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Canada: Trudeau’s Poll Numbers Collapse Six Months Before Election

Canada political crisis hurts Trudeau's image as elections loom
AFP/Lars Hagberg
JOHN HAYWARD

Canada’s SNC-Lavalin scandal appears to have seriously damaged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has avoided resignation at the cost of his “golden boy” image and watched his poll numbers plummet with only six months to go before the next election.

Reuters looked at the latest polls this week and speculated Trudeau could become “the first prime minister to lose power after a single majority mandate since the 1930s.”

The ruling Liberals have lost 6 percentage points since the start of the year, ceding the lead to the rival Conservatives, according to a Nanos Research poll published on Tuesday.

If an election were held now, the Conservatives would win 34.9 percent of the vote, the Liberals 32.8 percent and the left-leaning New Democratic Party 16.6 percent. The poll suggests the result would be a deadlock or a fragile minority government.

“The Liberals have taken a hit, but they’re still competitive,” said pollster Nik Nanos. “The most significant effect has been the negative impact on the prime minister’s personal brand.”

An Ipsos poll from last month put the Conservatives at 40 percent, 10 points ahead of the Liberals.

Trudeau benefits somewhat from the diffuse nature of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, which implicates a lot of top Liberals in a debatably legal effort to protect the giant contracting company from a corruption prosecution.

Canadian political junkies will enjoy gaming out whether Trudeau could have limited damage to the party by taking the hit himself and resigning. Refusing to do so leaves the Liberals looking awfully hypocritical to their supporters, who are also not thrilled to see two prominent women – one of them a historic achiever from one of Canada’s indigenous “First Nations” – bounced out of the Party after accusing the prime minister of abusing his office.

One of the women, MP Jane Philpott, challenged her expulsion from the caucus this week, charging Trudeau with breaking the law by failing to allow a vote that might have blocked the ouster of herself and Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Justice Minister who accused Trudeau of pressuring her to scuttle the investigation of SNC-Lavalin.

The House of Commons speaker on Thursday said he did not have jurisdiction to rule on her complaint, which relied on some complicated parliamentary rules and a 2015 caucus vote to amend them which may or may not have been held properly.

Trudeau’s supporters claim Philpott made herself look desperate and hungry for attention by filing her complaint, while his critics see the scuffle as another example of his heavy-handed efforts to bury the scandal. Trudeau himself insisted on Wednesday it was his decision to expel Philpott and Wilson-Raybould, but “the caucus was clear and united” on wanting them out.

Darrell Bricker of the Ipsos polling firm colorfully summed up Trudeau’s predicament to Reuters,  saying, “Justin Trudeau was standing on thin ice at the end of last year, and then somebody handed him an anvil and crash, the ice broke. There’s a credibility problem driven by a bunch of things, one of which is promises made and not kept.”

A Globe and Mail op-ed from political analyst Scott Reid on Thursday postulated the SNC-Lavalin affair has been Trudeau’s undoing because it undermines just about every facet of his campaign image. According to the op-ed:

The removal of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus – and the messy spectacle of fighting with two of his own valued recruits – has accomplished what three years of governing and many years of opposition attacks could not.

Mr. Trudeau has been remade into a mere mortal, a regular old politician – as someone concerned with the calculations and machinations that no office holder can actually afford to ignore, but which his most ardent admirers somehow imagined he was invulnerable to, at least partly because they had been encouraged in that belief.

Reid found it premature to declare Trudeau finished, but saw significant obstacles for the prime minister and his party in the upcoming elections:

The implications for the Prime Minister and his team are particularly profound. Gone are the days of pronouncing from on high and equating his own actions with the uncontested public good. His right of assertion has been surrendered. That’s the bitter price of the past two months. From here on out, he must, like the rest of us, go forth and compete for the right to claim his way as the superior path.

He can, and should, maintain the priorities he has championed for years – building a stronger middle class and including everyone in that journey. But he will need to find a new way to campaign: one with less swagger and without assumption. He invites too great a backlash of cynicism – even from constituencies he has traditionally counted as allies – if he makes his appeal from a place of unqualified principle and higher calling. Humility is a great tonic with voters. A few drops will be necessary to cut the sharp taste left in the mouth of Canadian voters after the past few weeks.

The Washington Post found it curious that Trudeau has abandoned his soft-focus image to play hardball with Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, his every move keeping a damaging story on the front pages and giving his opponents plenty of material to work with.

One of those moves involved threatening to sue Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer for defamation, a threat Scheer is having a great deal of fun with. Scheer and Trudeau are missing few opportunities to lunge for each other’s throats, the type of slugfest where the sitting prime minister with a cloud of scandal over his head probably has more to lose.

The latest round of polls suggests Trudeau would lose his seat if the elections were held today, with tectonic political shifts underway in key Liberal districts. Of course, they won’t be held today, and six months in the Information Age is plenty of time to change the subject from even a massive breach of public trust.

Trudeau is attempting to rally the faithful by painting Scheer as a demon and Wilson-Raybould and Philpott as outcasts more guilty of violating rules and protocols than he was. A significant number of Canadian voters might be telling pollsters they think Trudeau protecting a giant corporation from a justifiable investigation was outrageous, but privately agree with him that SNC-Lavalin is too big to bring down without severe economic damage.

Trudeau’s strategy does not seem to be working today, but today is not the day it has to work on.

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