Ideas and Impressions: Justin Trudeau knows his ship is leaking

By Jason Moscovitz

For many Canadians, Donald Trump is the forgotten scandal as Justin Trudeau has taken over the talk at Tim Hortons. Even in Trumpland, CNN recently took a short breather from the Donald to tell the world about our prime minister and his follies.

CNN used words like “corruption” and “impropriety with impunity.” They called Trudeau the golden boy who fell hard and fast and said the turmoil in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal was high on the political Richter scale. International media once thought Trudeau was the cat’s meow but journalists, like voters, can turn on a dime as if yesterday never happened.

The biggest prize in political journalism is to get the top guy or gal. When a leader in politics is significantly wounded, as Trudeau is, the sharks are everywhere – including people in his own party. That is when you know the story, as they say, has legs. These troubles for Trudeau are now entrenched.

No one will say so, but it is obvious future leadership candidates are assessing whether being loyal to Trudeau now will hurt their chances later. The safe bet is loyalty, but Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott are the two wild cards who have Liberal stomachs churning. A fundamental truism about politics is how everything revolves around leadership when any leader falters.

When strong respected ministers slam the door in Trudeau’s face while telling the country they have lost faith in the prime minister and his government, there is no clearer declaration of war. Internal wars like this can’t get better over time. There is too much anger, too many hurt feelings, and enough distrust to last a lifetime.

In the early-1970s, John Turner went after Pierre Trudeau’s leadership like Paul Martin openly challenged Jean Chrétien’s in the ‘90s. The Liberals know about creating havoc in their own ranks. Justin Trudeau knows the score and he knows his ship is leaking.

So much is going wrong beside the SNC-Lavalin fire. The new budget needed to be an election-style budget filled with goodies, but that was hard to sell with the economy of the country slipping downward with the six-month countdown to Election Day.

No one expected it, but 2018 ended with a dismal GDP for the last quarter as the economy grew by only 0.4 per cent, well below expectations. Oil prices keep slipping and Alberta keeps hurting with deepening resentment over the ingrained perception of Trudeau falling over himself to save jobs in Quebec while not giving a hoot about oil patch jobs in Alberta.

Pierre Trudeau was despised in western Canada especially after he once said, “Why should I sell your wheat?” For years, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals could not win a seat in Western Canada and while Justin Trudeau showed he could and did win there in 2015, the chances of retaining anything significant in October are about zero. The long sought western foothold is gone.

Ironically, as much as he was committed to doing better, Justin Trudeau now finds himself in the same political space his father was. With the Liberals once again becoming a dirty word in Western Canada, the Liberals need to win virtually every seat in Quebec to win an election. His father did it and Justin Trudeau could do it, too, but having a national government that is top heavy in one part of the country is, understandably, terribly detrimental to national unity.

What set Trudeau apart in 2015 was how he pledged to do politics differently. His brand, which he nurtured with such great care, reflected a modern, forward thinking leader who was not afraid to break with political convention.

The record will show he was doing that in many positive ways until SNC-Lavalin came rolling down the tracks. Everything new became old again as highly paid lobbyists and influencers in Quebec put on the full-court press, as they would have done regardless of who was in power in Ottawa.

SNC-Lavalin was the latest Quebec sacred cow that cried out for special treatment and Trudeau did what Liberals have almost always done: say “yes” to Quebec. Trudeau and his advisers saw it as a political imperative.

The rest of the country saw, rightly or wrongly, the old story of Liberal corruption in Quebec.