Justin Trudeau faces political battle of a lifetime

Canadian prime minister losing popularity

By Michael Bociurkiw
Pool

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the G7 Summit in Canada on June 9, 2018.

OTTAWA - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must have thought he was catapulted back to his early days as a dashing, newly-minted politician with the rapturous welcome he received from delegates to the global Women Deliver Conference in Vancouver in early June.

Just a few weeks earlier on Parliament Hill, it was a very different story, as dozens of women in Ottawa turned their backs on Trudeau in silent protest of the ousting of Canada's first indigenous justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould. (Trudeau accused her of disloyalty after she claimed the government had pressured her to go on easy on SNC Lavalin, a Montreal construction giant.)

It is hard to believe, but less than four years after the Canadian Prime Minister was elected in a landslide victory on a promise of delivering "sunny ways," he is fighting for his political survival in the run-up to the election this fall. And it will take all of his political savvy to keep his government in power.

Recent polls indicate his Liberal Party is headed for defeat in the next federal election or, at best, a minority government -- an administration in which the governing party has fewer than half the seats in the House of Commons. According to the latest results from the "Trudeau Tracker," from the nonprofit Angus Reid Institute, the Prime Minister's disapproval rating shot up from 41% in March 2017 to 65% in March 2019, while his approval ratings sunk from 54% to 33% in the same period.

At first, that may seem confusing. With unemployment at historic lows, the economy humming along nicely and a harsh winter having given way to glorious summer sunshine, Canadians should be in a good mood. And yet a new CBC poll this week shows 72% of Canadians are concerned about the future for themselves and their families. Keeping them awake at night: the cost of living, retirement and housing.

But it's also far too early to write Trudeau off because of these polls. Perhaps the biggest plus Trudeau has going for him is his weak opponents: neither Conservative leader Andrew Scheer or the leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, have the chutzpah to clobber Trudeau on the campaign trail.

 

The foreign affairs files

 

That said, there are some strong overseas headwinds working against Trudeau, over which he has little control. On the foreign affairs front, many diplomatic irritants continue to diminish the party's fortunes and create potential fodder for opposition attack ads.

China easily ranks as the elephant in the room, after Huawei CFO Meng Wenzhou was arrested last fall at the Vancouver airport on a US extradition request. China has retaliated fiercely, from arresting two Canadians on trumped-up charges to halting millions of dollars in Canadian agricultural exports. Last week, Canadian naval ships were even buzzed by Chinese fighter jets.

In what will probably go down as a desperate miscalculation, Trudeau took the gamble of deputizing US President Donald Trump to bring up the issue of the two detained Canadians during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka. It appears Trump did not follow through on his promise to Trudeau -- and the spat continues to escalate. Expect Beijing to ratchet up its rhetoric and possibly even engage in meddling as the federal election campaign shifts into high gear.

And one of the Liberals' signature foreign affairs initiatives -- bidding for a nonpermanent UN Security Council seat for 2021-2022, as part of a campaign plank to "restore Canada as a leader in the world" -- appears all but dead after front-runners Ireland and Norway pulled ahead.

Meanwhile, relations with Saudi Arabia have yet to recover after Canada criticized Riyadh in a tweet last August for imprisoning human rights activists. The Saudis responded harshly, yanking their ambassador to Canada, suspending flights, recalling thousands of Saudi students and halting imports of Canadian wheat and barley. It was a costly move, and tensions have not entirely eased since.

 

The master of his own image

 

Ironically, it is Trudeau's telegenic appearance and penchant for selfies that helped catapult him into the prime minister's office, but which could also cost him support during the election campaign. Even after four years in power, the drama teacher-turned-politician has a tendency to come across as superficial.

Entering a federal election campaign, one of the biggest scandals still looms. When a major Quebec-based company, SNC Lavalin, was charged with bribery, Trudeau officials attempted to block the case from going to court over the objections of then-Minister of Justice Wilson-Raybould. As of May, the company was ordered to stand trial, but the entire affair has been a blow to Trudeau's credentials, both as a feminist leader and an indigenous rights crusader.

And the ghost of his disastrous official visit to India -- in which his family wore traditional dress -- still lingers and is bound to be used by the opposition in campaign attack ads as an example of Liberal buffoonery.

Even to this day -- and with changes to his senior ranks -- Trudeau often goes off-script, projecting a lack of credibility. That came into focus a few days ago when, during one of the most important environmental policy announcements -- banning harmful single-use plastics by 2021 -- Trudeau stumbled badly when asked how his family handles recycling.

But Trudeau and his team shouldn't be underestimated. After all, they managed to legalize pot, re-engage with some indigenous groups and usher in the most gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history. So, there's plenty to boast about to voters.

With three months to go until the election, it is hard to predict if Trudeau will win re-election with a either a weak or strong mandate -- or not at all. But what is clear is that his allure in 2015 has all but disappeared. And Trudeau is no longer viewed as the untouchable golden boy of progressive Canadian politics.

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