The Quick Read on Justin Trudeau’s Mounting Political Troubles

4 minute read

What Happened This Week:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued his struggle to contain the fallout from one of the biggest political scandals in Canadian history.

The controversy centers on a Quebec-based construction firm, SNC-Lavalin, accused of bribing the Gaddafi regime in Libya to win government contracts. Canada’s former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Rabould says she was pressured by the Trudeau administration to settle corruption charges with SNC-Lavalin, a move which would have avoided the company being barred from bidding on government contracts. That would have hurt both the company and its workforce, a significant proportion of whom work in Quebec — Trudeau’s home province.

The prime minister’s critics say his administration—and Trudeau himself—improperly interfered; Trudeau and his supporters claim that he was only looking out for the wellbeing of Canadian citizens and did nothing improper. As ever, the reality lies somewhere in the middle.

Why It Matters:

Although nobody in Trudeau’s cabinet has been accused of breaking the law, the scandal has rocked Canadian politics. Two Trudeau cabinet ministers have resigned on principle, along with Trudeau’s longtime friend and closest advisor Gerald Butts (he didn’t resign on principle, but to make sure he wouldn’t be a distraction. Read into that what you will). Trudeau maintains that he did nothing wrong and was keeping the interest of Canadian workers front of mind, like he was elected to do.

This would all be bad for Canadian politics under normal circumstances. Two things make it worse; the first is the fact that Trudeau has been held up—and holds himself up—to be the champion of Western liberal democracy at a time when that worldview is under assault. There is no shortage of critics who see Trudeau as getting his just come-uppance—for all the talk of “real change” (his 2015 campaign’s slogan) and his being a “feminist” prime minister, the resignation of two of the most high-profile female ministers makes Trudeau appear like just another run-of-the-mill politician.

The second is that Canada has elections in the fall; while it was looking like Trudeau and his Liberal party were going to sail to victory and form another majority government, polling in the wake of the scandal has now thrown that prospect into question.

What Happens Next:

Unlike Trump, who generates controversy at a dizzying clip, this one looks significant—and rare enough—to leave a permanent mark on Trudeau and his government. While elections are still months away, it looks like Canada could be heading for a minority government that will require coalition-formation. The only question is whether Trudeau and the Liberals lead that coalition or if it’s their Conservative counterparts.

The Key Number That Explains It:

3 percent — the polling lead lead the Conservatives currently have over the Liberals, whose support has tumbled in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

Even so, Trudeau remains Canadians preferred choice of prime minister, with 32.5 percent of respondents choosing Trudeau over his Conservative counterpart Andrew Scheer (25.2 percent). Which suggests that while the Liberal brand has undoubtedly been tarnished by this scandal, opposition leaders have yet to really capitalize on it. But when it comes time to head to the voting booths in October, Canadians may have a difficult time making the distinction between the parties and their leaders.

The One Thing to Read About It:

Of feminism and Canadian politics—read this piece in The Atlantic to understand why this particular scandal cuts to the core of Trudeau’s image as a “feminist” prime minister, and a whole lot of his political appeal.

The One Major Misconception About It:

That Trudeau is done, politically speaking. If this scandal had happened in August, then Trudeau’s reelection chances would be in more peril. Still, a lot depends on the next few months, especially if and how the Liberals can change the narrative and shift the Canadian electorate’s focus away from the scandal.

The One Thing to Say About It:

When your campaign slogan is “real change,” you leave little room for error. Or for traditional politics. Trudeau is finding that out the hard way. The next seven months will be the most difficult of his political career; we’re about to see what this man is made of.

The One Thing to Avoid Saying About It:

No sex. No drugs. Even Canadian political scandals are boring.

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