December 10, 2019

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Sheen fading on Trudeau brand

The resignation of two prominent female cabinet ministers. The deepening SNC-Lavelin controversy. Slumping support in the polls. With a federal election just months away, can the Prime Minister stop the slide?

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to gain back his star power after losing two cabinet ministers and his party slumping in the polls.

A month into the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. controversy, the Free Press spoke with academics and lobbyists across the continent to determine how the issue is resonating, and if Trudeau can turn his fortunes around as a federal election approaches.

All seven say Trudeau will have to turn the public's focus away from Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general who resigned almost a month ago and then claimed the Prime Minister's Office pressured her to intervene in a corruption case against Quebec-based SNC-Lavalin, in order to shore up votes in that province. 

Western Canada's 'deep anger'

While Trudeau is trying to shore up support in central Canada, the SNC-Lavalin controversy will hardly change how most Albertans feel about him.

"They’re already mad about a whole bunch of things," said Lori Williams, a policy professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, citing delayed pipeline construction and equalization payments flowing east. 

Williams said "deep anger and suspicion" cut across class and partisan lines. "I’m often surprised by the people I speak to, who are are really angry with him." She said similar feelings in Saskatchewan seem to run less deep.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley met in Edmonton in September 2018.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley met in Edmonton in September 2018.

Williams said the National Energy Program is often invoked by Albertans — even those born after Trudeau’s father, Pierre, imposed the deeply unpopular policy in the early 1980s. "For older people, it’s definitely top-of-mind."

Duane Bratt, who teaches political science at MRU, suspects Trudeau only has to worry about his support in the Vancouver area, given Wilson-Raybould is a prominent MP in the region, as well as Winnipeg seats where he has soft support. Wilson-Raybould was one of four ministers from B.C., and arguably even more influential in cabinet than Defence Minster Harjit Sajjan.

Otherwise, the west is a write-off for Trudeau, Bratt said, with many contrasting him defending a purported 9,000 SNC jobs in Quebec with the loss of 100,000 energy jobs in Alberta. "This has really exasperated national unity," he said.

'Divisive' for Quebec

The SNC-Lavalin affair has been "extremely divisive" for Quebec, according Louis Massicotte, a political science professor at Université Laval in Quebec City.

Massicotte said some have expressed surprise Trudeau went to bat for his home province, given he’s often accused of being overly deferential to other provinces. But for many more, it’s confirmed their suspicions Canada is out to get Quebec.

"Another way to see it is that even when Trudeau, himself the prime minister, tried to intervene in favour of Quebec, it didn't work because one minister (Wilson-Raybould) stood up to him, and all of English Canada took her side," he said, adding it's rejuvenated tropes about the province being more corrupt than others.

In the Quebec press, columnists largely dismissed the initial revelations, saying it would have been surprising for Trudeau to not have exerted pressure and defended jobs.

But after Wilson-Raybould claimed the Liberal leader intervened because of elections in Quebec, many columnists took a more moderate opinion, or focused on the need to hear from everyone involved.

'New star' for Americans

A recent editorial by The New York Times lamented Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin case, but most Americans only have a "millimetre-thick" idea of what’s taking place, according to Eric Miller, head of the Rideau Potomac strategy group.

"The bloom is off the rose a little bit."

Miller said Trudeau was the main idealistic symbol for many left-wing Americans, until January’s U.S. elections when Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took office as the "new star of the progressive left."

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the 'new star of the progressive left,' says Eric Miller, head of the Rideau Potomac strategy group.

CP

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the 'new star of the progressive left,' says Eric Miller, head of the Rideau Potomac strategy group.

He said allies of U.S. President Donald Trump are generally pleased to hear Trudeau has hit a rough stretch after previous difficult trade negotiations. Democrats, meanwhile, "are worried on a very general sense that (Trudeau has) hit bumpy waters, and that something untoward may have been done and there’s a scandal — but they don't really know much more than that."

Miller recalls Trudeau’s March 2016 state visit with former U.S. president Barack Obama. "There were actually young girls outside one of the receptions he was going to, screaming, like he was a pop star," said Miller, who also spotted Canadian R&B superstar The Weeknd at that function.

"The poor guy was standing there all by himself as everyone hovered around Justin Trudeau."

'Stanch the bleeding’

Liberal strategist Greg MacEachern said Trudeau is making the right moves to turn things around, by focusing on jobs and getting fresh input.

He said Trudeau needs to hear from his MPs, "his ambassadors in their communities," on how they’re feeling and what recommendations they have.

"You want to make sure you're going to stanch the bleeding," said MacEachern, who has been a senior adviser to two cabinet ministers and worked for numerous other Liberals.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets attendees at a Liberal Climate Action Rally in Toronto.

FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets attendees at a Liberal Climate Action Rally in Toronto.

This past week, Trudeau has sought advice from staff who had not worked on the SNC-Lavalin file, many of whom instead helped shepherd Canada’s recent trade negotiations with the United States.

"I think that’s a smart move," said MacEachern, who leads lobbying for Proof Strategies. "If you’re involved in this from the beginning, it might be hard to separate some of your awareness of how events went down. And you might want somebody who is maybe a bit more dispassionate."

Statistics Canada published a round of flattering employment numbers in the months leading up to the SNC-Lavalin news. MacEachern believes jobs were going to be a key Liberal narrative this spring, before the party jumped on it as their main defence in explaining actions on SNC-Lavalin.

MacEachern he expects that message will resonate. "He has to make sure that he’s communicating that he does care what Canadians think about him."

'The Liberals will bounce back’

Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political scientist, said the Liberals can likely outlast the SNC-Lavalin shadow, as long as the topic doesn’t constantly re-emerge in the media.

"The support for Trudeau has gone down, there's no doubt about it." he said. "The Liberal brand as well, to some extent."

Wiseman said the Liberals are among the most popular parties in the western world, because their viewpoints align with a large number of Canadians.

'A paternalistic society of government is still one that we have to face': Mihychuk

Winnipeg Liberal MP MaryAnn Mihychuk, speaking at a Habitat for Humanity Women Build Program event on Friday, offered her views on what it’s like to be a female member of parliament in Ottawa.

 

Winnipeg Liberal MP MaryAnn Mihychuk, speaking at a Habitat for Humanity Women Build Program event on Friday, offered her views on what it’s like to be a female member of parliament in Ottawa.

“A paternalistic society of government is still one that we have to face. So, we have to celebrate that we had gender parity — 50 per cent of the cabinet is female – but we bring our views and the way we deal with it to the table, but we also, I found, get questioned if we make a decision. We make a recommendation, is our research actually going to be factual – 'we better check that out. What does she know.’

And it does, it gets on you. You know you can feel very, very frustrated in what seems to be an easy road for some and much more challenging for others. But I want to say that is why, we as women, need to stick it out. We need to stay. We need to fight. We need to continue to push the right things. We need you to run. We need you to become elected. We need you in all seats of parliament, provincially, municipally, we need to continue to hear and push our voices. So, I want to just say let’s build houses, let’s build our movement, let’s build our voices in elected seats.”

With seven months until the 2019 federal election, he suspects the Tories will instead focus on immigration and other issues that re-emerge. And voters don’t often make their choices on policy, he said.

Wiseman noted the Liberals won their 2015 majority after putting forth campaign planks that voters didn’t actually agree with, such as bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees. The idea polled poorly with voters, but bolstered the appeal of a leader who seemed more optimistic than then-Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

"I think the Liberals will bounce back in the polls; maybe not as high as they were two months ago."

‘Drawn to him in droves’

Daily polling by Abacus Data shows the Liberals lost their months-long lead in the polls after the SNC-Lavalin news broke, with the Tories overtaking them after Wilson-Raybould's testimony.

Those same numbers show that gap closing, putting both parties almost at the same percentage Thursday.

"Over time, the oxygen is drawn out of an issue and people pay attention to the 'what's next,'" said Amanda Alvaro, who helped run Trudeau's 2015 campaign.

She expects the Liberals will focus on their March 19 budget, which will spur numerous announcements and policy proposals and "turn the channel" for Canadians.

Motion to condemn federal liberals hit legislature floor

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says he refused to vote on a legislative motion about whether to condemn the federal government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. affair because he “didn’t want to dignify it.”

“I thought, ‘This is not an appropriate use of the Manitoba legislature’s time.’ We had spent three months away where all sorts of things had happened… and this is what the NDP wanted to use their one day to talk about,” Lamont said in an interview Friday, referring to the first day of the 41st legislative session, which resumed Wednesday.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says he refused to vote on a legislative motion about whether to condemn the federal government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. affair because he “didn’t want to dignify it.”

“I thought, ‘This is not an appropriate use of the Manitoba legislature’s time.’ We had spent three months away where all sorts of things had happened… and this is what the NDP wanted to use their one day to talk about,” Lamont said in an interview Friday, referring to the first day of the 41st legislative session, which resumed Wednesday.

NDP MLA Bernadette Smith introduced an opposition motion, which called on members to condemn the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "for politically interfering in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin," and to condemn the "poor and inappropriate treatment" of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.

The motion also called for a public inquiry "to provide Canadians the answers they deserve." It passed with 46 votes in support from the NDP and the Tories. Only one voted against the motion — Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard — while three other Liberal members (Lamont, Cindy Lamoureux and Judy Klassen) didn’t show up to vote.

“We’re not a peanut gallery. It’s not a high school debating society. If you want to disapprove of people, go ahead — say it on Twitter, put out a press release. But don’t take up the business of the Manitoba legislature to posture on a federal issue,” Lamont said.

Asked what he thinks of the SNC-Lavalin case, Lamont initially didn’t want to weigh in.

“Honestly, my job is to be the leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party... Frankly, it’s not my circus, it’s not my monkeys," he said.

Lamont wouldn’t say whether he still supports Trudeau as prime minister.

“I’m still reserving judgment... There are huge numbers of complicated legal duties and responsibilities that people are arguing about, and I wasn’t there. So I’m in no position to really pass judgment at this point,” he said.

For her part, Smith said the issue in Ottawa was clear-cut.

"Justin Trudeau's Liberals are more concerned with helping out wealthy corporate insiders then protecting regular Manitoba families," she said in a prepared statement. "The Manitoba Liberal leader is dodging a clear ethical question, and that's not real leadership."

-- Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Alvaro, co-founder of the Toronto communications firm Pomp & Circumstance, said the Liberals could change the entire narrative by the time Canadians vote in October.

"Governing is kind of like an essay exam; and election day will be multiple choice," she said. "We'll be rating our leaders (and policies) against one another."

Alvaro said Canadians who aren’t sure what happened are likely to believe Trudeau, because of his "magnetic" communication style.

"He's amassed over time a lot of credibility with Canadians, and he can draw on some of that as he weathers that storm," she said. "People are drawn to him in droves."

Trudeau has been pilloried for embarrassing outfits on a visit to India, and a Bahamas vacation that violated ethics laws, but Alvaro believes this is Trudeau's first actual "crisis," and thus intense media focus.

"I don’t think you can govern scathe-free."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"

Read full biography

History

Updated on Friday, March 8, 2019 at 8:43 PM CST: Fixes typos

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