Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party are still in a damage control mode as their public support is hovering low following the prolonged “scandal.” Prospects for his re-election in the Canadian election in October look uncertain.
With the election less than five months to go, the latest average approval rate of various polls for Trudeau’s Liberal Party has plunged to 29.8%, the lowest since the launch of the administration four years ago – trailing the opposition Conservative Party by as big as 6.4 percentage points.
According to the CBC News (5/14), if the federal election is held today, the Conservatives would win a majority by 37% of certainty, while a plurality, if not a majority, with a 33% likelihood – for a combined 70% of certainty of the Conservatives becoming the No. 1 party, beating the Liberals.
Many of the Canadian news media predict that the Conservatives would win the election if it is held today. Yet, Canadian election and political pros argue that it’s too soon to count Mr. Trudeau out. The Economist and some other more matured, cool-headed news media say there is no way of knowing what would happen between now and October.
By analyzing various polls conducted by polling firms, institutions and media between mid-March and mid-April, Global News predicts Trudeau’s Liberal Party “is likely to win – but not by a majority” in the federal election scheduled for Oct. 21. (Global News, 4/22)
At the start of the year, the Liberals looked well-placed to win the October election – thanks partly to mediocre performance by new opposition party leaders, who have problems of their personal recognition with voters.
This optimistic mood changed overnight with the Globe and Mail scoop of Feb. 7. It said that the Prime Minister’s Office, including Trudeau himself, had put pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould, then justice minister and attorney-general to shelve the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin Group on bribery and fraud charges and grant an out-of-court settlement. If it’s true, this is the worst political scandal to hit the Trudeau administration ever since its inauguration, to be known soon, and dog the Prime Minister for over two months, as “SNC-Lavalin scandal.”
SNC-Lavalin, based in Montreal, Quebec – Trudeau’s home constituency – is one of Canada’s most important companies, employing nearly 9,000 in Canada and more than 50,000 worldwide. If it is convicted, the multinational engineering company would be banned from bidding in federal government contract projects for 10 years – which could potentially cost thousands of jobs in Canada, and diminish the Liberal Party’s, and Trudeau’s, political fortunes. Quebec is so special to Trudeau and his party that the Liberals dominated and maintained a substantial 17-point lead in the popular vote over the Conservatives in Quebec, even when support for the party eroded during the SNC-Lavalin controversy elsewhere. (Global News)
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, a former high-ranking Indigenous group leader, refused to revisit the case to rescue the company, despite the repeated pressure from the Prime Minister and his team. She was moved to the Veterans Affairs Minister job and vice minister of defense, a less important position, in the Jan.14 Cabinet reshuffle. She quit the Cabinet on Feb. 12, five days after the Globe and Mail broke the news.
Breaking weeks of silence, in the House of Commons Justice Committee on Feb. 27, she gave testimony – “often inflammatory and defiant” – describing vividly and in detail 10 meetings, 10 conversations and a series of emails about the SNC-Lavalin criminal case with senior government officials between September and December. She said that in those meetings and conversations, she received “inappropriate pressure” and “veiled threat,” but said that it was not illegal.
Five days later, Jane Philpott, another Cabinet minister, resigned her post as the Treasury Board chief, saying that trust with Trudeau has been lost. She said she disagreed with how Trudeau handled the matter. “There is very good evidence that there were attempts to have political interference with a very serious criminal trial, she said in an interview with the CBC. (Reuters, 4/4)
A physician, Dr. Philpott is regarded as one of the respected and most capable MPs in the Trudeau administration, and in her previous Cabinet posts, she carried out measures to accept Syrian refugees, legalization of recreational cannabis and doctor-assisted suicide – some of the Trudeau government’s few important measures. As the Indigenous affairs minister, she has had developed close trust relationship with Wilson-Raybould.
What Ms. Wilson-Raybould described in her testimony presented an image of Trudeau, “a self-described feminist, who had a new, open and transparent way of governing, sending aides to gang up on an Indigenous woman to bend her will.” (New York Times, 3/1) By appointing the Indigenous woman leader as the first Indigenous person to hold the prestigious post of justice minister, Trudeau was thought to be serious about correcting the country’s wrongs against its Indigenous population – as he had promised during the 2015 election. The Wilson-Raybould dispute particularly disappointed and angered women supporters and the Indigenous people.
But as the scandal dragged on to become the most serious political crisis for Trudeau, the two MPs continued to criticize the Prime Minister to the extent that they were seen by their party colleagues they were trying to down Trudeau. Liberal MPs, especially veterans frustrated by Trudeau’s handling of the “revolt” demanded Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Philpott be expelled from the party. They were particularly upset by the fact that the former justice minister recorded a phone conversation with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, without his consent, and submitted it to the Justice Committee.
“The trust that previously existed between these two individuals and our team has been broken, whether it’s taping conversations without consent, or repeatedly expressing a lack of confidence in our government or me personally as leader,” Trudeau said, when he decided that the two should be expelled from the party caucus. “Our political opponents win when Liberals are divided. We can’t afford to make that mistake. Canadians are counting on us.” (CBC, 4/2)
With this, Mr. Trudeau managed to put the prolonged scandal to an end so that he and his party can focus on a long election campaign – although it is yet to know whether they can regain lost ground by convincing voters they are the party that care about them and deliver better than divided opposition parties. Many pundits say that Canadian voters, as voters in other countries, are concerned more about daily life issues – the economy – than a political scandal, and that Mr. Trudeau has five months to regain what he can of his reputation and hope the scandal fades from voters’ minds by the time they return to the polls in October. As apolitical science professor at the University of Waterloo puts it, “It’s hard to say if [the scandal] will be on Canadians’ minds in August or September.” (New York Times, 3/1) Let’s keep watch.
By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, senior consultant, TOCS