Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer owe us the best choice in October

Pro tip for Liberal strategists in the walk-up to October’s federal election: keep your man close to home.

Do not, to be more precise, let Justin Trudeau roam the world any more than absolutely necessary.

The Liberals have just turned the page on the most challenging year of their mandate — a year that saw Canada buffeted by threats not of its own making.

Overall, they did a solid job. They (or, more specifically, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland) managed to salvage a respectable deal in the face of Donald Trump’s threat to tear up the framework for North American trade. They stood up to the Conservative-orchestrated backlash against action on climate change. They brought in an important reform of Canada’s outmoded cannabis laws and stuck their necks out by outright buying the stalled Trans Mountain pipeline (even if that gets them no love in Alberta).

At the same time, Trudeau put his own worst qualities on full display in his now-notorious tour of India, the one punctuated by more costume changes than a Vegas show.

Even the prime minister now acknowledges that was pretty much a fiasco. And it wasn’t the only one. Trudeau has a tendency to get up peoples’ noses when he’s out and about on the world stage. A lot of the criticism is just Canadian tall poppy syndrome; we don’t like anyone who seems to be getting too big for his boots. But there’s little doubt it’s been a big factor in pushing Trudeau’s approval rating down to just 35 per cent.

So the government, and the Liberal party, would be wise to keep their leader away from the temptation to preen in public. It’s not a good look.

Trudeau should also be judicious about how he attacks Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives. In year-end interviews he made it clear he intends to keep “pointing out” the similarities between Scheer and Stephen Harper, and he warned about the dangers of populism that are more apparent than ever in the United States and all over the world.

Trudeau is actually right about all this. But he should be careful not to repeat Hillary Clinton’s mistake in labelling Trump supporters as “deplorables” during the 2016 presidential campaign. No one likes to be condescended to or dismissed as unworthy simply because they disagree on policy. Especially from a leader like Trudeau, regularly lampooned by the right as a “trust-fund baby.”

Which brings us to our pro tip for Conservative strategists: don’t succumb to the lure of populism.

It didn’t work out well for Harper when he tried to play that card on immigration near the end of the 2015 campaign. And we have enough confidence in Canadian voters to believe it won’t work for Scheer if he tries to go that route in the coming campaign.

There are already worrisome signs that the Conservatives are tempted. They’ve been running a pointless and inflammatory campaign against the United Nations’ “global compact” on migration, an inoffensive document that calls on nations to cooperate to deal with the world-wide movement of displaced people. In their version of events, that means shadowy “foreign entities” will be dictating Canada’s immigration policy.

Polls show immigration is the issue that resonates most with core Conservative voters, and of course the party faces a challenge from the right on this and other issues in the form of Maxime Bernier’s right-wing splinter movement.

So it’s perfectly understandable why Scheer & Co. are tempted to blow the anti-immigrant dog whistle. But that would be bad for the country, and almost certainly doom the Conservatives to remaining in opposition.

Scheer is still a mystery to most voters; they’re waiting for him and his party to spell out just what they propose as an alternative to the Trudeau Liberals. If he defines himself as a man of the hard right, he may well solidify his hold over his own party. But he’ll be playing right into the Liberals’ script for the 2019 vote: a showdown between their brand of progressive politics and a Conservative party that has jumped on the populist bandwagon.

Canadians deserve a better choice in October. Both major party leaders should resolve to fix their mistakes and give voters the best alternatives possible.

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