Ideas and Impressions: Will scandal bring down Trudeau?

By Jason Moscovitz

How much longer Justin Trudeau will be prime minister is a question no one expected to ask so close to the October 21 federal election. That the question is being asked demonstrates how hard a hit he took over the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Scandal is a word that may be overused in political circles these days, but by any measure SNC-Lavalin is the real thing, intensified by the realty of the 24/7 news cycle. Put simply, it is one of the biggest scandals in Canadian political history. Just look at the carnage.

It is a scandal that brought down the two most prominent men in the Trudeau government. In one fell swoop, the clerk of the Privy Council and the prime minister’s principal secretary were gone after Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott slammed the door in Trudeau’s face. Both women, who Trudeau personally recruited, showed no mercy. Worse, the battle lines were drawn along gender lines.

There is a human cost to a leader with this kind of tzuris. Political leaders are proud people. They have to be to survive daily life in politics. Pride is their fuel, but when a leader is wearing a train wreck around his or her neck, it’s hard to be proud.

Trudeau was actually earning a positive place in history for making gender equality a reality, something his government promoted from day 1. And then the sky fell in. High profile, prominent, and respected women cabinet ministers, casting daggers-of-doubt on the prime minister’s feminist follow-through, was a spectacle. When you cut it all away, Raybould-Wilson and Philpott depicted Trudeau as an old boy, playing old boy politics. And with that assessment, they cut his stature in half.

The huge success of Trudeau’s election win in 2015 was his personal success. Only the dashing and articulate Trudeau could get Canadians to forget why they defeated the Liberals in three successive election campaigns before Trudeau, almost single handedly, carried them back to power.

At the beginning, every chord Trudeau hit was the right one for the time. He was new. He was different. He really was going to do politics differently – and the people wanted his youth and his promise that his government would not be tied to the past.

Liberals of the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin eras were told their advice and counsel were not welcome because the Trudeau team wanted a fresh start. They went on that fresh-start path with skill and determination, as Trudeau carved out a nice niche for himself as the leader who was finally going to get rid of the old ways. With his “sunny ways,” he made people feel good, which is the place all political leaders strive to get to.

And then, like Humpty Dumpty, Trudeau came crashing down. In no time, other warts began to show and soon after people started remembering that before politics, Trudeau was a high school drama teacher. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

And the truth is there are all kinds of Liberals with agendas who ultimately won’t have Trudeau’s best interests in mind if things get worse.

It is hard to see a good outcome for Trudeau but for the fact that once written off in 2015, he stormed back to a historically impressive victory. He proved he thrives as the underdog, but one has to wonder what he has left in the tank.

Trudeau’s reputation issues won’t disappear overnight. Canadians don’t need to know the details of the SNC-Lavalin affair because the single takeaway is how voters see Trudeau as a person as well as a politician. Reputation matters.

Sadly, the whole country has lost something. After all the promises, nothing ever really changes in the political world, no matter who the prime minister is. Sometimes I’m told I’m far too naive and sometimes I think we are on the cusp of something really big happening in front of our eyes.

The people who want change in western democracies are realizing they have the power to actually begin to make it happen. They can get some people elected who will not dispose of their principles for the good of a political party.

But Justin Trudeau is not one of those.