Trudeau bets on strength of his Covid response in gamble to stay in power
He has broken ethics laws twice and is facing investigation for a third possible violation.
But Justin Trudeau is betting that his government’s handling of the coronavirus the pandemic will be enough to let him remain in power as he makes the riskiest gamble in his tenure as Canada’s prime minister.
In late August, as summer wound down and ethics investigations into his government’s dealings with a large charity ramped up, Trudeau prorogued parliament.
He argued that the government needed to “reset” its priorities to reflect the Covid-19 pandemic and efforts to rebuild the economy – but the move also had the effect of quashing politically harmful investigations and committee hearings.
Opposition parties cried foul, accusing Trudeau of attempting a cover-up – and pointing out that the prime minister had once pledged to never use “legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny”.
With parliament set to resume on September 23, the Liberal party leader’s throne speech will present an updated vision for the country’s future. But the speech will double as a confidence vote, meaning Canadians will see if opposition parties are serious about bringing down the prime minister – or if their outrage was merely political posturing.
The uproar over prorogation marks the latest twist in the whipsawing of political fortunes for Trudeau, whose tendency to find himself at the centre of controversy – often by his own doing – has sometimes harmed his government’s ability to stay on message.
Before the pandemic, the prime minister’s poll numbers were poor after a bitterly contested fall election.
“To be frank, his approval rating was in the crapper,” said Shachi Kurl, the executive director at the Angus Reid Institute, a Vancouver-based polling firm. “He hadn’t got back his lustre and shine.”
But when the pandemic struck , shutting down Canada’s economy and casting millions out of work, the federal government scrambled into action. Small business loans, a wage subsidy and a monthly cash payment to residents were all deployed in a bid to prevent the country from teetering into a prolonged recession.
Those policies – and the government’s general handling of the pandemic – have been well received by voters. A recent Pew Research Center poll found 88% of Canadians supported their government’s response – a stark contrast to the frustration and anger that many Americans expressed in response to Donald Trump’s reaction to the crisis.
But in June, the prime minister again found himself at the centre of controversy.
Not long after the federal government announced the multinational WE Charity would administer a C$900m student work program, the media outlet Canadaland revealed that the organisation had paid Trudeau’s mother, brother and wife to speak at its events, and had extensive ties to other prominent Liberals.
“Scandal is something that’s plagued this government over and over again. Frankly, they’ve shot themselves in the foot more often than the opposition has fired at them,” said Melissa Lantsman, a conservative strategist in Toronto.
Opposition parties pounced, organizing committee hearings and forcing the prime minister to testify.
It soon emerged that finance minister Bill Morneau, a powerful figure in the Trudeau government, had accepted two luxury trips from the WE Charity, without paying back travel expenses. One of his daughters was directly employed by WE and another had spoken to at multiple charity events.
As pressure mounted, Morneau resigned – a high-profile loss for Trudeau’s government.
Despite his carefully finessed public image, the prime minister is no stranger to scandal – or the loss of high-profile cabinet members. In 2017, the previous ethics commissioner found that Trudeau had violated conflict-of-interest laws when he took two all-expenses-paid family trips, including a helicopter ride, to a private residence in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan.
And in 2019, Trudeau violated the country’s ethics laws when he urged his attorney general not to prosecute an engineering company that had paid bribes to Libyan officials. The affair cost him former justice Jody Wilson-Raybould and health minister Jane Philpott, as well as Trudeau’s longtime friend and adviser, Gerald Butts.
While the prime minister has himself shown a preternatural ability to escape sustained political damage, rivals have sensed the fallout from the WE charity scandal could be different.
“Eventually, even Teflon wears thin,” said Lantsman.
The Conservatives, who recently chose Erin O’Toole as their new party leader, have already started transforming the party into a campaign-ready machine. O’Toole is reaching out to groups alienated by Conservatives (and their previous leader Andrew Scheer), hoping to sell the party as an alternative to Trudeau’s Liberals. A key part of that strategy includes reminding the public the prime minister is facing his third ethics investigation.
“People were paying close attention to the WE Charity story over the summer. It really had legs,” said Kurl. “Because the scandal gave people something else to talk about other than the pandemic for a change.”
Trudeau has injected a level of uncertainty into opposition calculations by promoting deputy prime minister and close ally Chrystia Freeland to finance minister – and hinting she will unveil an ambitious budget in the coming weeks that addresses gender inequities of the pandemic, bolsters the country’s social safety net, and plots the course for a “green” recovery.
Experts see the move as a deft political play: parties that are unwilling to support large government spending during a pandemic – or seem uncomfortable with deficits – risk being seen by voters as callous during a difficult time.
“Because of the stark reality of Covid-19 and the economic and public health crises that are all wrapped up in the pandemic, it’s going to be really hard for the Conservatives to make WE scandal a valid electoral question,” said Lori Turnbull, a professor of political science at Dalhousie University.
“The prime minister wants to go to the polls on how the Liberal government took care of Canadians and Canadian businesses during Covid-19.”
In last year’s election, the Liberals held 157 seats, shy of the 170 needed for a majority. For a fall election, all three major opposition parties – the Conservatives, Bloc Quebecois and the left wing New Democratic party (NDP) – would have to vote down the government’s agenda.
Both the Bloc and Conservatives have indicated a willingness to bring down Trudeau’s Liberals – leaving the progressive NDP and its leader Jagmeet Singh in a difficult position.
Singh’s party could use its power to influence policy in the upcoming throne speech, having indicated a desire to strengthen the country’s social assistance and childcare systems. But they risk overplaying their hand, forcing an election – and then losing seats.
“Depending on how the Liberal government plays its cards, there is a risk that the NDP have a serious existential crisis on their hands,” said Turnbull. “In the event that Freeland’s budget is ‘fiscally responsible and doable’, Singh will need to be able to explain to people why we need the NDP.”
A fall election will also test the limits of predicting turnout amid a pandemic: early research suggests nearly 30% of the population wouldn’t feel comfortable casting a vote in person, said Kurl.
“That’s huge,” she said. “What does it mean if you’ve supporters of one party say ‘Hey, we’ve got no problem with this – we’ll show up,’ and supporters of another party choose to stay home. What does that mean around the ballot?”
Despite talk of a fall election, none of the parties have expressed interest in heading to the polls. But they haven’t ruled it out, suggesting they’re preparing for Trudeau’s next gambit.
“Almost always, minority government prime ministers go to election when they want one,” said Turnbull. “If he wants to, Trudeau will engineer an election pretty handily – and likely only when he’s ready to do it.”