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Once the golden boy of progressives, Trudeau’s star power is waning

Liberal Leader and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets supporters as he takes part in a campaign rally ahead the federal election, on October 18, 2019 in Vaughan, Canada.
Liberal Leader and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets supporters as he takes part in a campaign rally ahead the federal election, on October 18, 2019 in Vaughan, Canada. Cole Burston / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

Once Canada’s poster-boy for progressive values, Justin Trudeau swept to power in 2015 on the promise of change and a new way of doing politics. But now he’s battling for political survival as Canadians prepare to vote in a general election on Monday.

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Canada’s tightly contested race is largely being seen as a referendum on Trudeau’s leadership. He and his Liberal Party are neck-and-neck with their main rival, with the Conservative Party led by Andrew Scheer having steadily made strides in a campaign Trudeau has described as one of the “nastiest” in Canadian history.  And if the polls have it right, he has suffered a fall from grace from which he is unlikely to recover.  

With his government teetering on either losing its majority or having to govern as a coalition, Trudeau appealed to liberal voters on Thursday, stoking fears of a split vote handing a victory to the opposition Conservatives.

"It is very possible that Canadians will wake up on the 22nd (of October) with a Conservative government that has made eliminating the only real plan that Canada has ever had to fight climate change its top priority, and which will cut spending and bring back austerity measures," Trudeau warned during a whistle-stop in Trois Riviere, Quebec.

The 47-year-old rose to power four years ago after 10 years of conservative rule with promises of “sunny ways” and a different approach to politics. Armed with a highly progressive policy agenda Trudeau’s early years were focused on pushing through a litany of reforms to fulfill his campaign promises of change. The self-proclaimed “feminist” – who appointed women to 50 percent of ministerial posts, repaired damaged relations with indigenous people and vowed to act on climate change – earned the praise of world leaders including US President Barack Obama, who marveled at his political accomplishments.  

But this time Trudeau’s campaign bears little resemblance to his first, with his government assailed by a series of scandals that have dimmed his star power and threatened to split his party’s left-leaning support base, possibly toppling his government.

The fall of a change agent

Trudeau’s popularity took a dive midway through campaigning after Time magazine published photos and a video of him wearing blackface makeup to parties in the early 1990s and as recently as 2000. Trudeau apologised but his personal ratings appeared irrevocably damaged at a time when he was already trying to rebuild his credibility after firing Canada’s first indigenous attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

A report issued by Canada’s ethics commissioner in August found that Trudeau had made “flagrant attempts to influence” Wilson-Raybould to abandon the prosecution of Montreal construction giant SNC-Lavalin. While prosecutors were seeking criminal charges for fraud and bribery against the company for its actions in Libya from 2001 to 2011, Trudeau and his aides pressed for a deferred prosecution deal that would allow the firm to pay a fine.

His leadership, however, had begun to falter even earlier.

In 2018, a decision to buy an oil pipeline costing €2.4 billion to export oil to foreign markets sullied Trudeau’s environmental credentials. His government said it would invest the profits in green technology, but many Canadian environmentalists saw the move as a betrayal. On Sunday, young climate activists rallied outside the prime minister’s campaign headquarters in Montreal to protest against the government’s purchase of the pipeline. The move has also played directly into the hands of his opponents. The left-leaning New Democratic Party, which in the final leg of the campaign has surged in polls, issued a four-word statement responding to Trudeau’s climate plan: “You. Bought. A. Pipeline.”

Critics say his attempts to implement a broad progressive agenda may end up costing him politically. By trying to please everyone “that drew criticism from the right for not having gone far enough in economic development, and from the left for having bought the pipeline", Daniel Beland, a political specialist at McGill University told Reuters.

Support siphoned off to minor parties

In addition to being a test of Trudeau’s leadership, the election is likely to see either of the main parties govern as a minority with votes traditionally awarded to them being siphoned off to minor parties.

According to the latest Nanos poll by The Globe and Mail and CTV released on Saturday, the Liberals are at 32.6 percent support with the mainstream Conservatives at 30.3 percent. The left-leaning New Democrats, who compete for the same voters as Trudeau’s Liberal party stood at 18.4 percent.

Getting millennial voters on board may be Trudeau’s best chance of winning, afterall  they came out strongly for him in 2015. But after strong showings in a series of debates, the leader of the New Democratic party, Jagmeet Singh, seems to be succeeding where Trudeau is having most difficulty: energising the young left.

At a recent campaign stop in Toronto, Singh delivered a searingly positive message.

“Together, we can build a brighter future – we’re not stuck with choosing between bad or worse. We’re not stuck having to settle for less,” he said. “Ask your friends, ask your neighbour, ask your family to dream big. Because you deserve it!”

Trudeau has kept tight-lipped about his plans should he fail to win by an outright majority. In Canada, minority governments have rarely stayed in power for more than two-and-a-half years – hamstrung by an inability to push through legislation.

In that scenario, Trudeau’s leadership would hang in the balance putting the brakes on a rolling reform agenda which after only one term has likely left his most strident supporters hugely disappointed.

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