November 15, 2019

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Trudeau's tarnished brand

PM's pipeline purchase kicked oilsands in the face of environmentalists but failed to win the trust of resource-economy voters and, in the end, confused everyone

MONTREAL — Michael Colatruglio started to lose faith in Justin Trudeau when his Liberal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline.

"That was really not what I was expecting, because he seemed to be an environmentalist," Colatruglio said Monday, hours before the polls closed. He wavered for weeks, debating whether to give Trudeau another chance, but decided to vote for the NDP.

"A lot of people have seen past the veneer, and the good looks and charm," Colatruglio, 31, said Monday.

Michael Colatruglio, 31, a Concordia University student in Montreal, was leaning on voting Liberal again but opted instead for the NDP, upset over a number of hits to the Trudeau brand, from the Trans Mountain pipeline purchase to electoral reform.

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Michael Colatruglio, 31, a Concordia University student in Montreal, was leaning on voting Liberal again but opted instead for the NDP, upset over a number of hits to the Trudeau brand, from the Trans Mountain pipeline purchase to electoral reform.

The Liberals' decision in May 2018 to buy the $4.5-billion pipeline was an attempt to shore up international markets' faith in Canada's energy industry, and reward Alberta for the handful of seats it gave the Liberals in 2015.

But it sparked protests across the country for undermining Trudeau's progressive rhetoric, especially in British Columbia, where key seats were at stake. Any goodwill in the Prairies had likely been overtaken by a backlash against carbon taxes.

For many, Monday's election was a referendum on the Liberals' argument that they managed the delicate balance between the environment and the resource economy.

And in the end, it was enough to continue governing. But voters tasked Trudeau with negotiating with parties that have outflanked him on climate change and progressive issues writ large.

"In a different political climate, it would have been a very persuasive argument," said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Vancouver-based Angus Reid Institute.

"Rather than being thanked across the spectrum for that, (the Liberals) have simply just been beaten up across the spectrum," she said, chalking it up to "what is becoming a more fractured electorate."

"A lot of people have seen past the veneer, and the good looks and charm." – Michael Colatruglio, who voted for Justin Trudeau in 2015 but voted NDP this election

In the week leading up to the Sept. 27 climate strike, when a half-million Montrealers took to the streets, the Liberals switched their podium colour from red to green and had Trudeau plant trees and canoe in the woods to show him as an environmentalist.

Yet here in Montreal, where the streets are often covered in a mix of graffiti, Liberal candidates’ signs across the city have consistently been tagged; the word "pipeline" has been written across candidates’ faces.

"They’ve lost ground with really key swing voters on the left-of-centre who are looking for purity on the climate file," said Kurl, whose firm has found the environment has been the top issue for Canadian voters for at least a year.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau meets with seniors at a retirement home in Chambly, Que. last Wednesday.

DYLAN ROBERTSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau meets with seniors at a retirement home in Chambly, Que. last Wednesday.

This week, the Liberals' star Montreal candidate, environmentalist Steven Guilbeault, said he expects regulations that Trudeau’s government passed will result in no new pipelines being built, despite the Liberals insisting the bill will allow for some new projects.

The news came after months of the carbon-tax riling up voters and their premiers in the Prairies and Ontario’s swing suburbs.

Marketing expert Dennis Matthews said the Liberals have steered away from seeking the middle ground.

"When you look at this election, they're really banking on finding a way to collapse the progressive (opposition)," said Matthews, vice-president with the Toronto firm Enterprise.

"It's a little bit less (of) trying to have a balancing act between right and left for him, and trying now to make the play for the entire left side of the electorate."

Matthews said Trudeau is not easily undercut by a single policy or decision, unlike traditional politicians, because he's more of a brand.

That means the pipeline purchase and the blackface incidents haven’t shaken Trudeau’s progressive image on race and the environment.

"He's put so much equity into the brand that he tends to win some of these things, when conventional wisdom is that he wouldn't," said Matthews, noting that he was seen as unbeatable in 2015.

"He was viewed as a very non-traditional politician, who really captured a moment," he said. "He's taken on eight years worth of political damage in four years."

“He's taken on eight years worth of political damage in four years.” -Marketing expert Dennis Matthews

Matthews noted Trudeau spent the campaign attacking conservative opponents, which is much more the behaviour of conventional politicians.

"This campaign has certainly brought Trudeau a bit down to planet Earth," he said.

The Liberals counted on endorsements to shore up their progressive bona fides. Last week, former U.S. president Barack Obama posted on Twitter that Trudeau "takes on big issues like climate change" and deserves another mandate because "the world needs his progressive leadership now."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau votes with son Hadrien in Montreal, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau votes with son Hadrien in Montreal, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Kurl said many who rank either the environment or resource economy as their top issue also rank the other subject as a key topic. As for the pipeline, Angus Reid found 53 per cent of Canadians want Trans Mountain completed, as opposed to 24 per cent who want it stopped.

Yet she said the Liberals’ grand bargain between the environment and the economy likely didn't resonate due to an overall credibility issue.

"Many Canadians have simply closed their ears to the Liberals on a number of policy fronts," she said.

The effect was more pronounced among young voters such as Colatruglio, who felt disenchanted with the Liberals' reversal on electoral reform, and with the SNC-Lavalin affair.

"He ran on a platform of hope in the last election, and that hope never came to fruition," Colatruglio said.

"He uses all the right words, but in reality I don't think he truly understands it."

Colatruglio said Singh’s graceful handling of a racist comment about his turban by a Montreal supporter is what sealed the deal for him. To him, it looked prime-ministerial.

"He's a very new politician, and I think that's refreshing. He has a new perspective."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, October 21, 2019 at 9:58 PM CDT: Adds photo

11:40 PM: Adds photo

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