How Canada’s Justin Trudeau fell off his moral high horse
The prime minister’s battles with scandal highlight the dangers of overpromising
Justin Trudeau had it coming. A political scion, he won the election in 2015 to become Canada’s prime minister partly due to voter fatigue with the incumbent and the mistakes of his opponents.
In office, he chose to position himself as the leading edge of a progressive wave of kinder politics. “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways,” he told supporters, a historical allusion associated with a more conciliatory approach. He trumpeted his choice of a gender-balanced cabinet as he promised to tackle climate change and boost opportunities for indigenous people.
But Trudeau is discovering that those who ride a moral high horse fall hard when they stumble. Accused of interfering in a corruption case involving one of Canada’s biggest companies — SNC-Lavalin — he is battling ministerial resignations, falling poll numbers and serious questions about his leadership ahead of the October general election.
Trudeau on Thursday denied claims by former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that he and top aide Gerald Butts pressured her to go easy on the engineering group. They were said to fear a conviction would lead to job cuts in Mr Trudeau’s home province of Quebec, a crucial electoral battleground.
Instead he blamed the scandal on “a breakdown in trust” between Butts and Wilson-Raybould and rambled on about his “leadership style” and his love of justice. He refused to apologise and asserted that there was nothing wrong with trying to save jobs.
How did this proselytiser of progressive politics find himself mired in an old-fashioned scandal? It largely comes down to a grand misreading of the strength of his mandate.
The prime minister’s endless efforts to portray himself as cool have reinforced the sense that he is all spin and no substance.
Trudeau was not supposed to win. But Thomas Mulcair, then leader of the leftist New Democratic party, and Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper ran poor campaigns. Trudeau, son of one of the country’s best known prime ministers, was seen as a political lightweight, but he barely put a foot wrong. He excelled in the leaders’ debates and harnessed social media to build an image of a dynamic young, optimistic leader.
Brand Trudeau helped win the election, but since then it has occasionally descended into farce. On a trip to India last year, pictures of him wearing traditional local outfits prompted mockery.
“FYI we Indians don’t dress like this every day sir, not even in Bollywood,” tweeted one local politician. He also fell foul of ethics rules and looked elitist when he took a 2016 family holiday on a private island owned by the Aga Khan, the billionaire religious leader.
The prime minister’s endless efforts to portray himself as cool have reinforced the sense that he is all spin and no substance, and his feeble response to the SNC-Lavalin crisis has only added to that impression.
After setting himself up in such lofty terms, it was almost impossible for him not to come up short. His environmental promises, for example, were always going to be difficult to meet in a country that relies so heavily on the oil and gas industry.
Hubris also led to political miscalculation. Trudeau and the Liberals interpreted their record-breaking gain of 148 seats in the 2015 election as strong backing for Trudeau’s agenda when it had as much to do with voters being fed up with Harper.
The backlash had already started to appear at the provincial level before the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Ontario’s populist leader Doug Ford — brother of Rob, the late crack-smoking Toronto mayor — won office last summer partly by using the prime minister as a foil.
Trudeau has also been criticised for concentrating so much power in his top aides, particularly Mr Butts, whom he met when they were both studying at McGill University almost 30 years ago.
Long known as Trudeau’s chief enforcer and gatekeeper, Butts crafted the campaign that made him leader of the Liberal party in 2013 and masterminded his run to become prime minister two years later. Since then, Butts has also engaged in public sparring matches over government policy on Twitter in a way that is unusual for unelected aides.
There is self-evidently a governance problem when your closest adviser is also your best friend. Even the smartest operators struggle to separate the private and professional, and the chumminess undercuts the usual progressive claims to provide clean, more open government.
Now the question is whether Trudeau can repolish his halo ahead of the election. Although he has fallen short on promises to reform the electoral system and has yet to rebalance the budget, he can point to some successes. These include securing a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement (though some give the credit for that to his foreign minister Chrystia Freeland).
The prime minister will also benefit from the fact that his opponents — Andrew Scheer of the Conservatives and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh — are both relatively new leaders and are struggling with their own credibility issues. Mr Trudeau’s poll ratings have dropped but his Liberal party remains neck-and-neck with the Conservatives for the lead.
But as he knows all too well, when voters turn on an incumbent prime minister, nothing is guaranteed.
© 2019 The Financial Times Ltd