their choice without any input from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Even though polls suggest Wade MacLauchlan’s governing Liberals will need all the help they can get to stay in power, sources close to the campaign say they haven’t reached out to their federal colleagues for support — a sign Trudeau’s one-time rock-star status on the island has become a political liability.

In the past, Trudeau was always a popular visitor on the island, both as Liberal leader and as prime minister. His public events typically attracted large crowds of supporters keen for a selfie or a handshake.

But as candidates knock on doors in advance of Tuesday’s election, the voters who answer feel the need to vent about the prime minister, say campaign workers and insiders — Liberals and Conservatives alike — who spoke to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss the state of play on the island.

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed Tuesday that no one in the provincial Liberal camp has requested a campaign visit from Trudeau, and no travel to the island is scheduled.

“It would be crazy,” said one senior P.E.I. Liberal operative. “We wouldn’t want them here.”

Tuesday’s trip to the ballot box promises to cap one of the most interesting races that voters in Canada’s smallest province have seen in recent memory, thanks to a dramatic spike in support for the Green party that has altered the political landscape, mainly in the island’s central ridings.

One poll released ahead of the snap March 26 election call suggested the Greens were leading the Progressive Conservatives, headed by leader Dennis King, who’s only had the job since early February. The Liberals, who have been in power for the last 12 years, were languishing in third.

When Trudeau was last in the province in the weeks prior to the election call, he made a jobs announcement and attended a Liberal fundraiser. But a small group of protesters also showed up — a common feature of the prime minister’s public events elsewhere in Canada, but a rarity for Trudeau in P.E.I.

“Before, when Trudeau came to town, it was bedlam because people were so excited when he was around,” said Don Desserud, political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, who described him as an asset to his party over the first three years of his mandate.

“It’s only this last year that has shifted, and I do think it’s absolutely telling that the Liberals (in P.E.I.) have not invited him and, it appears, would not see him as an asset here at all.”

PMO officials have said Trudeau prefers to steer clear of provincial campaigns, although he did lend his support to a provincial byelection effort in Ontario in 2016. And he visited P.E.I. on behalf of MacLauchlan’s Liberals in 2015, before becoming prime minister.

His reversal of fortune appears to be at least partly the result of the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

For months, Trudeau has been fending off persistent questions about allegations from former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that he and others in the PMO tried to interfere for political reasons in a criminal prosecution of the Montreal engineering firm related to its dealings in Libya. Trudeau and his officials have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

But since voters don’t often draw a distinction between federal and provincial parties of the same name, canvassing voters during the campaign — especially at the outset, when the SNC fervour was most pitched — has often been uncomfortable for Island Liberals.

Some voters in P.E.I. have expressed anger and frustration with how Trudeau and his government have handled the affair, while others are just disappointed with his record as prime minister, say Liberals and Conservatives alike.

This rise in anti-Trudeau sentiment is not only manifesting in P.E.I., but also across Atlantic Canada, said Donald Savoie, Canada research chair in public administration at the University of Moncton.

“It’s pretty clear to me and to many Atlantic Canadians that (the Liberals) are facing some pretty strong headwinds,” Savoie said.

He pointed to episodes over the last few years that some voters see as Atlantic Canada getting short shrift from Ottawa, including the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline, a dearth of Atlantic MPs in cabinet and the decision to name Toronto MP Navdeep Bains as head of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, rather than someone from the region.

After handing Trudeau all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada in 2015, voters expected better treatment, Savoie said.

“It’s a feeling in Atlantic Canada that the region has been taken for granted.”

The last time P.E.I. voters went to the polls in a provincial election was May 2015, just five months before casting their federal ballots. Stephen Harper was still in power and deeply unpopular in P.E.I., thanks in part to his Conservative government’s cuts to employment insurance, reductions in federal jobs and lingering resentment over his talk years earlier of a “culture of defeat” in Atlantic Canada.

Back then, it was Progressive Conservatives who squirmed on the doorsteps in the face of the prime minister’s unpopularity.

This time, it’s the other way around.

“As much as Harper hurt things last time, Trudeau is helping now,” said one Conservative insider, speaking frankly on condition of anonymity — a sentiment echoed by others, including Liberals who remember the anti-Harper sentiment filling their sails.

“We’re in the race of our lives,” said one. “And he (Trudeau) isn’t what he used to be.”

Desserud said he’s not convinced all is lost for the federal Liberals. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s ties to the former Harper government and close connection with Alberta premier-designate Jason Kenney, a former Harper acolyte who has promised a referendum on equalization, won’t play well in a region where three of the four provinces rely heavily on equalization payments.

Savoie, for his part, isn’t so sure.

“I think Trudeau had better focus on Quebec and Ontario,” he said, “because Western and Atlantic Canada is going to be an extremely tough sell.”

—Follow @ReporterTeresa on Twitter

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


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Trudeau to push trade pact in EU leaders’ summit as France moves ahead on CETA

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MONTREAL — Lawmakers in France begin their ratification of the comprehensive trade agreement between the European Union and Canada as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes the leaders of the 28-country bloc to Montreal today.

Trudeau has been pushing hard for a win on trade and foreign policy after two difficult years marked by a rough renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the Trump administration and the deterioration of political and trade relations with China.

Trudeau will talk up the merits of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a series of events in Montreal over the next two days.

But Wednesday’s legal development when the French National Assembly begins its consideration of France’s ratification bill is also a prime focus for Canada’s Liberal prime minister, who will be fighting a federal election this fall.

Sources in France and Canada, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the talks, say Trudeau lobbied French President Emmanuel Macron for more than a year to introduce the bill, and that those efforts finally paid off last month in Paris during their most recent face-to-face meeting.

Almost all of CETA — in excess of 90 per cent — went into force in September 2017 under what is known as provisional application, but individual ratifications by EU member countries will bring it fully into effect.

That would mean a win for the international trading order that has been under assault by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“It’s an essential step. We’re very pleased with our co-operation with the French government,” International Trade Minister Jim Carr said in an interview.

Carr will be meeting his EU counterpart Cecilia Malmstrom in Montreal. He said the French move towards ratification is a significant step in Canada’s broader goal of diversifying Canada’s export markets.

Trudeau was in Paris in early June after attending the 75th anniversary commemorations of D-Day in France and Britain, and he and Macron emerged with news that France would move forward with CETA’s ratification. The introduction of the bill in the National Assembly is a first step in a process that the French government hopes will lead to full ratification by the end of 2019.

Macron and Trudeau have talked about the agreement repeatedly — in Paris in April 2018, in a telephone conversation a year later, and other face-to-face meetings. Macron is a staunch Europhile and open supporter of CETA, but he has had to tread cautiously because of populist opposition to trade deals in France and across Europe.

Canada has lobbied French lawmakers, businesspeople and farmers, an effort that included more than two dozen visits to various regions of France by Isabelle Hudon, the Canadian ambassador.

Trudeau also made a direct appeal to French lawmakers in an April 2018 speech to the National Assembly, the first time a Canadian prime minister addressed that body.

“Let us ask ourselves this question: If France cannot ratify a free-trade agreement with Canada, what country can you imagine doing it with?” Trudeau asked.

CETA gives Canadian businesses preferred access to 500 million European consumers, and a $24 trillion market. In 2018, Canada’s exports to the EU increased by seven per cent to more than $44 billion.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


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Uncompetitive nomination races weaken parties and Canadian democracy, study warns

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OTTAWA — Nominations for federal elections are strikingly uncompetitive and opaque, according to a new study, which says that has profound consequences for Canadian democracy.

New research by the Toronto-based Samara Centre for Democracy shows only 17 per cent of more than 6,600 federal candidates from 2003 to 2015 faced competitive nomination races, while 2,700 candidates were directly appointed by parties.

“If you see the nomination as a moment in a chain of democratic moments” leading to the election of a member of Parliament, said Michael Morden, the director of research at Samara, “I think it’s notable that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, there’s no real decision being made by local people.”

Morden said through exit interviews with MPs Samara has found there is “broad, quiet understanding” in political circles of the deficiencies of the nomination process. 

But he said most Canadians have little access to or ability to scrutinize the “black box” of party nominations, despite the stake they have in how parties run their internal elections.

Political parties are private organizations, the Samara study says, but they’re also “public utilities” that have a profound effect on Canadian democracy.

And a lack of competition might signal a worrying disconnect with the Canadian public, the study suggests.

There are several reasons the study proposes for why races are so often uncompetitive. Snap elections account for some of it, while rules that benefit incumbents are also a factor. Then’s there’s the reality that many local party associations are just too disorganized or small to attract multiple candidates.

But the trend extends even to larger parties that are competitive across the country, Morden said.

“In our mind, that is still a stunning lack of competition,” he said.

Beyond the lack of competition, the study also found nominations rules also have significant effects on the diversity of nomination candidates and, consequently, the diversity of members elected to the House of Commons.

Morden noted parties occasionally justify appointing candidates on the basis of diversity, but this was not borne out in the data.

In particular, the study suggests appointed candidates were less likely to be from visible-minority or Indigenous backgrounds.

The issue of female representation in the nomination processes was even more stark.

In line with findings that women win elections at around the same rate as men, the study suggests female nomination candidates are just as likely to win internal races as men are.

But just 28 per cent of nomination contestants covered by the study were women.

“That shifts the focus right back to recruiting, to the general openness of the process, to the intangible factors that cause some people to find their way in and others to self-select out or to never have the option,” Morden said.

The study found that longer nomination races and races that didn’t require monetary investment were correlated with higher female participation.

Morden said parties essentially close themselves off from a majority of Canadians through rules that make it more difficult to participate in nomination processes: short races, monetary costs, lack of information and protections for incumbents.

The study recommends corresponding changes in party policies: standard opening and closing dates for races, the obligation to report the number of votes candidates receive, and holding contests even where there are incumbent MPs.

These changes are in the best interests of parties that want to stay internally strong and remain connected with the Canadian public, Morden argued.

The study also considers a potentially expanded role for Elections Canada in administering or regulating the races, something Morden acknowledges is not popular among the parties.

Parties can also be reticent to even provide information about their nomination processes, Morden said. For example, only the Green party provided information about how many candidates it screened out of its nominations in 2015.

“There’s just not a culture of openness,” Morden said. “The nomination process is still seen as a very internal one, rather than a vehicle for mass political engagement.”

The first step in a reform process is convincing Canadians to care, Morden said, because otherwise “you’re not going to convince parties to do much.

“It’s hard to regulate parties, because parties make the law.”

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press

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