Canada’s election takes the shine off Trudeau

Justin Trudeau has been exposed as one of the weakest and most ineffective leaders his country has ever known

Dispatches
Prime minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire on election night in Montreal, Canada (©SEBASTIEN ST-JEAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s critics enjoy pointing out that while the president may have won the electoral college in 2016, he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Ironically, Canada’s Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau, a darling of political progressives, just recently won a similarly qualified victory in last month’s election against Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives. He beat then-prime minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative, in 2015 with a campaign based on hope, change and a return to “sunny ways”. His youthful optimism, economic policies aimed to help the middle class, and a Teflon-like persona when faced with moments of political hardship all seemed to herald a successful term in office and an easy re-election.

Yet he has been exposed as one of the weakest and most ineffective leaders his country has ever known. His understanding of politics, economics, tactics and strategic planning paled in comparison to his late father, the former prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and other predecessors of both parties. He stumbled and fumbled his words in speeches and interviews, which made him a target for public mockery and a perpetual meme.

What really unravelled his premiership was the Globe and Mail’s investigative report into SNC-Lavalin, a large Montreal-based construction company accused of bribing Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Trudeau’s office pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, the then Attorney General, to help the company by intervening in a related criminal proceeding. Trudeau could have stopped the political bleeding by apologising and allowing her to speak freely about this controversy. (Cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege in Canada prevented her from doing so.) Instead, he stubbornly claimed he never “directed” her to do anything. The controversy dented his popularity and his ego, prompting the resignation of Gerald Butts, his longtime friend, senior advisor and principal secretary.

In evidence to the parliamentary justice committee in February, Wilson-Raybould, who had also been Justice Minister, meticulously outlined dates, times and meetings with senior officials. There were apparently several attempts to pressure her, along with “veiled threats” about job security.

Scheer and the Conservatives caught up with Trudeau’s Liberals in most opinion polls. Faced with the prospect of a real opponent, Trudeau tried to depict him as a bigot, circulating a 2005 video of Scheer speaking about gay marriage. “They have many of the collateral features of marriage,” he said, “but they do not have its inherent feature, as they cannot commit to the natural procreation of children. They cannot, therefore, be married.” Scheer didn’t apologise, but acknowledged his views have evolved. He has repeatedly said the issue of gay marriage in Canada is “over”.

Both party leaders made unforced errors. In September, Time magazine released a 2001 photo from a school yearbook that showed Trudeau, then a 29-year-old teacher, wearing brown face makeup during an Arabian Nights-themed party. The profusely apologetic premier told reporters he had also put on black face makeup in high school while singing “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”.

Another, conveniently forgotten, instance was revealed by the media the next day that had occurred during a “costume day” for instructors at a Quebec-based whitewater rafting company. Trudeau preposterously claimed his privileged background meant he had not realised that such actions were perceived as being racist. Few, if any, Canadians believe Trudeau is racist. But three occasions of racial insensitivity jarred with his sanctimoniously “woke”
approach to identity politics.

Scheer also made several mistakes during the campaign, but they were hardly of the same magnitude. For instance, he had never discussed publicly his dual US citizenship, while criticising a former Governor-General, Michaëlle Jean, for the same thing. That looked hypocritical and mean. A muddled explanation of whether he was entitled to call himself a licensed insurance broker in Canada didn’t help, either.

As the mudslinging and viciousness dragged on, Canadian voters leaned back to the familiar and gave Trudeau a half-hearted endorsement on October 21, with 157 out of 338 seats. He also lost the popular vote to Scheer by 34.41 per cent to 33.07 per cent, the lowest vote share of any party to take or hold power in Canadian history.

Trudeau has opted not to build a coalition (which is rare in my country), and will work with the NDP, Greens and others issue by issue. Even though his closest allies are Left-leaning and share certain core values, political and economic differences will undoubtedly lead to some serious policy disagreements before long. Although the usual lifespan of a minority government in Canada is 18-24 months, the prime minister may face an uphill battle to even reach this political benchmark.

In four short years, Trudeau’s shiny progressive vision turned into a cloudy left-wing mess. The political forecast looks no better. Just the weather conditions that Scheer and the Conservatives are hoping for.