Inside Story

Time almost up for Trudeau?

Justin Trudeau’s government is being thrashed in the polls, but there’s still no sign the Canadian prime minister will take his own “walk in the snow”

Jonathan Malloy Ottawa 26 June 2024 2565 words

What goes up: Justin Trudeau (centre) watching skydivers with other leaders at the G7 summit at Borgo Egnazia earlier this month. Luca Bruno/AP Photo

Every rose eventually loses its bloom. And so it might be the case for Justin Trudeau.

Back in 2015, Trudeau won a terrific election victory that pushed him into the first rank of global political celebrities. He brought his third-place Liberals back from their worst defeat ever in 2011 to a smashing majority, his charismatic glow evoking memories of his iconic father Pierre Trudeau. But since then the ride has been downhill. He was trimmed to a minority government in 2019, and failed to improve in 2021 when he called an unnecessarily early election. By mid-2022 the Liberals began to consistently poll below the Conservatives, with the gap becoming more yawning in the past year.

Surveys now show the Conservatives leading by fifteen or more points with over 40 per cent of popular support, while the prime minister’s Liberals hover around 25 per cent at best. In a June 24 by-election the Liberals lost a central Toronto constituency they had held for thirty years to the Conservatives, a party that even at Stephen Harper’s peak won few urban seats. While the next election is not scheduled until October next year, Justin Trudeau does appear headed for defeat.

Trudeau has been down before. Over the past decade this column has documented his various comebacks after being underestimated by opponents: from underdog in a boxing match to revelations of a history of dressing in blackface. But this is his toughest challenge yet.

A year ago, it seemed that Trudeau was in for the long run, prepared to ride out setbacks just like his father did over his nearly sixteen years in power from 1968 to 1984. Pierre Trudeau lost the 1979 election entirely, enduring nine months in opposition exile and even briefly stepping down as party leader before roaring to a comeback and enacting the constitutional changes that cemented his legacy.

But Justin’s future now seems less sure. External calls from the pundit class for him to step down are rampant. Internally, MPs and party activists still swear undying loyalty, but the rumours of sharpened knives are growing. Trudeau himself says he’s still in it to win. But the idea of a Trudeau retirement is no longer shocking.

What happened to Canada’s celebrity prime minister? One simple factor is the passage of time; what was fashionable nine years ago inevitably loses its novelty. Another is contextual. When Trudeau came to power Barack Obama was still the US president, Britain was part of the European Union, Xi Jinping seemed reasonably open-minded, and only epidemiologists used the word “pandemic.” Trudeau’s enlightened optimism aligned with assumptions of continuing liberal progress and faith in multilateralism and the power of the state, but times have since changed. A third reason for fatigue is the normal passage of time: any government accumulates barnacles and baggage as it and its leader turns out to be less than perfect.

But some of the damage is self-inflicted. Seasoned reporter Stephen Mahar identifies Trudeau as “The Prince,” born to the manor with a grand sense of his destiny. Indeed, Trudeau has been a celebrity since the day of his birth, Christmas Day 1971, when his father was already prime minister. Growing up in the prime ministerial residence and regularly travelling the world shaking hands with global leaders, Trudeau had an understandable sense of his unique place in the world. And while he did nothing of note as a young adult, his entry into public life in his late thirties and his success in bringing his father’s old party back from the brink of oblivion into glory was a genuine accomplishment for which he did seem uniquely predestined.

But Trudeau has never fully shaken the image of an intellectual lightweight who happens to have a famous name: a person with an instinct for image but limited substance and vision. He is more personable and gracious than his openly snobbish intellectual father, and he is obviously intelligent and a hard worker; no one accuses Justin of laziness. But Pierre Trudeau always had a “magnificent obsession,” in the words of his biographers, of patriating the Canadian constitution and adding a written Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This constitutional vision animated his entire academic and political career and was finally accomplished in 1982. His son has no equivalent.

Justin has instead overpromised and underdelivered. His 2015 pledge to run only modest budget deficits was already forgotten before the pandemic, squandering the balanced budget he inherited from Stephen Harper; as was the promise that “2015 would be the last election” under the single plurality electoral system, after which he decided that a system that gave him a majority wasn’t so bad after all. His environmental policies have pleased few on either side, missing climate targets while still enraging the oil-and-gas heartland of western Canada that also despised his father. Internationally, it is difficult to identify anything significant Canada has done under Trudeau beyond following others, and the government currently finds itself in an intelligence and security mess — more below on that.

Trudeau did restore public service morale, which had been damaged by the Conservatives, but he now oversees a bloated bureaucracy that has increased 40 per cent in size and yet seems to struggle to work effectively. The government’s largest accomplishment is probably the Canada Child Benefit, a policy wonk’s dream that has been effective in its aims but invisible behind a dense network of tax transfers and payments. Another is the transformation of the Senate into an independently appointed body that works for the moment but the Conservatives in power will likely reverse, accusing the government of turning the chamber into a holding tank of “independent” progressive activists. Trudeau also has the dubious distinction of being investigated three times by the ethics commissioner, who twice found him in violation of ethics rules.

Most of all, Trudeau has turned out to be like any other politician in letting people down. So far three former cabinet ministers and his original parliamentary secretary, all first elected in his 2015 wave, have written books lamenting their time in his government. Perhaps they were overly credulous, but they reflect a wider feeling among the many MPs and voters who really believed Trudeau was different and would somehow deliver on his sunny promises to resolve everything. Trudeau owed his 2015 election to a surge of youth turnout in Canada’s non-compulsory voting system but is now in third place among that demographic; his best numbers are among the elderly, where he still polls a distant second.

Yet the prince continues on his destined path. Trudeau’s clumsy sense of entitlement is best seen in his disastrous vacation record. In 2016 his family vacationed on the Aga Khan’s private island; he received a reprimand for violating ethics rules by taking a private aircraft and the entire endeavour looked bad for a leader promising to fight for “middle-class Canadians.” In 2023 he returned to the Caribbean, later saying that “Like many Canadian families, we stayed with friends for the Christmas vacation” but neglecting to mention the friends owned a resort with villas costing over C$9000 a night. Most spectacularly, after creating a national holiday to remember Indigenous victims of residential schools, Trudeau disappeared on the first such day in 2021 and was tracked down taking a surfing holiday on the Pacific coast.

Internationally the Trudeau brand has soured, with diplomacy turning out to be more than showing up for photo ops. Some initial allowance can be given for the enormous distraction of the Trump presidency, in which the government had to pull out all the stops to save Canada’s trade relationship with the US. But an early sign of the prince’s shallowness was his bizarre 2018 trip to India, a visit in which he struggled to even gain a meeting with Narendra Modi and that seemed to have no purpose but to allow him and his family to dress in local outfits for the benefit of electoral constituencies back home.

More recently, Canadian–Indian relations have been in deep freeze over the killing of a Sikh activist in Canada. India blames Canada for turning a blind eye to terrorist organizing within its borders and Canada accuses India of assassination. Even wilder are revelations of Chinese interference in the last two Canadian federal elections, specifically attempting to tilt support toward the Liberals, seen as more pro-China than the hardline Conservatives. Trudeau has moved slowly on inquiries into the interference, fuelling a sense that he is too accommodating of the wrong sort of people and is generally unengaged in national security matters.

The Israel–Gaza war has been disastrous for the big-tent Liberal coalition, with both Jewish and Muslim Liberals openly angry at each other and their leader. In June, news that a Canadian warship visited Cuba with a picture of Canadian naval personnel leading a conga line in Havana encapsulated the sense that when it comes to foreign and defence policy, a Trudeau government is not a serious government.

Celebrities are sometimes best kept at a distance. While Trudeau’s personal staff is deeply loyal, with Katie Telford serving as his chief of staff continuously since he assumed the party leadership, the larger team feels left out. The crowd-loving Trudeau is an introvert in private, reported to avoid one-on-one meetings even with senior ministers. His MPs see him only at a distance, and while all backbenchers complain about their remoteness from power, there is little sense that Trudeau spends much effort trying to soothe them. The leader is no longer beloved. Any remaining support is utilitarian. And while there are a few individuals clearly interested in replacing him as leader, there is no preeminent challenger and none dares lead an open rebellion, yet.

Trudeau’s most important relationship is with the fourth-place New Democratic Party. The social democratic NDP was starved for oxygen during the ascendant Trudeau years and its seats have continually declined. Trudeau’s progressive platform outflanked the NDP in 2015 when it took a cautious centrist approach; the party then chose an even more hipster leader, the stylish Jagmeet Singh, just as the country began to tire of Trudeau’s schtick. After the 2021 election it signed a supply-and-confidence agreement promising parliamentary support until 2025 in return for action on dental and pharmaceutical programs. While producing some modest legislation, this has deal tied the NDP to the sinking Trudeau ship, allowing the Conservatives to repeatedly if inaccurately refer to the “Trudeau–NDP coalition.” The party’s prospects are barely better than Trudeau’s.

The Conservative Party, meanwhile, may have finally found its giant-killer. For years, hobbled by its own deep loathing of Trudeaus, father and son, the party struggled to pin down the prime minister. There is something about the urbane, cosmopolitan Trudeaus that has deeply upset the Conservative base for six decades. Caught in their echo chamber of mocking memes and “F*** Trudeau” flags, the party struggled for years to understand that not everyone in the country despises the name.

The Conservatives have gone through three leaders since the electorally successful Stephen Harper stepped down in 2015. In the 2019 election they were led by Andrew Scheer, a perpetual smiler who caught no one’s imagination. In 2021 it was Erin O’Toole, a centrist who was too clever for his own good. O’Toole tried to steer between segment of the party but after he was caught by the 2022 “trucker convoy” that occupied downtown Ottawa for three weeks he was overthrown by his own caucus, a rarity in Canada.

But the party may have finally found its anti-Trudeau in O’Toole’s replacement, Pierre Poilievre. An MP since 2004, when he was elected at the age of twenty-five, Poilievre comes from a modest background and has never tried to compete with Trudeau on charm. He spent many years as the pit bull of the Conservatives, being named one of the “most irritating politicians” in the country in 2009. While he has done even less outside of politics than Trudeau, Poilievre’s two decades in parliament have produced a relentlessly disciplined politician, gifted at social media clips and with an iron command of his party.

Poilievre is no Trump-style bomb thrower; nor is he prone to musing gaffes like Trudeau. Instead, every word is chosen carefully, and it is important to listen to what he is not saying. Poilievre has a repeated mantra: “Axe the [carbon-pricing] tax. Build the homes. Fix the budget. Stop the crime.” Yet he has made few policy proposals of his own beyond slogans. Often he is strategically quiet.

In April, for example, the government announced increases in capital gains taxes; Poilievre took two months to take a position opposing them, making it difficult for the Liberals to corner him as a defender of the rich. Public sector unions are currently furious at government plans to cut down on remote work; Poilievre, who represents a suburban Ottawa riding, seems to have no thoughts on the matter.

There is no love lost between Poilievre and Trudeau, who can barely show even perfunctory respect for each other. Trudeau repeatedly tries to tie the Conservative leader to Trump and American Republicanism. But Poilievre avoids socially conservative issues like abortion, recently making one of his MPs apologise for even musing publicly on the subject. While he voted against marriage equality two decades ago, he is now quietly onside with LGBTQI rights. And while happy to court the anti-elite xenophobia of the right, he stays away from racial and immigration issues, his own wife being a Venezuelan immigrant.

Instead Poilievre taps into affordability and cost of living fears, particularly among young people. While he has received a parliamentary salary since he was twenty-five, his lower middle-class style contrasts sharply with the silver-spoon Trudeau. Poilievre cultivates a thrifty personal image similar to his predecessor Stephen Harper, who refused to renovate the deteriorating prime ministerial residence, reportedly saying his family would wear sweaters rather than fix the heating system. (The residence is now so decrepit that Trudeau, also not daring to restore his childhood home, lives elsewhere.)

It is unclear whether Poilievre has any policy solutions to bring down the cost of living that his conservative colleagues in provincial governments or internationally have somehow missed. But his disciplined, social media–driven approach has positioned him to ride the same wave of disillusioned disappointment that Trudeau surfed a decade ago — but in an opposite direction. The young and alienated no longer want a prince. They want someone who at least seems like one of their own.

If Justin Trudeau stays, it is because he still sees a chance to win, less on his own dwindling strengths than the vulnerability of his opponent. Poilievre is thrashing him in the polls, but as the election grows closer there will be more pressure for the latter to move beyond memes and slogans. A Trump win in November may stampede terrified Canadians away from the Conservatives into the mushy but unthreatening Liberals. And Poilievre’s courting of social conservatives and the xenophobic right may backfire as it becomes clear that, like Stephen Harper, he will not deliver on their more extreme demands.

Trudeaus do like to surprise. Pierre Trudeau seemed ready to fight one more election, but famously took “a walk in the snow” amid the Canadian winter on 29 February 1984 and announced his resignation the next day. That day in February came and went this year without a similar move by his son. But anything is possible with a Trudeau. •