What happens when an entire government’s reputation is premised on a single figure and his personal brand? As long as the latter can be sustained, most political damage can be absorbed. But when a leader’s profile begins to lose its lustre, the consequences are severe.
Whatever its precise ideological character, this is the fatal flaw of personality politics – as Canada’s pin-up prime minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government have now learned.
At the start of 2019, as the country sleepily entered another general election year, Canadian politics gave the appearance of stasis. The 47-year-old Trudeau (the dauphin of Pierre Trudeau, the country’s third longest-serving prime minister) was less reliably viral than in earlier years but appeared set for re-election. The opposition Conservatives had been distracted by a breakaway party (The People’s Party of Canada), led by the Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, while Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), had yet to enter parliament.
But the Liberals’ tranquillity was disturbed when Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper published a report alleging interference by Trudeau’s office in a federal case against the Montreal construction behemoth SNC-Lavalin.
A few weeks earlier, the prime minister had surprised many by demoting Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first indigenous minister of justice, to veterans’ affairs. Wilson-Raybould subsequently published a cryptically worded statement suggesting hidden motives for her departure from the justice portfolio. “It is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference and uphold the highest levels of public confidence,” she wrote.
These ominous remarks were given greater weight when the Globe cited unnamed sources alleging that Trudeau’s aides had pressurised Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin case and help the company avoid a trial. The firm, which is charged with making alleged bribes to Libyan public officials from 2001 to 2011, was later revealed to have heavily lobbied federal officials – including several in Trudeau’s own office – for a remediation agreement that would allow it to avoid prosecution.
The situation appeared particularly suspicious following a recent amendment to Canada’s Criminal Code, which formalised the practice of allowing prosecutors to suspend charges against companies in favour of such agreements. The Globe’s report alleged that Wilson-Raybould “knew this legislative change was meant to help SNC-Lavalin out of… legal troubles that were weighing on the price of its shares”.
As the scandal has continued, new information has successively undermined the government’s chosen (and rapidly shifting) spin, eroding both its credibility and Trudeau’s personal brand. The prime minister told the media on 11 February that Wilson-Raybould’s continued presence in his cabinet “spoke for itself”, only for the veterans’ affairs minister to resign the following day. The subsequent departure of his closest adviser (and friend from university) Gerald Butts, in an attempt at damage limitation, did little to help matters. On 4 March, Jane Philpott, the president of the treasury board, resigned in solidarity with Wilson-Raybould.
Though elements of the latter’s testimony before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights have been contested by Butts, a sordid picture of the Canadian state and its inner workings has nevertheless emerged, hinting darkly at the double standards enjoyed by powerful corporate actors and the deeper, more insidious influence they exert among Canada’s gilded political class.
While the scandal’s electoral implications remain uncertain, Trudeau’s image as a progressive messiah is unlikely ever to recover fully. His Liberal government has long been undermined by contradictions between official branding and visible reality.
It has become ever harder to reconcile Trudeau’s environmental posturing with his aggressive expansion of oil pipelines (including in indigenous territories), and his anti-austerity, tax-the-rich rhetoric with $10.5bn of corporate tax cuts. Similarly, the prime minister’s supposed commitment to feminism and human rights sits uneasily with his approval of export permits for $15bn-worth of armoured vehicles – including some labelled “heavy assault” – to Saudi Arabia.
“Trudeau promised progressive change in 2015, but he has delivered the standard Liberal Party centrist result of tinkering around the edges while not addressing the corruption at the heart of our system,” Omer Aziz, a former policy adviser to foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, told me. Aziz added: “What this SNC-Lavalin affair [has revealed] is that this corrupt status quo is business as usual for the Liberals. This is who we are now.”
Yet what of the scandal’s electoral consequences? David Moscrop, an Ottawa-based political scientist and a Washington Post contributing columnist, believes the damage to Trudeau is significant, if not necessarily fatal. “There’s a lot of time before the writs are issued, and still plenty of time for the Liberals to change the channel,” he told me, adding that: “Folks have already made up their minds about what they believe and who they believe.”
Whatever the ultimate outcome, Trudeau – much like his centrist comrade Emmanuel Macron – is now embroiled in a crisis of his own making. The Conservatives have moved ahead of the Liberals in some opinion polls (a recent survey put them nine points in front), while the NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, the first non-white person to lead a major party, has entered parliament following a by-election victory last month.
Four years after Trudeau took office, Canada has finally been jolted from its stasis. A general election that was once thought predictable could now remake the country’s political order.
Luke Savage is a staff writer for Jacobin magazine
This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control