Scandal threatens to make Justin Trudeau a one-term prime minister

Canadian PM’s nice-guy image tarnished by allegation of interference in corruption case

Canada’s prime inister Justin Trudeau speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday. Photograph: Patrick Doyle/Reuters

The morning after he was elected prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau went to Jarry metro station – situated at the end of the scruffy arterial street of his small constituency in Montreal – to thank people for voting for him as they went to work.

The personal touch was not lost on the people of Papineau, a neighbourhood of mostly residential streets that Trudeau has represented since 2008. “He seems like such a nice guy,” said Mohammed Aldouri, who has lived in the area for about a decade.

But Trudeau’s nice-guy image – and his status as a global progressive icon – risk being shattered by allegations made against him by Canada’s former attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Liberal MP and former Canadian attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould testifies before the House of Commons justice committee on February 27th. Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters

In testimony to Canada's parliament, she accused the prime minister and his staff of pressuring her to agree to a deferred prosecution agreement for a big Montreal-based company accused of bribing officials in Libya.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had made mistakes in the handling of a political crisis that could dash his chances of winning re-election in October, but insisted that nothing illegal had happened.

The suggestion that Trudeau interfered in the corruption case against SNC-Lavalin has caused his once-robust approval ratings to crash, only seven months ahead of a general election that many thought would be easily won by his Liberal Party.

“He was going to be the prime minister of rainbows and unicorns,” said Carl Vallée, a Montreal-based political strategist and former Conservative government adviser. “He was going to do politics differently, but in the end he’s governing according to the old style of politics.”

The sense of disappointment is echoed in a gloomy bistro in Trudeau’s constituency. “We thought he was a breath of fresh air,” said Carla Araujo. “I voted for him thinking there would be great change, but as usual, there aren’t great changes.”

Protest marches

Trudeau (47) was elected in 2015 promising to tackle climate change, expand the rights of indigenous people and promote economic expansion. His three-plus years in power, however, have been marked by few clear wins. Canadian economic growth has slowed, and an attempt to increase Canadian oil production by spending C$4.5 billion (€3 billion) to nationalise the Trans Mountain oil pipeline has infuriated environmentalists.

Montreal has hosted a series of protest marches by climate-change activists angry at what they see as a betrayal by the prime minister – even though he has introduced a carbon tax. "People think he's a crazy environmentalist," said Ben Clarkson, a campaigner with a group called La Planète s'invite au Parlement in Montreal. "But actually in Canada there's an ongoing environmental disaster."

The SNC-Lavalin affair, and the suggestion that Trudeau was unduly weighing in on an issue that affected thousands of jobs in his home province of Quebec, has threatened his political future.

Following the resignation of a second cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, this week, the prime minister's Liberal Party has fallen behind the opposition in the polls. Trudeau himself is seen as less likely to behave in an ethical way than he was before the scandal, according to polling from Nanos Research.

"What we've learned over the last couple of weeks is that Justin Trudeau has put his majority government at risk," says Nik Nanos, founder of Nanos Research. "If there were an election right now, we'd be looking at a minority government, whether that's Liberal or Conservative."

In October's Canadian federal election the battlegrounds will be in Quebec and Ontario, with the suburbs of Toronto considered key swing districts. The two provinces hold more than half of the seats in Canada's House of Commons between them.

Jane Philpott, who resigned this week from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters

But despite the forbidding poll numbers, there are still plenty of people ready to venture out into the bitterly cold streets of Montreal to knock on doors and spread Trudeau's progressive message. Fernand Le Fèvre, a grassroots Liberal Party volunteer in Montreal, believes that Trudeau still represents real change from the former Conservative government led by Stephen Harper.

“I did definitely see Trudeau-mania last election,” says Le Fèvre, a recent graduate who campaigned in a byelection this year in the nearby constituency of Outremont. “There was a huge excitement around this young guy. There is still now a will to go out and knock on doors.”

Most sympathetic

Even though the Outremont byelection took place while the SNC-Lavalin scandal was making headlines, Liberal candidate Rachel Bendayan won the seat.

“We really didn’t hear much about it on the doors,” says Le Fèvre. “People cared about local issues – having safe and secure housing, and making sure their small businesses do well. We heard a lot about the environment too.”

Political analysts say Quebec, home to more than a third of SNC-Lavalin’s 9,000 workers, is likely to be the most sympathetic of all Canadian provinces to Trudeau’s claim that he was only trying to protect jobs. Although more than half of Canadians think the charges against SNC-Lavalin should be brought to criminal trial, according to Nanos Research, that figure is significantly lower in Quebec.

The scandal has hit harder elsewhere in the country, which has less to gain from protecting SNC-Lavalin's jobs, and frowns upon the idea of politicians meddling in legal matters. "Canadians have the rule of law bred in the bone," said Roland Paris, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a former adviser to Trudeau.

Trudeau on Thursday fended off allegations that he had acted improperly in the SNC-Lavalin affair, and promised Canadians that there was “no breakdown” in the country’s rule of law. Responding to concerns about political interference in law enforcement, he said he would seek the advice of external experts on the dual role of the attorney-general and justice minister.

“I’ve spent my entire political career fighting for justice,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “Since I started in politics I’ve always worked to the best of my ability to represent people faithfully. The SNC-Lavalin [matter] was no exception to this rule.”

Whether voters believe him is a question to be answered at the ballot box in the autumn. “He’s definitely in danger,” Vallée said. “It seemed, for the last few years, that he would be here for two mandates. But slowly, there’s this idea growing that he could be a one-term prime minister.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019