Butts is Back

July 28, 2019

Two ways in which the Liberals’ High-Stake Gamble Can Determine the Election Outcome

News that previous Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Gerald Butts, has re-entered federal politics, as Campaign Advisor, broke last Saturday. Mr. Butts resigned his position at the dawn of the SNC Lavalin affair, in his words, to avoid distracting from the vital work being carried by the Prime Minister and this Government. Mr. Butts had been the right hand of Mr. Trudeau since the 2015 campaign, and thereafter, a chief advisor, was involved in all high priority files of the Liberal Government, including this one. Bringing Mr. Butts advice back can be a great asset in delivering strategic direction for the Liberal party. However, it can also be a sizable liability in reopening the SNC Lavalin affair.

Mr. Butts, the sunny ways casualty

Twenty-nineteen has been a year plagued with irony for the Trudeau Liberals. The SNC Lavalin affair and Mr. Butts’ role in it depicts such irony, in a way that no other issue can. The former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister is seen as the architect of the “sunny ways” vision that led the Liberals to victory in 2015. Once in office, Mr. Butts became known as the brains of the operation, chief advisor to the Prime Minister, and to a large extent the shaper of Government decisions. If Mr. Trudeau is the most significant variable for the Liberals’ success, Mr. Butts is the most significant variable to Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Butts effectively led the strategy that for so long helped the Trudeau Liberals maintain a commanding lead on the polls.

Once the Liberal Government was deep into the SNC Lavalin file, it was Mr. Butt’s advice that led to the shuffle of Miss Wilson-Raybould, which unravelled a sequence of events leading to the breaking of the story by Robert Fife on February 7th, 2019. Neither the details of the story, nor whether Mr. Butts and the Liberal Government are ethically liable on their handling of the affair are not the subject of this article. However, his role in the lead up to the story breaking, and his role thereafter, from stepping down, to testifying in front of committee, Mr. Butts is more closely tied to this story than anyone else, with the exception perhaps of Mr. Trudeau.

The irony is that given the ethics-charged nature of the issue, the Liberal narrative of “real change”, “hope and hard work” and other principled approaches to governing that Mr. Butts helped craft, continued being used in response to the SNC affair, and at the time only further aggravated the electorate. The breakdown of the affair effectively brought an end to “sunny ways” as an effective vision -turned-into-narrative in maintaining public support.

The public’s attention on issues of this complexity is low to none. An average voter does not dive into the intricacies and by now has shaped their opinions on the issue. Polling during the 54 days the issue ran on the news showed Liberal support plummeting. In the short span of 54 days, from February to May, Liberals shifted from majority territory to a distant second place in public support.

Liberal support numbers did not rise again because they successfully changed public opinion on the issue, but rather because the issue lost media attention, and therefore became irrelevant to the public. The public associates the SNC Lavalin situation with ethical misdoing, and opinion leaders, journalists and the like associate Mr. Butts to the SNC Lavalin affair.

The Homecoming of Mr. Butts, what are the pros and cons:

While the SNC Lavalin issue has now disappeared from news cycles, ethics remains a key electoral issue in the eyes of voters. A recent Nanos poll ranked ethics as the main election issue for polled voters. In having Mr. Butts officially join campaign ranks, Liberals took a gamble on re-opening the issue.

In an earlier article, we discussed key factors causing the rebirth of the Liberals in the polls, with the dissipation of media coverage on the SNC Lavalin affair atop the list.  In bringing back Mr. Butts, the Liberals have made the grave strategic mistake of arming their opposition with an excuse to resurface the issue. While Mr. Scheer will continue to focus on selling his positive message and vision for a CPC-led Canada, the strategy will be for other high-profile Conservative MPs to go on the offensive on ethics issues, whenever presented with the opportunity. Mr. Butts’ homecoming effectively provided them with such opportunity. Just this week, high profile Conservative MP and Finance Opposition critic Pierre Poilievre made a number of media appearances criticizing the Liberal’s decision. Thereafter, Conservative MPs Lisa Raitt and Erin O’Toole appeared on multiple news outlets on the offensive amidst allegations that the Liberals prevented ex. Canadian Ambassador from commenting on China.

What were the Liberals thinking?

Given the tightness in the polls, the Liberals weighed the pros and cons, and decided the benefits outweighed the risks. Here are the factors:  

Pros:

  • Chief campaign strategist in 2015
  • Considered one of the brightest political minds in Liberal circles
  • Knows the Trudeau brand like nobody else, he designed it
  • Closeness with Mr. Trudeau
  • Veteran campaigner in the key battleground region of Ontario
  • Spent three years in office designing the 2019 Liberal election plan

Cons:

  • Resurfaces SNC affair
  • Presence equips opposition parties with a justifiable opportunity to attack Liberals on ethics issues
  • Ethics issues rank high on voters’ conscience
  • Unpopular with caucus members, can lead to internal disputes

If Liberals do well, we may never find out how determinant Mr. Butts’ advice was on the electoral outcome. However, if ethics, or the issue of SNC Lavalin becomes a sticky one in the election, then Mr. Butts’ presence could become a major factor for their demise.

The game has changed from what it seemed two weeks ago, or even last week. The Gerald Butts factor stands certain to be a determinant to the elections result, whether through positively advising the Liberal war room strategy, or negatively impacting public opinion by way of his presence, only time will tell which had greater impact.