Inside Story

Trudeau’s challenge

Can a tired government be revived by the old family magic?

Jonathan Malloy Ottawa 24 February 2023 2521 words

Brand-name leader: Justin Trudeau with his deputy, and principal heir apparent, finance minister Chrystia Freeland. Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Seven and a half years ago, in 2015, Justin Trudeau descended from Canada’s electoral heaven to lead his Liberal Party to a smashing victory, just as his father Pierre had done in 1968. In contrast to the secretive, combative Conservatives who had run the country for a decade under Stephen Harper, the younger Trudeau promised “sunny ways,” a phrase borrowed from an even earlier Liberal prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier.

Now, in early 2023, a government that began in an atmosphere of hope and enthusiasm but was reduced to minority status at the 2019 and 2021 elections is displaying nearly all the features of a midlife crisis. Talented figures are exhausted and moving on. Ethics violations are piling up. Ex-ministers have written angry books about their experiences. And the pundit class is full of unsolicited advice about the need for new ideas and directions. Sunny ways are long gone.

But one thing that shows no sign of slowing down is Justin Trudeau. The prime minister has given no indication of being ready to give up the job; nor does his party seem to want him to. He mightn’t have quite the cocky glow of 2015, but he still appears committed and all-in.

The parallels between Justin Trudeau’s career and that of his father Pierre continue to be uncanny. Both rose quickly to the Liberal leadership and won transformational elections. Each was knocked down to minority status after four years. Both came back two years later with a more stable regime (a majority government for Pierre; a written agreement with the opposition New Democrats for Justin).

If history continues to repeat itself, Canada is currently in the Trudeau mid-career trough. This was the 1970s low point of Pierre Trudeau’s government for many of the same reasons we see today: an ageing government facing a muddled policy environment of inflation, foreign crises, and an apparent sagging of public confidence and optimism.

But a trough is not a downward spiral. Pierre Trudeau only narrowly lost the 1979 election after eleven years in power, and roared back with a majority victory in 1980 to achieve the constitutional triumphs that became his greatest legacy. Justin Trudeau’s future is unknown — as is his legacy project. But even if he doesn’t repeat his father’s grand finale, he remains the leading political force in Canada.

Justin Trudeau’s 2023 is a mixed bag so far. His greatest boosts are a successful healthcare deal with the provincial governments and a judicial inquiry’s vindication of his decision to invoke the Emergencies Act in response to the “trucker convoy” protests that clogged downtown Ottawa for three weeks last year. But his legislative agenda is bogged down. Initiatives on gun control, online regulation and expanded medically assisted dying are all stalled or being rethought. And polls regularly put his Liberals in second place behind the Conservatives.

Assessments of the problem are familiar for this stage in a government’s life: an overly controlling prime minister’s office and an administration better at day-to-day tactical politics than serious policy thinking. While progressives nurse multiple hurts and betrayals, the government is clearly more on the left than the right; for a certain part of the pundit class, indeed, the problem is that the Trudeau Liberals are far more interested in redistributing wealth than generating it. A recent book by former finance minister Bill Morneau, who was forced out of the cabinet in 2020, says all of the above, though it has had limited impact since it doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.

Arguably the main force driving the government is its agreement with the left-wing New Democrats, who promised parliamentary support until 2025 in return for a new dental insurance program and other progressive policies. While the Conservatives insist on calling this “the Liberal–NDP coalition” at every opportunity, it isn’t a formal alliance. It is the latest in a long history of arrangements that almost always end up favouring the Liberals. Indeed, the deal has squeezed the NDP into uncomfortable positions, limiting its ability to assault the government from the left.

Over on the hard right, opposition remains deeply personalised against Trudeau himself, exactly as it was fifty years ago against his father. It was people with these views who occupied downtown Ottawa and two Canada–US border crossings last year, motivated nominally by vaccine mandates but more deeply by a visceral dislike of Justin Trudeau. “Fuck Trudeau” is the ubiquitous slogan of the Canadian populist right these days; a Vancouver man, Australian by origin, was recently denied his online citizenship ceremony because he refused to take down a sign with those two words displayed behind him.

Further up the conservative hierarchy, the governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan are in open conflict with the federal government, primarily over the perennial issue of energy and natural resources policies. Both have introduced bills to expressly negate federal policies within their provinces. The Alberta Sovereignty and Saskatchewan First acts, both constitutionally nonsensical, embody just how alienated those jurisdictions are from the federal government.

All this leaves the moderate centre right unsure of where it stands — unhappy with the Trudeau government’s direction but wary of the populists at the gates. That’s partly why the federal Conservatives have yet another leader facing off against Trudeau, Pierre Poilievre; but more on him in a minute.

Another way of viewing the Trudeau government is from the perspective of Quebec. Though rooted in that province’s largest city, Montreal, the Trudeaus have a long, fractious history with Quebec nationalists. All Quebec governments are prickly over jurisdictional issues, but the current government, led by François Legault, has been particularly aggressive. Its uncompromising secularist agenda, of little interest to the rest of Canada, includes banning some public servants, including teachers, from wearing the hijab and other “religious” symbols.

Trudeau and other federal politicians have dragged their heels on directly confronting policies like these. But conflict continues to be fuelled by moves like Legault’s recent, unsuccessful demand for the resignation of the prime minister’s new special adviser on Islamophobia, Amira Elghawaby, over her past comments that anti-Muslim sentiment was widespread in Quebec.

Finally, in international affairs, Trudeau’s own celebrity brand may still be strong but Canada’s is not. The country struggles to demonstrate weight and credibility in the challenging new global environment. The election of Joe Biden in the United States was greeted with sighs of relief in Ottawa, but now Canada struggles not to be blindsided by the Biden administration’s restrictions on non-US goods.

The recent appearance of balloon-like objects over North America gave Trudeau an opportunity to act decisively by ordering them shot down, but an American F-22 was responsible for the only successful take-down over Canadian territory. Although that action was part of the NORAD mutual protection arrangement, it was seized on by critics as evidence of Liberal neglect of national defence.

On China, the government has slowly become more outspoken. But recent revelations suggest that Beijing actively intervened in the 2021 election with the goal of propping up the Liberal minority against the more aggressive Conservatives, an outrage the government is anxious not to dwell on.

In all, people around the country may not be entirely happy with Trudeau and his mixed policy record, but for different and conflicting reasons. It is these circumstances, and his deal with the New Democrats, that allow him to retain power, if not necessarily momentum, during his government’s midlife crisis.

Pierre Poilievre, meanwhile, is the opposition Conservatives’ third elected leader (along with two interim leaders) since Stephen Harper’s departure in 2015. The amiable Andrew Scheer took the party into the 2019 election and held the Liberals to a minority, but this was deemed insufficient and the party soon turned on a man who had been a compromise candidate from the start.

Scheer’s successor, Erin O’Toole, was too clever by half, winning the party leadership by campaigning as a scrappy upstart from the right but then pivoting to the moderate centre. This craftiness might have worked if not for the 2022 trucker convoy: O’Toole fatally equivocated and was thrown out as leader by his caucus, an unusual occurrence in Canada.

Poilievre, by contrast, is perhaps the most on-message politician in Canadian history. He has been a combative partisan since he was first elected in 2004, at twenty-five, and was a loyal junior soldier in the Harper government, eventually rising to mid-level cabinet posts.

Now forty-three, he displays remarkable discipline. He always speaks in complete sentences, never musing out loud, fumbling for words or needing to issue later retractions or clarifications. He is relentlessly partisan and hypercritical of the government. But he is not a random bomb-thrower: his words are precise and carefully chosen, though often leaving room for interpretation.

Poilievre is a model opposition leader, at least in the cynical sense. He is quick to jump on every government failing as evidence of gross incompetence, and he rarely concedes anything. His messages are carefully calibrated to undermine the government while widening and solidifying his own support. Unlike his predecessor, O’Toole, but much like Stephen Harper, Poilievre tends first and foremost to his party base, building its trust and never moving too far out in front. And it’s all done with an air of grave urgency and selfless concern for the country’s wellbeing.

Poilievre exemplifies the new type of conservative leadership: trying to ride the populist tiger without being eaten by it. He does a masterful job of handling the xenophobia of the, er, “Fuck Trudeau” crowd, issuing endless affirmations and validations of their frustrations without descending into their incoherent rage. Like most Canadian conservative elites, he avoids getting bogged down in social conservative issues like abortion, affirms LGBT rights, if not very loudly, and generally embraces rather than rejects immigration and racial diversity, though with little interest in systemic issues.

The one social divide Poilievre is happy to exploit is class. The current inflationary environment and concerns about the cost of living give him many opportunities to contrast himself with Trudeau’s elitist image and life experience; and his most provocative pledge while running for the leadership came when he vowed to fire the head of the Bank of Canada for insufficiently controlling inflation.

Poilievre also has a gift for driving media and intellectual elites bananas with provocative statements. The president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, long a favourite target of conservatives, recently fell into his trap. Poilievre has vowed to “defund” the CBC, and the frustrated CBC president pushed back, saying, “There is a lot of CBC-bashing going on — somewhat stoked by the Leader of the Opposition… I think they feel the CBC is a mouthpiece for the Liberal government.” Poilievre seized on this as further evidence of CBC bias against Conservatives.

And not just the CBC: Poilievre openly disdains the mainstream media in general, refused to take questions from the parliamentary press gallery for the first three months of his leadership, and prefers to communicate through social media and more friendly outlets.

With all this, Poilievre enjoys rockstar popularity within much of his party, while dissenters quietly fall into line. What remains unknown is his potential for growth. The downside of being a great opposition leader is that the country might feel no need to give you the bigger job. Poilievre has high unfavourability ratings, and is far less popular among women than men (the opposite of Trudeau). And we know little about his governing philosophy and what kind of prime minister he would be. He was not prominent enough in the Harper government to leave a clear track record, and his disciplined and relentlessly partisan personality gives few glimpses of how he may have grown over his two decades in politics.

Among the other opposition parties, Trudeau has little to fear from the New Democratic Party, though this is not necessarily the NDP’s fault. It has a perennial strategic problem: with the Liberals sucking up much of the oxygen on the progressive left, the party is left to choose between going hard left or extracting policy concessions. Current leader Jagmeet Singh chose the second route with the parliamentary deal, but once again the party is feeling it somehow got scammed as the Liberals bask in their secure minority.

The Bloc Québécois is a sharper opponent but may pose a greater threat to the Conservatives by stemming Tory growth in Quebec; as a general rule, the two parties fight for rural and small-town ridings while the Liberals maintain their Montreal base. And the Green Party of Canada, briefly a rising force, is in poor shape, riven by internal crises and at risk of returning to oblivion.

Trudeau himself remains in firm control of his party. Publicly his colleagues show nothing but undying loyalty to the family name that led the party out of third-place wilderness to the Promised Land. If anything different is happening in private, it is well hidden. This is a first for the modern Liberal Party of Canada, which was racked for decades by open tensions between leaders and overly eager heirs apparent, going back to John Turner’s rivalry with Pierre Trudeau, then Jean Chrétien’s with Turner, and then Paul Martin’s with Chrétien.

A brand-name leader leaves limited space for others to build their own political momentum. But perhaps precisely because little room exists for traditional politicking, Trudeau has been successful at building a team of credible successors, mainly women, noted for their ministerial competence.

Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister and minister of finance, is the government’s ubiquitous fixer after previous assignments in global affairs and international trade. But she risks the stereotypical gender trap: the woman sent in to do the dirty jobs and absorb the political mud while others take the credit. Mélanie Joly, the foreign minister, doesn’t have the same track record, but boasts deeper party roots and networks.

Newcomer Anita Anand, elected only in 2019, is considered the one to watch, having deftly handled vaccine procurements during the pandemic and now cleaning up a sexual-harassment mess in national defence. François-Philippe Champagne, the industry minister, demonstrates an eager competence, and is sitting on approving a telecom merger as he tries to figure out how to win credit for reducing Canadians’ phone bills.

(A fifth, non-government possibility is Mark Carney, the Canadian former head of the Bank of England, who has returned to Ottawa and is widely assumed to be interested in the job of prime minister, though he has yet to run for a parliamentary seat.)

But none of these figures remotely challenges Justin Trudeau’s pre-eminence; instead they keep his government going. He may still have many years in office. If he does suddenly choose political retirement, it will be a huge surprise to all. But it is unclear how his remaining years might unfold. Pierre Trudeau’s focus on constitutional issues was never in doubt, and his final term was all about completing unfinished business. Justin Trudeau has no obvious obsession or legacy project. But he does clearly like being prime minister. •