OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau is trying to move on after the most bruising two months of his time in office — but the damage may already be done.
Resignations have been piling up for the Canadian prime minister amid a scandal over whether he and his staff pressured the former attorney general to intervene in a legal case involving a Montreal-based construction giant. It’s punished his Liberal Party in opinion polls and put a dent in Trudeau’s personal brand.
Last week, Trudeau expelled two former ministers at the center of the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. ordeal and tried to stop the bleeding. The lawmakers are viewed alternatively as dissident troublemakers or principled whistle-blowers, so the prime minister is trying to change the channel to an issue on which he feels he’s an unambiguous winner: climate change.
“The best thing the prime minister can realistically do in the short term is get out of the news and focus back on his agenda,” Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research, said in an interview.
The pollster’s latest surveys show Trudeau’s Liberals and the opposition Conservatives tied at 35 percent ahead of an election this fall. The governing party’s support seems to have leveled off but Trudeau’s personal approval ratings are still falling, Nanos said. “We’re headed to a minority government.”
Canada’s 2015 election was a three-horse race between the Liberals, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and the left-leaning New Democratic Party under Thomas Mulcair. But this year’s vote is shaping up as a head-to-head fight between Trudeau and Harper’s successor, Andrew Scheer, who’s accused the prime minister of “bullying” behavior and abusing his power to silence critics.
On Sunday, Scheer said he received a letter from one of Trudeau’s lawyers threatening to sue him for his criticism. “This is a blatant attempt to use — some would say misuse — threats of legal action to stop me from fulfilling my constitutional duty as leader of the opposition to hold the government of the day to account,” Scheer said in a news conference. Trudeau’s complaints are without merit, Scheer said, adding that he stands by his criticism.
Hearings into the scandal have shown that Trudeau and aides had a series of conversations with his then-justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and her staff over whether to help SNC-Lavalin settle a fraud and corruption case dating back to its work in Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya. Issuing a directive to seek a deferred prosecution agreement would shield the firm from a potential conviction and subsequent ban on federal government contracts.
The controversy hinges on Wilson-Raybould’s allegation that the interventions amounted to judicial interference. Trudeau and his aides, however, say they were just trying to stave off job losses, and chalk it all up to the normal operations of government.
Wilson-Raybould was a star recruit to federal politics in the Pacific Coast battleground of Vancouver in 2015 who went on to become Canada’s first indigenous justice minister. She quit the Cabinet after being shuffled to a lesser role at the beginning of the year, and was soon followed out the door by another top rookie minister, Jane Philpott.
The departure of two high-profile women has called into question Trudeau’s commitment to feminism. A group of young women visiting Parliament last week turned their backs in protest during a speech by the prime minister.
The SNC issue has been simmering since the start of February, when the Globe and Mail newspaper first revealed the allegations of judicial interference. It flared up again last week when Wilson-Raybould revealed she’d recorded a conversation with Canada’s top bureaucrat, Michael Wernick, who announced his retirement as clerk of the Privy Council in March. One of Trudeau’s top aides, Gerald Butts, has also resigned.
Despite many Liberals seeing Wilson-Raybould’s actions as unacceptable disloyalty, there was a push to keep the Vancouver lawmaker in the fold. Jonathan Wilkinson and Carla Qualtrough — two other cabinet ministers from British Columbia — met with her April 1 to try and find a way forward.
“It was a difficult conversation because obviously we weren’t able to get to a point where we could find common ground,” Wilkinson, the fisheries minister, told reporters last week.
Trudeau kicked Wilson-Raybould and Philpott out of the Liberal caucus on April 2, saying trust had been broken. “The only trust that has been broken is between the prime minister and Canadians, who have seen his abuse of power,” Scheer countered in the legislature. “Why does speaking truth to power disqualify members from sitting as a Liberal?”
Liberals have struck an unfailingly unified tone since Trudeau’s move, including female lawmakers who bristled at allegations the self-avowed feminist has lost credibility. “I would argue that loyalty and feminism are two different things,” Tourism Minister Melanie Joly told reporters this week. “You want to work in a team, or you don’t.”
Wilkinson said he didn’t think Wilson-Raybould’s characterization of the whole saga was appropriate, and that he backs Trudeau. “At the end of the day, we all get involved in politics to make a contribution in some areas,” he said. “For some of us, like me, it was about climate change.”
Trudeau hopes voters agree. In announcing his decision to cut Wilson-Raybould and Philpott loose from the caucus, Trudeau said he would never apologize for defending jobs and urged his caucus to focus on the road ahead. “The next election is around the corner and the stakes are high,” he said. “Our opponents want to take us backwards. For proof, look no further than their lack of a climate change plan.”
The prime minister’s national carbon tax kicked in last week, coming into effect in four provinces where premiers aligned with Scheer had balked at introducing emissions reduction plans of their own. The Conservative leader is pledging to repeal the federal levy but hasn’t yet released a climate plan.
Scheer’s team now leads most opinion polls, with seat projections tabulated by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s polling analyst putting Conservatives on track to win 164 seats in the Ottawa legislature, six shy of the 170 required for a majority government in Canada’s parliamentary system. But history and a splintering of the political spectrum bode well for Trudeau.
Canadian voters rarely tire of a government after only one term. Meanwhile, NDP voters dissatisfied with rookie leader Jagmeet Singh are more likely to go to Trudeau than to Scheer, plus the Conservatives are facing a right-wing upstart populist party led by a Quebec lawmaker who narrowly lost the 2017 leadership race to Scheer.
Trudeau’s fate hinges on what voters want to talk about — and where left-leaning voters turn if Scheer maintains his lead. “The NDP are a bit of a stalking horse and a parking place for disaffected progressives that in a tight race could easily move into the Liberal camp,” Nanos said.
It will also be a contest between gains Trudeau makes in SNC’s home province, and losses everywhere else. “The Liberals will definitely lose ridings in every region with the exception of Quebec,” the pollster said. “The question is, with this controversy, how many ridings will they lose?”