Hold it up to the light at a certain angle and the mess our prime minister finds himself in today seems like the most Canadian of scandals — a terrible, perhaps even politically lethal outcome borne of ridiculously benign intentions all around.
Justin Trudeau, his handlers will assure you, was thinking only to protect Canadian jobs. And his now ostracized former attorney general and justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, was thinking only of prosecutorial independence.
And if trust broke down in the admittedly grey area between jobs and justice, well, that’s really just a formatting error, many would argue. Once the dust settles on the slow-motion SNC-Lavalin affair, the lesson here involves fixing the format — break apart the two-hatted position of AG and JM into separate jobs and voila, no more grey area.
But that rose-coloured version of the Liberal government’s slow-motion winter of discontent is finding few buyers.
Instead, a bigger problem now is taking hold — the weakening of the prime minister’s personal political brand, a fact sealed this week by the expulsions from the Liberal caucus of both Wilson-Raybould and colleague Jane Philpott, the former health minister and Treasury Board president.
In the words of veteran political pollster Angus Reid, “That lustre, that sheen is simply gone now. It has left Trudeau badly wounded. The damage is undeniable. And it cuts to the heart of his political brand. We are not going to see him popping up in random wedding photos this summer, embraced by the smiling couple. All that is over.”
Reid and five other political analysts from across Canada spoke to the Star this week attempting to measure the political damage. Their verdicts range from bad to severe to potentially lethal.
Said Reid: “People keep asking me, ‘Is that it for Trudeau?’ ‘Is he finished?’ The answer is an absolute no. Canadian political history is filled with examples of remarkable political comebacks.
“But as we head toward the election this fall, it is clear to me that things will turn dark. The damage to Trudeau is serious; we are seeing a polarization underway as intense as anything I’ve seen in 40 years, with a core conservative constituency deeply committed to unseating this government.
“I anticipate at some point, as the Liberals regroup, we will see an apology from the prime minister. ‘We screwed up. But we’re going to do better.’ But beyond that, the effort will include hard attacks on the alternative — for most Canadians, (Conservative Leader) Andrew Scheer is still an unknown and he will be portrayed in the most negative ways possible.
“Perhaps the most interesting question will be whether millennial voters will finally claim their power at the ballot box. For the most part, Trudeau still has them in his camp but can they mobilize the vote? Millennials might ultimately hold the key to survival for this government.”
The issue cuts closer to home for Simon Fraser University political science professor Mark Pickup, as uncertainty hovers over the Wilson-Raybould’s riding of Vancouver Granville. Is Trudeau’s supposed nemesis likely to run as an independent? Is she likely to be courted by rival parties?
“I hesitate to say how deeply this has damaged the Trudeau government because this is one of those issues where the public is having to learn a fair bit to really get it. Prior to this, how many Canadians were really that clear on what the role of the attorney general is in relation to the cabinet, and what is regarded as acceptable pressure versus unacceptable?
“So it leaves people somewhat confused. And that in turn opens up the range of reactions that we are seeing: some people seeing it as the prime minister intervening where he shouldn’t be, others seeing it as penalizing someone just for doing their job. And for others besides it’s a gender issue or diversity issue.
“One thing I think people do get is that for Trudeau it is a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword situation. When you base your popularity on the ideals of a gender-balanced cabinet and new, more transparent ways of governing, then of course when this is revealed it has a bigger impact.
“The extreme comparison — but also the obvious one — is Donald Trump. Scandals don’t hurt this American president because he didn’t brand himself as open and honest. He branded himself as anti-elite and that doesn’t require him to be squeaky clean. And he isn’t.
“And yet here with the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau is feeling the pain of something that is far less obvious. Precisely because it cuts against what he represented to voters.”
Brendan Boyd, a professor of public policy at Alberta’s MacEwan University, said he’s heard American colleagues describe the SNC-Lavalin affair as “quaint” compared to the daily chaos south of the border, where Trump subjected his own former attorney general Jeff Sessions to a barrage of public ridicule before firing him last November.
“But the reality is that we’re going through such an emotional, angry period in Alberta politics that it flattens out nuance with a get-them-out-of-here mindset. And as we move into our own provincial election, the UPC (United Conservative Party) is working to lump NDP Premier Rachel Notley in with Trudeau — and she’s trying to distance herself from Ottawa — because both parties understand any kind of association with Trudeau at this point will do damage.”
Prof. Kathy Brock of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University sees two dimensions of uniquely Canadian angles embedded within the SNC-Lavalin affair.
“First, it needs to be said Canadians tend to beat ourselves up on these issues because we do have higher expectations of our politicians and we have an innate sense of fairness,” Brock said.
“The second dimension that I view as uniquely Canadians is when an Indigenous woman holding one of the highest offices in the country for the first time is fired and then expelled from the party for what many would characterize as whistle-blowing. It mobilizes people — particularly when it comes from a government that held itself up as a friend to the Indigenous community.
“Obviously with the expulsions from the party, the political logic is to do this in April and turn the page. The Liberal machinery is counting on voters having a short memory, so that the issue will fade by the time the election rolls around, when it won’t feel so sharp and so poignant as to dissuade voters,” said Brock.
“So there is brand damage here — including personal damage to the prime minister and his staff and advisers, who have handled it quite poorly. It’s the reason it has gotten traction and is playing so large. It’s fascinating watching this play out.”
Dr. Christine de Clercy, an associate professor of political science at Western University, offers this caveat — the perceived damage to the Trudeau brand may in fact be less than it seems.
“What the prime minister actually campaigned on was help for the middle class and more transparency — and arguably, you could actually say that a lot of Trudeau’s troubles came out of the fact that he actually was transparent — he actually allowed Jody Wilson-Raybould to speak publicly, in an almost unprecedented way.
“Bringing about a new era with Indigenous people, bringing women into the centre of power — these were dimensions of his platform. But they weren’t the only dimensions. And it’s not clear to me that these dimensions are sacrificed as a consequence of what’s happened here,” said de Clercy.
“Yes, they might be banged up a little bit. But is this going to be the defining failure of the Trudeau brand. I don’t think so. But a lot of that depends on how his team regroups and moves forward.”
Joseph Garcea, a professor with the University of Saskatchewan’s Graduate School of Public Policy, likens the competing narratives — the collective truth of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott versus that of the Prime Minister’s Office — as a riddle voters won’t easily, or perhaps ever, unscramble.
“Are these Joans of Arc or Benedict Arnolds? That is the debate. And even Joan of Arc, for all her courage, some lauded her, others burned her,” said Garcea.
“I think different parts of Canada are likely to process the question differently. And I think, as the Liberals struggle to regain a foothold, they’re going to have to worry about what I call the Ouija Effect, where they step into the voting booth undecided and then there hands move in one direction or another.
“Whenever there’s a sense there’s something really wrong with a party it makes it easier for voters in that situation. And right now, there’s just a lot flying around that seems likely to have people move their hands towards the Conservatives or the NDP.”
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites