Pot legalization a lesson in savvy political timing

In politics, there are two factors — over which you have no control — that determine your fate: timing and luck.

In running for office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to have taken his father’s advice that “the essential ingredient of politics is timing” to heart.

Promises, which were the foundation of his 2015 campaign, were each cleverly timed to catch the changing mood of Canadians.

A tax cut for the middle class and those aspiring to join it, deficit spending to fund renewal of our aging infrastructure, the welcoming of 25,000 Syrian refugees, and the legalization of marijuana.

All were easy to promise at a campaign stop. Each would have its difficulties and obstacles when it came to implementation.

In particular, the legalization of marijuana, an issue that at first blush seemed straightforward turned out to be, upon a deeper look, fraught with challenges.

But on the marijuana file, in spite of those challenges, the Liberals forecast exceptionally well.

Political capital is, after all, fleeting. The view of voters, at best, unstable. Those on top one day can find themselves at the bottom just a year later.

That’s why leaders try to use timing to beat the need for luck. That’s why prime ministers often try to accomplish their most challenging political objectives at the start of their mandates.

Trudeau’s Liberals knew they needed to have legalization sorted before 2019. They also knew they had a better chance to bring skittish Canadians along if they did so before the government got into the nitty-gritty business of cannabis.

By starting down this road early, the Liberals were able to establish a thoughtful process for legalization: they afforded significant time for consultation with business, third-party organizations and the provinces. The result was that they were able to accomplish their goal with a year to spare before the next election.

By Oct. 17, the day pot became legal, this endlessly talked about, “earth-shattering” moment in Canadian politics unfolded as just another dry day in the House of Commons. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer did not even mention legalization during question period that day.

The Liberals know, however, that a chunk of Canadians remain firmly against their policy initiative. To mitigate the electoral impact of this, the Liberals are counting on voters to have become distracted by other issues of a new day.

And what about the 30 per cent of Canadians who enjoy marijuana regularly? Here the Liberals hope they will be rewarded for legalizing cannabis when these voters get to the ballot box.

But timing isn’t the only thing. When asked what he feared the most, Harold Macmillan, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” And this is where luck comes into play. American football great Vince Lombardi once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

And the Liberals found themselves with no shortage of luck on this file.

At the time of his election in 2015, Trudeau faced a very different slate of premiers than he does today. Then, more than 80 per cent of Canadians lived in a province with a progressive-leaning premier who favoured legalization.

Since that time, the political climate in the provinces has changed dramatically and, if the pollsters are correct in Alberta, will continue to change.

The prime minister faced very little scrutiny from the provinces regarding marijuana when he launched his initiative. Manitoba was the only jurisdiction that attempted to derail the legalization process.

More recently, however, premiers who have grown united against Trudeau on several other policy files have begun to make noise about challenges to the rollout of marijuana legalization and the federal government’s supervision (or lack thereof) of the process.

Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford fired his first warning shot on Wednesday. Don’t expect it to be his last.

Imagine if Ford had been there since the beginning, rallying those Canadians who opposed the legalization — and pointing out the flaws in the Liberal plans.

Timing or luck? Why choose?

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 21, 2018)