The honeymoon is over and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not sitting as pretty as he once was. He is looking tired and his voice has been nervously running at a higher pitch. He and his government are showing their age.
After the excitement of a resounding election victory, it is only a matter of time before the warts start to appear. After two years, at the midpoint of the mandate, the Trudeau government is now facing a fact of electoral life. The people never love you forever.
After the huge Progressive Conservative majority victory in 1984, I spoke to one of the architects of the win. Being a realist, I asked how he felt knowing that one day his party would be thrown out of office. A newly elected government, he said, was like a baby: new and innocent for as long as it lasts.
Innocence was lost when Finance Minister Bill Morneau couldn’t convey the right messages about his tax reform plan. His pitch was aimed at making more middle income people feel that there was tax fairness in Canada, but it unraveled under the heavy weight of Morneau being a wealthy man using loopholes the rich have perfected.
And then the second shoe fell.
Trudeau and his family had set up a family trust to keep as much of the family fortune as possible away from the Canada Revenue Agency. These revelations make speeches on tax fairness lose their lustre in a hurry. What a silly road the Liberals took and what a scar on their credibility.
Politics is often about a moment in time when someone can mark the day when the floodgates sprang open. The Trudeau government’s moment may have been when the prime minister and the finance minister appeared together to try to rescue their tax reform plan. For a very obvious reason, Trudeau felt compelled to answer all the reporters’ questions himself – even when a reporter asked a direct question of Morneau.
The obvious reason was that Trudeau thought he could respond better than his finance minister. That points to a lack of confidence in Morneau, his most important minister. A finance minister with a credibility problem is like a hockey player who can’t skate.
The spectacle on television had Trudeau answering with Morneau in full view, standing mute, just behind him. It was a close-up shot and you could see Morneau’s eyes as you visualized the wheels turning in his head.
Politicians are proud people with larger-than-life egos. It is a combination that also makes them so fragile. They get dramatically hurt in a hurry. Let’s remember that it was Trudeau who enticed Morneau to join his team and, undoubtedly, promised him a starring role. Morneau was humiliated by the very man who brought him to the dance.
It is not that difficult to read the mind of a politician, especially a prominent cabinet minister, when he or she is left to dangle in the wind by their leader. The universal human instinct is to wonder why in the world they took the bait to get into the dirty game of politics.
As Trudeau answered questions you could sense Morneau thinking he would rather be vacationing at his villa in France. He would probably have been happier being anywhere else. He was probably also asking himself if he would ever see “sunny days” again as finance minister.
Finance ministers don’t come and go. Prime ministers feel most comfortable when their finance ministers stay in their jobs for years. Despite their terrible personal relationship, Paul Martin was Jean Chrétien’s finance minister for nine years. The late Jim Flaherty, Stephen Harper’s steady hand at the wheel, served as finance minister for eight years.
How long Morneau will last is now in question and the question itself is a problem for the Trudeau Liberals. It is not to say that the Morneau saga will ultimately lead to the defeat of the government, but it does mean, at minimum, that a few more notches have fallen off the government’s credibility scale.
The government needs to contain this damage before other things unravel because of it.