Special Briefing: Where Did Canada’s Golden Boy Go Wrong?

Justin Trudeau photographed in downtown Toronto following an interview regarding his memoir, Common Ground.

Source Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty

Why you should care

Because even the cleanest politicians can face serious problems.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? Four years after becoming Canada’s fresh-faced prime minister, 47-year-old Justin Trudeau has found himself embroiled in a political crisis of unprecedented proportions. Accused of elbowing in on a legal case against a major Canadian firm, allegedly for political gain, his once-squeaky-clean image has been further tarnished amid an ethics investigation and the resignation of two Cabinet members, plus a close aide. Now Trudeau’s top opponent has called for the prime minister’s own resignation.

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Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, at the opening session of the Paris Peace Forum, an event that is a part of the commemoration ceremonies to mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice.

Source Artur Widak/Getty

Why does it matter? Long touted as a liberal-democratic darling worldwide, Trudeau hasn’t quite sustained that image at home. In fact, the current scandal represents only the latest — albeit most serious — of many hits he’s taken throughout his tenure. This affair, though, seems to strike at the very heart of his much-vaunted model of open governance. And as Canadians head to the polls later this year for the first federal election since Trudeau assumed the top spot, many are wondering whether his fate has already been sealed. 

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

“Dreamy.” Trudeau’s ascendance after Canada’s 2015 federal elections represented a break from the Conservative leadership of Stephen Harper. The young leader’s progressive policies, from welcoming refugees to tackling climate change, delighted left-wingers, while shifts in the global political landscape toward populism set him apart for many as a liberal-democratic example to follow. His good looks and charisma — coupled with plenty of photo ops — helped in cementing a presence that one senior Obama administration official described as “dreamy.”   

The reality. While Trudeau captured hearts abroad, things back home have been less than peachy. He’s taken flak for his government’s approval of a controversial pipeline expansion as well as a string of various gaffes and missteps, including an infamously unsuccessful $1.5 million trip to India, during which he was forced to deny supporting Sikh separatists and disinvite a convicted former extremist to a dinner. Before that, there was his trip to billionaire Aga Khan’s private island, which Canada’s ethics watchdog said represented a partial conflict of interest. As a result, today only 35 percent of Canadians say they still back Trudeau — his lowest approval rating ever — down from 63 percent shortly after his election. 

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Former Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould arrives to give her testimony about the SNC-LAVALIN affair before a justice committee hearing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Source LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty

Fresh fire. In the latest scandal, ex-Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says Trudeau and other senior officials pressured her to drop corruption charges against Quebec-based SNC-Lavalin, one of the world’s largest engineering and construction companies, which stands accused of bribing its way into contracts in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Demoted to a lesser role within the Cabinet shortly after the encounter, Wilson-Raybould says Trudeau stressed that a conviction, which would ban the firm from bidding on federal contracts, would be bad news for the Liberal Party ahead of October’s federal elections since it would cost Canadian jobs. While Trudeau says no laws were broken — and instead chalked up the dispute to “an erosion of trust” within his government — critics claim he compromised the political independence of the country’s top lawyer.

Not a good time. As far as inopportune moments go, the SNC-Lavalin affair is probably near the top of the list. Trudeau’s Liberals, whose support has dropped nearly 10 percentage points since 2016 to 37 percent, may now shift to the defensive. In a recent survey, 41 percent of respondents said they thought the prime minister, who has long prided himself on promoting transparency, did something wrong. Still, analysts say it’s too early to tell how negatively the scandal will affect Trudeau and his party, adding that he’s still the best-known quantity among contenders. Yet Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is making the most of this opportunity anyway, by calling on the prime minister to resign. Meanwhile, some observers have warned that growing socio-economic divides in Canada could give rise to more widespread populism, throwing a fresh element of unpredictability into the electoral mix.

WHAT TO READ

Justin Trudeau’s Disgrace Is Like Watching a Unicorn Get Run Over, by Leah McLaren in The Guardian.

“For those of us who earnestly and passionately believed in Trudeau’s project … his moral disgrace is a bitter pill to swallow.”

The Liberals Have Stumbled Their Way Into a Disaster, by Conrad Black in The National Post.

“Justin Trudeau can still clean it up, by addressing the real issues: whatever is the right thing for prosecutors to do can still be done, but the government has foolishly straddled a serrated political knife-edge.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Justin Trudeau’s Full Statement on the SNC-Lavalin Scandal

“I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As prime minister and leader of the federal ministry, I should’ve been.”

Watch on Global News on YouTube: 

Andrew Scheer Responds to Justin Trudeau’s Comments on the SNC-Lavalin Affair

“There is such a thing between right and wrong — and real leaders know the difference between them.”

Watch on CityNews Toronto on YouTube: 

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Happier times? Before entering politics, Trudeau served as a teacher in public and private schools, where he taught French, drama, math and humanities. Former students have described the prime minister as affable, engaging and, in at least one case, “goofy.”

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