Politico

Trudeau loses luster as bruising campaign ends


OTTAWA — If Canadians elect a minority government next week, Liberal or Conservative, Justin Trudeau loses.

The Liberal prime minister gambled on an election he did not have to call. If the Conservatives win, he’ll suffer the worst kind of bad beat. And if the Liberals scrape by, he’ll still take heat for Canadians calling his bluff.

It’s a Mr. Magoo-esque situation for Trudeau whose political objective was to turn a double-digit lead in pre-election polls into a majority government.

That lead crumbled early. And Trudeau is now in a tight race against Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole in the final stretch of a 36-day campaign that ends Monday.

Trudeau survived the 2019 election with a weakened minority after campaigning in the shadow of the SNC-Lavalin and ethics controversies. Revelations that he wore racist garb decades earlier didn’t help either, hurting his image as a progressive leader.

Then and now, former President Barack Obama tweeted a campaign endorsement in the final stretch. In 2021, after leading Canada through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trudeau should not have needed the backing.

A Liberal party insider says it’s too early to discount Trudeau because the same people who worked with the Liberal leader through the last election are on the campaign team this year.

“Being up, being down, being behind, having the campaign not go the way you want. Jeez, that sounds an awful lot like 2019, doesn’t it?” they said.

Trudeau’s proposition that the election needed to happen now, two years early and in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, has drawn repeated scrutiny. His critics have blasted the campaign as an exercise to feed the prime minister’s ego rather than an act of good governance.

Éric Grenier, author of The Writ, said Trudeau’s favorable trend lines started to turn as soon as the election was called in mid-August, the same day Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul fell.

People’s voting intentions are unlikely to move solely because they’re upset about the timing of the election, Grenier offered. However, the perception that calling the election is in Trudeau’s self-interest could influence how people vote, he said. “I think that it raised the question of why are we doing this?”

This was supposed to be an election about policy, a referendum on the future of Canada, the prime minister said. But to many observers it seems more about Trudeau’s ego and cynical vote-buying.

Just before the campaign, Ottawa raced to lock national early learning and child care deals with vote-rich provinces, including British Columbia and Quebec. They’re two regions where the Liberals hope to make electoral gains.

“More ambition on climate change” was another explanation Trudeau gave Canadians.

The party’s platform includes promises to ban the export of thermal coal by 2030, cut methane emissions and reduce emissions from the oil and gas sector. While the New Democrats and Greens have proposed more aggressive emissions-reduction targets, climate policy experts give Liberals higher marks for backing their platform with policies and costs. Conservatives have made inroads to the center with a comprehensive climate plan with the lowest emissions reduction target, but policy experts have flagged it to be short on details around costs and timelines.

Instead of talking about the economics of climate and energy, Trudeau and O’Toole, the campaign frontrunners, have devoted more time to raising perennial wedge issues such as gun control and abortion.

The political gamble has left some federal Liberal Party insiders with a sense of regret over calling the election at all.

Trudeau was leading a minority government that was able to work with opposition parties to launch new, massive relief programs during a pandemic. But the election’s spotlight has put new attention on Trudeau’s record on campaign promises.

His government came through on a 2015 pledge to legalize marijuana, but high-profile promises to bring about electoral reform, to end all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 2021, and to implement universal national pharmacare have been either abandoned or delayed.

It’s possible Trudeau could end up back where he started with a minority government. The results would again challenge the need for the C$600 million election and raise questions about his leadership and future prospects.

“We may not have a clear outcome, in which case we may be going back to the polls in the spring,” said Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council, of one potential scenario that could await Canadians on the other side of election day.

If a government leads with a minority, it must look across the aisle for support from one party or another to maintain the confidence of the House and continue governing. An election can be triggered if the government loses the confidence of the House. This test traditionally happens every spring when the government tables its budget, or any other bill it considers a matter of confidence, for MPs to vote on.

To add to the intrigue, in Canada’s parliamentary system, should Conservatives land a minority on Monday, Trudeau will still have a shot at leading. The incumbent prime minister gets first crack at retaining the confidence of the House of Commons. Trudeau would have to strike deals with other parties such as the federal New Democrats, Bloc Québécois and Greens for a coalition government.

But this election wasn’t supposed to be about compromise; it was about cementing Trudeau’s legacy as a political unicorn. The problem is the unicorn has made enemies — some within his own party.

After six years of governing, some of Trudeau’s loudest critics include former members of the federal Liberal caucus and cabinet. Trudeau, who has championed himself a feminist, made headlines in 2015 for appointing Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet.

In the few years since, some of the same women who led some of the toughest files in Trudeau’s cabinet are now among the prime minister’s strongest critics.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, former Liberal justice minister who was kicked out of caucus by Trudeau, wrote in her new book that she told the prime minister “I wish that I had never met you” after he asked her to move on from the SNC-Lavalin affair. Liberal cabinet minister Jane Philpott was also kicked out of Trudeau’s caucus for supporting her friend.

When Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a former Liberal MP who quit Liberal caucus after breaking rank to support Wilson-Raybould, said she’s supporting the Conservative candidate running in the riding she used to represent. Former Liberal MP Michelle Simson responded online saying, “Trust me, she’s likely not the only one.”

Simson and Trudeau were both first elected in 2008. She sat beside the future prime minister in the House of Commons for a term before she was defeated in 2011.

“He was a lot of sizzle and no steak. That was my personal observation,” Simson said. She recalled Trudeau being “totally disengaged” during the Canada-Colombia trade deal more than a decade ago.

She said the centralization of power has increased under Trudeau’s tenure as leader — that government is directed by the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s a trend grassroots members have long flagged as a concern, reminiscent of “big U.S.-style centralized campaigns” that risk alienating Canadians from getting involved in local ridings.

Federal Liberals rely “less and less on the membership except for election time when they want volunteers on the street,” Simson said. It’s one factor that motivated her to let her party membership lapse last year — though she still identifies as a Liberal.

“He’s been losing support from women,” Simson said and referenced the prime minister’s treatment of Wilson-Raybould. “I think he got a bit of a pass in 2015. I think the luster started coming off in 2019.”

Trudeau, being the son of a former long-serving prime minister, has spent his entire life more or less in the public eye. He has become a brand unto himself, idealized as a progressive leader. It’s good for allies when he’s winning, but six years of governing have left their marks in Trudeau’s brand.

Abacus Data pollster David Coletto said it’s expected that a leader’s brand eventually weaves with their party’s over time. “Stephen Harper and the Conservative brand were deeply interwoven at the end of his 10 years in office. Chretien and the Liberal brand were deeply linked,” he said.

“Right now, I don’t think you’re gonna have many voters out there who say, ‘I love the Liberals, but I hate Trudeau’ or ‘I love Trudeau and I hate the Liberals,’” Coletto said. “The two [go] hand in hand.”

Asked Thursday if he would consider a return to power with a reduced minority an endorsement or indictment of his approach to policy and governing, Trudeau ducked the question.

“We are confident that Canadians want to move forward,” he said, working in a keyword of his party’s campaign slogan into his response.

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