Can’t Start a Fire Without a Spark

3 minute read

The Liberal government likely thought they had enough on their plate. A cost of living crisis, the future of healthcare, a shaky economy, the war in Ukraine – more than enough to keep you busy. And yet, the longer a government is in power, it’s the pesky political brush fires that can end up posing the biggest threat to your survival.

The first flare-up came courtesy of big-ticket contracting work with McKinsey, a consultancy with ties to the Liberal government. While $100 million in contracts is far from uncommon in the federal government, it was how the news of the contracts broke that was problematic.  The reveal of the McKinsey contracts started at a few million, jumped to $40 million, then ultimately landed at over $100 million. By not getting all the bad news out at once – comms 101 – the government was put on the defensive. Nevermind the fact that the work McKinsey produces could be useful, or that their work made up less than 1% of what the government spends on contractors, the match was struck.

The next spark was from another contract gone awry. This time, for the development work of the much-maligned ArriveCan app. The Liberals hired a firm to act as brokers between the government and larger firms – a role many people assume should rest within the public service. Was the brokers’ cut excessive? Sure. But rather than be on the front foot of the issue, the Prime Minister was again put on the defensive and forced to defend the government’s position after the story had already broken. 

The most recent communications ‘s&*t sandwich’ arrived when it was revealed two cabinet ministers hired a foodie-focused PR firm to help with media training. The problem? The firm is run by a former Liberal staffer. While those involved may deserve the benefit of doubt, this kind of slip-up is what happens when political antennas start to fray. And let’s not even begin to dive into the mess at BDC. A fireside chat that costs $320,000 to produce? Inflation is real, but that’s pushing it.

On their own, each of these brush fires should be easy to put out. But, a stronger communications strategy would have kept them as nothing more than sparks. Taken together, each was tinged with the smell of Liberal cronyism, and all of sudden you’ve got a fire on your hands

In previous governments, the prime minister’s hatchet woman or man would step in at this point. But that’s not how the Trudeau government works. They’ve chosen loyalty over discipline, in a marked contrast to Liberal governments of the past. There is no doubt that loyalty matters but when it begins to threaten your political survival, you’ve got to be ruthless.

Last week’s cabinet and caucus retreats were filled with important discussions on everything from the upcoming federal budget to the state of healthcare in Canada, to how Canada will continue to support Ukraine’s ongoing struggle. But for the sake of the government’s survival, it would have been wise for the Prime Minister to have read the Riot Act to his colleagues. If they don’t get control of these brush fires or better still, stop setting them in the first place, then they are the ones who will get burned.

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