In October, Canadian voters will have the opportunity to elect a new Conservative government or re-elect the current Liberal one, under the leadership of prime minister Justin Trudeau.
From a distance, this may not seem like a particularly taxing decision.
The Canadian Tories have lurched hard to the right over the past decade or so, embracing increasingly populist policy positions on everything from immigration and multiculturalism to climate change and the deficit.
They are, in addition, helmed by the singularly unimpressive Andrew Scheer, a bland Saskatchewan reactionary who has made little impression on the country’s political landscape since taking charge of the party in 2017.
Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is a global media celebrity.
After winning an unexpected landslide victory at the last general election in 2015, he became an instant pin-up boy for beleaguered centrists everywhere, drawing breathless comparisons in the international press to Barack Obama and generating a flood of gushing online content.
But within Canada itself, the situation is very different.
Scheer consistently registers a sizeable lead over Trudeau in the polls and, according to projections by CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, the Conservatives have an excellent chance either of winning an outright majority in the autumn or of securing the largest number of seats.
Moreover, Trudeau’s personal approval ratings have collapsed of late, with one news agency noting recently that he is now less popular with the Canadian electorate than Donald Trump is with the American one.
So where did it all go wrong for the “progressive, rational, forward-thinking” Liberal leader, a man once lauded by Rolling Stone magazine as “the free world’s best hope”?
There are two separate but closely related explanations.
The most immediate driver of Trudeau’s crashing poll numbers is an ongoing corruption scandal that erupted at the heart of his government earlier this year.
In February, The Globe and Mail reported that Jody Wilson-Raybould, a senior figure in the Trudeau administration and one of the few indigenous women on the frontline of Canadian politics, had been sacked as federal attorney general because she had refused, in 2018, to intervene in a high-profile criminal case against a large Canadian construction firm, SNC-Lavalin.
The prime minister’s office strongly denied having applied any pressured to the Wilson-Raybould but, as the crisis unfolded, she dramatically resigned from cabinet and went public with her claim that Trudeau had urged her to ditch the charges, which centred on bribes allegedly paid by the firm to Libyan government officials in exchange for building contracts.
In a parliamentary hearing on 27 February, the Vancouver MP claimed that she had faced a “consistent and sustained effort” by Trudeau’s team to “politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion” on SNC-Lavalin’s behalf.
Trudeau again tried to refute the claims and even jettisoned his closest political advisor, Gerald Butts, in an attempt to defuse the controversy. But by that point it was too late—the prime minister was already spiralling.
Having initially insisted that he would never bend the rules for the benefit of a private company, he quickly pivoted to arguing that any action he had taken behind the scenes was motivated by a desire to protect Canadian jobs. (SNC-Lavalin is, coincidentally, a major employer in Quebec, a key political battleground for the Liberals.)
Needless to say, the public didn’t buy it and Trudeau, who has traded heavily on his image as an honest and authentic national figurehead—he is, after all, the son of the country’s most revered 20th-century prime minister—suddenly looked like a very average and cynical political operator.
Inevitably, the scandal has been disastrous for the Liberals; so disastrous, in fact, that there have even been rumours of an internal plot to replace Trudeau at the head of the party, with outgoing Bank of England governor Mark Carney—a Canadian—cited as one potential, albeit highly improbable, alternative.
But the SNC-Lavalin affair isn’t the only reason the Liberals are on course to lose the October general election; an election they could, under different political circumstances, quite easily win.
The much deeper problem Trudeau faces is that he has systematically backtracked on a host of progressive campaign promises that were crucial to his electoral success four years ago.
His most dramatic volte-face has been on the environment.
From the moment he burst onto the Canadian national stage, Trudeau presented himself as a pioneering leader in the fight against the climate crisis, committing his party to a national carbon tax—a highly contentious proposal in oil-producing provinces like Alberta—and promising to provide significant investment for the transition towards a low carbon economy, both at home and abroad.
“Canada is back and ready to play its part in combatting climate change,” he declared in 2015, after announcing a $2.5bn package aimed at boosting green energy production in developing countries. “And this includes helping the poorest [parts of] the world adapt.”
And yet, since becoming prime minister, Trudeau hasn’t just dragged his feet on environmental issues, he has actively championed new fossil fuel projects that environmentalists say will massively increase Canada’s carbon emissions and undermine international efforts to limit global warming in the coming decades.
Foremost among these is the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, a multi-billionaire dollar development that the fossil fuel industry insists is necessary to transport increased volumes of oil from Alberta to BC for export purposes.
Indeed, Trudeau is so determined to see this project through that he even nationalized the pipeline last year, at a cost to the public of $4.5bn, after its parent company, Kinder Morgan, pulled investment in the face of multiple legal challenges from environmental and indigenous rights groups.
Trudeau has been equally unreliable on a range of other policy fronts.
In 2015, against the prevailing economic orthodoxy of the time, he argued in favour of deficit-financed spending and promised to establish a national infrastructure bank that would channel investment into public utilities and “other socially useful, non-commercial projects like childcare or affordable housing.”
However, when plans for the bank were eventually published, they revealed what was essentially an epic private finance initiative which, if implemented, would hand large chunks of Canada’s public infrastructure over to the corporate sector.
At the same time, despite having frequently paid lip-service to the crisis of affordability that many Canadians, particularly those living in the country’s major metropolitan centres, are currently struggling through, Trudeau has done little to make life easier for middle-and-low-income earners.
He did at one stage raise the prospect of a serious tax increase on the “one per cent” but again, once his proposals were actually enacted, they ended up benefiting those at the higher end of the tax bracket the most.
And even on an issue as highly charged as immigration, Trudeau’s political decisions are completely out of step with his elevated progressive rhetoric.
“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith,” he famously tweeted in January 2017, in response to Donald Trump’s attempt to ban Muslims from entering America. “Diversity is our strength.”
Yet, two and a half years later, Trudeau refuses to ditch the so-called ‘Third Safe Country Agreement’, a controversial deal that allows Canada to turn asylum claimants away at the US border on the grounds that America is, even now, a secure country for them to claim asylum in.
In April 2019, Trudeau doubled-down on his support for the Agreement in order, one of his minister’s suggested, to stop people from “asylum shopping” in Canada.
“That’s why we’re putting more resources in [to border security],” the prime minister told reporters on 10 April. “And we’re also ensuring the system is fair for everyone.”
The challenge this presents to the Liberal party ahead of the October poll is basically one of demographics.
Trudeau became prime minister in 2015 by winning the lion’s share of the left-leaning, millennial vote: the youth vote surged by 18 per cent, while half of all 18 to 24 year-olds backed the fledgeling Liberal leader in an effort to dislodge Stephen Harper, a climate-change denying Tory, from office.
In 2019, after four years of relentless disappointment, it seems unlikely that this constituency will lend its support back to Trudeau in quite the same numbers or with anywhere near the same level of enthusiasm.
What’s more, if Canadian millennials want to vote for a party with more robust centre-left and environmentalist credentials, they have two alternative options, the NDP and the Greens, with an outside chance of holding the balance of power in a hung parliament later in the year.
There are two ironies at work here.
The first is that Trudeau himself is the exclusive author of his own downfall.
He sailed into office in 2015 on a wave of liberal media hysteria that, contrary to what the Canadian right claimed at the time, was entirely at odds with his own deeply conservative and establishmentarian worldview.
If he fails to win re-election in October, it will be because he created an unbridgeable divide between his initial public image as an ultra-woke liberal reformer and his current standing in Canadian politics as an overwhelmed and largely unsuccessful opportunist.
The second is that Trudeau’s failure to act on the climate crisis has opened the door to a Scheer-led Conservative government that will make every last ounce of fossil fuel Canada has to offer—from what’s left of the highly-polluting tar sands in Alberta to the vast untapped reserves of oil and gas in the far Arctic north—available for maximum economic extraction.
Despite the corruption scandals, the chronic insincerity, and the repeated, pointless triangulations, the prospect of a new rightwing administration in Ottawa may be the only thing that saves Trudeau in the end.
If Canadian voters have learned anything from the last few months, let alone the last few years, it’s that Justin Trudeau certainly isn’t equipped to save himself.