Eclipse of the icon of the liberal left?
Although the Canadian Liberal Party won the election, it will be forced to form a minority government. The Liberals received fewer votes than the Conservatives and it was only thanks to single-mandate constituencies that they could fill more seats in the lower house of the parliament. The weaker result is due to the problems of the party leader – Justin Trudeau – a few years ago hailed as the golden child of progressive politics. Image scandals and inconsistent economic and environmental policies have damaged the Canadian Prime Minister’s credibility.
„It’s 2015,” said the newly sworn-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, explaining the cabinet’s composition. The picture from the swearing-in of the new government, usually dominated by older men in suits and ties, this time was different. There was no shortage of dresses, skirts and ladies’ jackets – there were exactly as many women in this group as men. But that’s not all – one minister was in a wheelchair, two had turbans on their heads, there were also refugees and representatives of indigenous Canadians.
The enthusiasm of the world’s media was similar to that accompanying the success of Barack Obama in 2008. It was strengthened by the fact that the policies of many other Western countries were moving in the opposite direction, as evidenced by Brexit one year later and the success of Donald Trump in the USA, which for many became Trudeau’s antithesis. The combination of these factors made the Canadian Prime Minister’s name widely known abroad for the first time in a long time. Justin Trudeau was very concerned about the outcome of this year’s election and, although he ultimately managed to win, the politician is not nearly as enthusiastic about the outcome as he was four years ago. What has happened?
The saviour of the liberals
The Liberal Party dominated Canadian politics in the 20th century, ruling for a total of more than 65 years. Entering the new millennium, it still boasted Jean Chrétien’s majority government.
Things turned sour with the disclosure of the so-called sponsoring scandal: since 1996, the Canadian government has sponsored advertising campaigns to raise awareness among Quebec residents of how the federal authorities are investing in the region’s development. This was intended to counteract the popularity of the Quebec Party (Parti Québécois), which advocated separating the province from Canada. It was revealed, among other things, that many of the funds from the programme went to Liberal friends as remuneration for activities that were not even undertaken and then went to the Liberal Party itself in the form of donations. Making the scandal public did not stop the Liberals from winning the 2004 elections but they lost their majority in parliament for the first time.
The repercussions of the scandal plunged the liberals into a crisis and after several months Paul Martin’s government collapsed. The early elections were won by the Conservatives and their new leader, Stephen Harper, became the Prime Minister for almost 10 years. At that time, the Liberal Party’s election results were getting worse and worse, reaching the historic low in 2011, when it won only 34 seats (in 2000 it had 172 seats) and the largest dissentient was the New Democratic Party. However, the rumours of the Liberals’ downfall were premature.
That’s when Justin Trudeau appeared on stage – a man born to be a politician. Literally. When he was born, his father was the Prime Minister of Canada. However, for a long time, his origin did not influence his life decisions. After graduation, he worked as a teacher, a bouncer in a nightclub and a snowboard instructor, and dissociated himself from politics, claiming he did not read newspapers or watch the news. However, in 2007 he changed his mind and after a very busy campaign managed to enter the lower house of the national parliament.
An important part of his political career was a… boxing match. While fundraising for charities, Trudeau faced a conservative senator, Patrick Brazeau, in the ring. He won the fight in the third round, and that success further improved his image. Some commentators even claimed that it was this moment that allowed him to break the image of the privileged young man and son of influential parents.
It was only the first of many successes – a year later, in 2013, he became the leader of his party and led it to win the elections in 2015. Trudeau’s style of communication (he was called the first leader of the Instagram era because of his skilful use of photography and posting many selfies) brought him great popularity, which resulted in an unexpected party success (184 seats, increase by 148 over the previous election, the largest ever in Canadian history).
Not really a saint
The whole world is struggling with under-representation of women in politically important positions, while half of the government in Canada is made up of women. Other countries are experiencing political crises as a result of the wave of refugees from the Middle East, while Canada has decided to accept tens of thousands of them with open arms. Besides, the legalization of cannabis and the legal admission of euthanasia have taken place. Each of these events, appropriately presented in the media, strengthened the image of Prime Minister Trudeau as the leading liberal left-wing politician in the world – a paragon of normality in the times of Brexit, Trump and Orban.
On top of that, Trudeau has used the social media skilfully – including a random photo with a group of high school students (the Prime Minister jogging in the morning) or a 'surprise’ photo in a kayak (the Prime Minister paddling the boat to show how to live in harmony with nature). And yet, despite such good governance, his image proved to be the most difficult challenge for Justin Trudeau before the 2019 election.
The most glaring manifestation of this was the case of the so-called blackface. During the election campaign, the media published two photographs in which the current Canadian Prime Minister had his face covered in dark make-up to make him look black. One photo was taken back in high school, the other one was taken at least 10 years later – Trudeau, a young teacher at the time, appeared at a masquerade ball in Aladdin’s costume.
From the Polish perspective, this may not seem very controversial, but for North American people the association is obvious: minstrel shows. It was a kind of entertainment show, which became popular in the USA in the 19th century. White actors painted their faces black and then played artistic skits depicting the stupidity and childishness of black people. Today, such performances are widely condemned as a sign of racism. For any politician from the USA or Canada, such photographs would be a burden, but for a representative of the liberal left, they are the equivalent of revealing a gay romance of a Conservative politician (even if it had taken place years ago). That is why this issue has been widely discussed in the media all over the world and there has been a lot of speculation about its potential harmfulness to the electoral results of the Liberals. However, this is only the most superficial problem that the Canadian Prime Minister has had to face.
There was another, much more serious issue, though, connected with the SNC-Lavalin investigation. This Montreal corporation was supposed to pay numerous bribes to the representatives of the Muammar al-Gaddafi regime in exchange for lucrative contracts in Libya. The procedure, which has probably lasted since around 2000, drew the attention of the company’s board of directors in 2008 after the company paid the son of a Libyan dictator for a three-month stay in Canada. The bill amounted to nearly $2 million.
An internal investigation has begun and proceedings are currently pending within the Canadian justice system. And it was that very system that Justin Trudeau wanted to influence by trying to get the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to postpone the case. He was afraid that the verdict could undermine the stability of the company, which in turn could hurt Quebec’s economy and the Liberal election results. The Minister refused, to which the Prime Minister reacted by transferring her to another post, and she decided to leave the government.
Trudeau not only broke the rules on conflict of interest (as confirmed by the parliamentary ethics committee) but also sought to influence the independence of the judiciary. Finally, he pushed out of his cabinet a woman who was, besides, a representative of indigenous Canadian people. He seriously damaged his image as a leader open to diversity.
Environmental policy decisions have proved to be the most disastrous. The Trudeau government introduced a federal law (Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act) that would force provinces that have not yet done so to introduce carbon pricing. In the Canadian system, the provinces enjoy a high degree of independence from the federal government and, in this respect too, each province has been forming legislation in its way, in some cases with no restrictions.
Based on arguments about the need to reduce emissions, Trudeau decided to enforce such regulations by federal law, imposing an additional levy on fossil fuels, and introducing a system of carbon dioxide emission limits (which companies can trade between each other if they do not use them in a given year). Around 90% of the revenue generated in this way would go to the province’s residents in the form of income tax reliefs because the new fees were intended to force large companies to reduce emissions and move towards innovation, rather than to drain the pockets of citizens. The remaining 10% was to be used to support the development of environmental programmes.
The law met with strong resistance from the provincial authorities and, also, caused concern in the prairie part of Canada (both in the provinces covered by the law, like Saskatchewan, and those that had already had their own regulations, like Alberta). The prairie provinces derive their income from the exploitation of natural resources. The Trudeau government’s green direction interferes with their interests, especially as they find it harder and harder to compete with the United States, which, under Donald Trump, have embarked on a process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and can exploit its resources without considering the environmental costs.
These concerns are very clear in the election results: in Saskatchewan and Alberta, the Conservatives won a crushing victory and the Liberals did not even get a single seat. The western prairie provinces have always been more conservative than the eastern provinces, but this time the division seems to run deeper. A discussion is maintained on the social media about Wexit, the separation of these two provinces from Canada.
The inhabitants of these regions seem frustrated by the fact that their unequivocal vote has not translated into a change of power in the country because the largest number of seats in the House of Commons are to be allocated to the populous cities on the east coast, where the Liberals dominate. Although this is an unlikely scenario, the very fact that it has been discussed speaks volumes about the situation. So far, separatist ideas have been expressed mainly by the inhabitants of Quebec, a province that is mostly French-speaking and culturally distinct from the rest of Canada.
Trying to regain trust in the western provinces has not worked out well. The Trudeau government announced that it intended to buy back and expand the Trans Mountain pipeline linking Alberta and the British Columbia coastline. The project was conceived under Harper’s conservative government as a response to the problem faced by the Canadian mining industry – limited transport capacity. For Trudeau, this could have been an additional opportunity to minimize the image deterioration in the region.
It turned out, however, that instead of profits, there were new losses. The outraged ecologists and the representatives of the indigenous inhabitants protested, complaining that no one had consulted them about the expansion of the pipeline affecting their land. So these are two groups that previously considered Trudeau to be 'their man’. The project did not appeal to the residents of British Columbia either, who, unlike the residents of the prairie provinces, see the investment not as an economic benefit, but as an environmental cost. Here, too, the Liberal Party’s results may have reflected this reluctance – the Conservatives have regained the upper hand.
It appears that painting his face black and the attempt to exert pressure on the justice system turned out to be the most aggravating. Prime Minister Trudeau suffered the greatest losses in the field he considered his own from the very beginning, i.e. in the field of ecology. The attempt to implement the postulates aimed at improving air quality undermined confidence in the government in the region where the mining industry plays an important role. On the other hand, the attempts to meet the needs of this industry have further weakened the Prime Minister’s credibility among liberal voters.
Trudeau is starting his second term, much more difficult than the first. The leniency period for the first leader of the Instagram era is over, and he will have to face challenges that cannot be solved by an image campaign. Ecology can be one of the most important issues.
Polish version is available here.
Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Any use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2019" (below) is mentioned.
The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.