How Justin Trudeau lost his grip

Author: ZI-ANN LUM Source: Politico
January 10, 2024 at 08:48
Despite the quiet and building consensus that it’s time for Justin Trudeau to go, many Liberals fret that a party defined by a single star player won’t be able to win without him. | Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
Despite the quiet and building consensus that it’s time for Justin Trudeau to go, many Liberals fret that a party defined by a single star player won’t be able to win without him. | Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP

The prime minister’s bleak reality: Canadians don’t like him anymore.

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau could lose Canada’s next election because he’s just not as angry as the country he leads.

The prime minister has been getting smoked in the polls. His rival is a savvy and fiery conservative dismissed at the outset by Trudeau’s inner circle as too cantankerous for mainstream appeal.

In the year since taking over Canada’s Conservatives, Pierre Poilievre has tapped grievance politics and assembled a coalition of populists, social conservatives and center-right moderates that would make him the favorite if a vote were held any time soon. Conservatives sit ahead of Trudeau’s Liberals with a 10-point lead.

Poilievre likes to repeat that “Canada is broken.” High inflation, runaway grocery prices, rising mortgage rates and a housing crisis help make the case. Canadians are worn out, anxious and mad. But it’s not just the politics of far-right fury that’s tripping up Trudeau. Fallout from the Israel-Hamas war is hitting hard in key swing ridings where the divisive issue has become a litmus test for the Liberals’ progressive agenda. The public mood continues to sour. And there’s no break in sight as the economy flirts with a recession.

Brand Trudeau, built on earnest optimism and legend as Canada’s first political dynasty, is struggling. When Trudeau was first elected, Vogue declared him“the new young face of Canadian politics.” Today, after a series of political miscalculations and missteps during the past two years, Trudeau’s personal approval is in freefall, and, with it, the Liberal brand, which has been inextricably linked to his celebrity persona. While an election is not imminent, by law there must be one within the next 21 months.

Trudeau’s “sunny ways” and nerd-dad version of politics lost its charm slowly and then suddenly — tested year after year by scandals and predictable fracture points in Canadian politics, such as Quebec wedge issues and culture wars around energy, only to disintegrate more decisively thanks to an inflation crisis that opened the way for an Angry Man alternative.

“When you make yourself the focal point, as the leadership has done, you also become a lightning rod for dissent,” said now retired nine-term MP Wayne Easter, former chair of the House finance committee. “I’m a member of the Liberal Party. I’m not a member of the Justin Trudeau movement.”

Trudeau himself is sensitive to the anger gap that separates him from the electorate. At an exclusive Montreal event for globe-trotting progressive leaders last fall, he diagnosed in clinical terms the communications problem confronting left-of-center incumbents around the world — himself included.

“The secret that sort of the right wing has, and populists have, and people who are not as fussed around democratic values have, is they can just reflect back and amplify the very real anger and frustration and anxiety that people have,” Trudeau told the gathering. “And people feel like they’re being seen and heard.”

If Trudeau has an antidote to that dynamic, he has yet to deploy it.


Trudeau vs. The Economic Elephant

Trudeau toppled nearly a decade of Conservative power in 2015, his stunning come-from-behind victory guided by different economic vibes.

Liberals defeated then-incumbent Conservative leader Stephen Harper with a message focused on helping the middle class.

Buoyed by progressive movements like Occupy Wall Street and the backlash against the super rich, the Liberals’ held out their flagship Canada Child Benefit policy, a non-taxable monthly payment for families that the government has since credited with lifting half a million kids out of poverty.

Eight years on, Justin Trudeau’s tangible achievements include the legalization of marijuana; a national child care program that seeks to bring fees down to C$10 a day; and an immigration policy that currently welcomes 500,000 newcomers to Canada each year.

On day one in office, Trudeau introduced a diverse, gender-balanced Cabinet that he boasted would set a high-water mark for future governments. He also launched a campaign of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. However ambitious and well-intentioned, the efforts offer little to voters grappling with record prices of food and rent.

Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, second from right, and a man who had just received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine elbow bump as the Prime Minister toured a vaccinations clinic at the Ottawa Hospital.
In the race for vaccines, Canada secured 10 doses per person. After 81 percent of Canadians had received at least one jab, the prime minister triggered an early election. | Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/AP


A Crack in the Trudeau Teflon

The anatomy of Trudeau’s slide actually begins in 2019 when Canada’s first Indigenous justice minister quit Cabinet over the ethics scandal now known as the SNC-Lavalin Affair. Jody Wilson-Raybould revealed that she felt pressured by Trudeau’s inner circle to go easy on a criminal case involving a Quebec-based engineering company.

In the wake of controversy, Trudeau’s feminist cred and devotion to full reconciliation with Indigenous peoples became a matter of doubt.

The prime minister’s approvals plummeted 20 points from his first year in office.

Trudeau ran for reelection later that same year, but the fallout along with a blackface scandal knocked his Liberals down 20 seats, reducing them to a minority government — a loss from which they have never recovered.

Covid-19 was next to turn Trudeau’s agenda upside down, though it offered a fresh opportunity to rebuild support. Federal programs were stood up at dizzying speeds to help Canadians and businesses pay their bills during the forced shutdown of the economy. In 2020, government spending hit C$1 trillion for the first time ever — C$270 billion of which went to pandemic relief.

During the first 100 days of the pandemic, the prime minister delivered 77 national addresses. Canadians watched as his hair grew shaggier along with theirs. Against the unknowns of Covid, which would kill more than 30,000 Canadians by Christmas, partisanship dropped. Liberals ended the year with a 3-point lead over Conservatives — an improvement from their pre-pandemic approvals.

In the global race for vaccines, Canada secured 10 doses per person. And once 81 percent of Canadians had received at least one jab, Trudeau triggered an early election in the summer of 2021. The thinking was that vaccinated Canadians would be elated by the return of family barbecues and backyard get-togethers and reward the Liberals with an easy majority.

Instead, voters decided the quickie election was a cynical power grab.

After historic levels of pandemic spending, the Liberals were under pressure to present a serious plan on fiscal policy. Trudeau made it clear it was not a personal priority.

Intead, he doubled down on Covid restrictions: mandating vaccines for federal employees and for travelers on trains, planes and ships. The gamble backfired. The lockdowns and vaccine mandates hit a nerve and mobilized populists who denounced it all as an encroachment on personal freedom.

The “Freedom Convoy” showdown demonstrated that Trudeau could win a fight over substance — he prevailed in a legal battle over his emergency crackdown — but lose in a war of sentiments.

Whatever satisfaction Trudeau’s party drew from that standoff, it did not match the lasting heat and popularity that it generated for Poilievre’s provocative libertarian leadership style.

Deep resentment for the prime minister translated into a truck blockade that immobilized downtown Ottawa for three weeks in early 2022. Trudeau further inflamed his critics by invoking never-before-used emergency powers to shut the protests down. An angry constituency galvanized by Ottawa diktats fueled a thirst within the Conservative party for a more hardline leader and triggered a leadership contest that put Poilievre in charge.


The Quebec Stumble

Trudeau, a bilingual Ottawa and Montreal native, tripped over old divisions between English and French-speaking Canada during the 2021 election — another disconnect with voter anger.

Internal Liberal polling suggested Trudeau was on his way back to majority status until the all-party English leaders’ debate during the home stretch of the contest. Trudeau’s tepid response to a question about whether language-protection laws in Quebec amounted to racism derailed Liberal momentum and cost Liberals the 10 seats they needed.

“You deny that Quebec has problems with racism,” moderator Shachi Kurl said to separatist Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet during the televised debate. “Yet you defend legislation such as Bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones.”

The laws introduce protectionist rules for the French language in the province and ban public servants from wearing religious symbols such as kippahs, turbans and hijabs at work.

While Blanchet unleashed fury at the moderator, Trudeau seemed merely uncomfortable. Overnight, indignant Quebecers stopped talking about the Liberals’ pandemic record and health care promises. Conversation returned to English Canada and its misunderstanding of Quebec values.

Team Trudeau’s momentum in the province crashed and, with it, any chance of regaining a parliamentary majority. By the end of the 36-day campaign — at the cost C$610 million, Canada’s most expensive election — the Liberals’ and Bloc’s seat counts didn’t change.

Mary Simon, Whit Fraser, Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau walk down a London sidewalk behind someone carrying Canada flag.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau at the coronation of King Charles in May 2023. A few months later, the couple would publicly announce their separation. | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


Failed Shuffle and a Broken Marriage

In 2023, Trudeau tried to regain traction amid spiralling economic anxiety. In July, he remade his Cabinet — attempting to signal the government was seriously focused on economics. But he left his top money advisers unchanged: Chrystia Freeland stayed in finance; François-Philippe Champagne remained in industry and Mary Ng kept international trade.

Instead of sparking new momentum, the Cabinet shuffle discombobulated the Liberals and created staffing issues at the start of a tumultuous fall sitting. Discord within Trudeau’s team fermented as approvals slid. MPs couldn’t believe the party was sitting on its hands as Poilievre slagged them across Canada.

At the same time, Trudeau’s picture-perfect marriage had unravelled. According to Abacus Data, Poilievre’s 10-point lead widened to 14 points after Conservatives launched a post-shuffle, national ad campaign starring Poilievre as a family man. The ads appeared days after Trudeau announced his separation from his wife of 18 years.

Since then, the Israel-Hamas war has rocked the faith of Arab and Muslim staffers on the Hill and elsewhere, setting up another litmus test on the Liberals’ advertised progressive ideals.

Support from Arab and Muslim Canadian voters locked Trudeau’s victory in 2015 after a photo of the body of a three-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach turned the Syrian refugee crisis into an election issue. Trudeau was elected, in part, on a promise that Canada would take in 25,000 Syrian refugees in his first year.

Now, Middle East politics is shredding Trudeau’s clout and splitting his voter base. At the close of 2023, he was booed at a mosque and chased out of a Vancouver restaurant by pro-Palestinian protesters chanting “Cease-fire now!”

A surge in antisemitism has left many Jewish voters feeling Trudeau hasn’t done enough to make communities feel safe. When the prime minister spoke at a conference hosted by Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in Ottawa nine days after the Hamas attacks on Israel, his measured remarks against antisemitism and praise for “diversity” drew a tepid response — in contrast to the thunderous applause that met Poilievre’s fiery accusations of Iranian involvement and “false and misleading headlines” in the media.

Trudeau’s new position in support of an “immediate humanitarian cease-fire” in Gaza has riled key players in his own caucus. The war has also exposed the lack of a strong Arab or Muslim voice around his Cabinet table, aggravating emerging fault lines in his embattled party.


The Clock is Ticking

Despite the quiet and building consensus that it’s time for Trudeau to go, POLITICO also spoke to Liberals who are convinced his idealism and optimism still holds wide appeal. Many fret that a party defined from the get-go by a single star player won’t be able to win without him.

Horse race numbers don’t matter between elections, insists Dan Arnold, the chief strategy officer at Pollara and senior adviser at Alar Strategy Group, who was formerly head of polling for the PMO under Trudeau and was a key architect behind the Liberals’ 2015, 2019 and 2021 victories.

“Voters are not that engaged,” he said.

Arnold said if the next election gives an opening for Liberals to focus on helping the middle class, that would allow Trudeau to rekindle past success. The Liberals have telegraphed that they plan to run on hot-button topics: abortion rights, the carbon tax and climate change.

“If the question is who’s going to manage the economy the best — that’s never great turf for the Liberals,” Arnold said.

The prime minister himself has acknowledged the challenge.

Aspirational messages don’t appeal to people stuck “at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Trudeau said during a panel discussion last fall at the Global Progress Summit, a sort of communications boot camp that offered progressives a chance to learn from populist playbooks.

The invite-only event in Montreal drew Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, U.K. Labor Leader Keir Starmer, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair and their dozens of staff. The Canadians joked that only well-dressed visiting Europeans could get them to wear their suits on a Saturday.

During a private evening reception, Trudeau dropped his guard. He warned the progressives in the room that “moralizing” or “looking down” at the world could fuel populist tropes about them being elitist.

Out on stage, Trudeau made clear he understands communications is a problem — not just for him, but for incumbent progressives around the world.



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