Trudeau seeks a fresh start, but many voters see a power grab

Canada's Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during an election campaign stop in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada September 18, 2021. REUTERS
Outside a TV studio in a Vancouver, British Columbia, suburb where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was recording an interview days before the country’s election, a man shouted insults, mostly obscene, about Trudeau and his family while blasting Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” from a stereo on a cart.

Heckling is something Trudeau has always faced, but this time the attacks have new bite. After six years in office, a prime minister who promised “sunny ways” and presented himself as a new face is now the political establishment, with a track record and missteps for opponents to criticise. Even if the Liberal Party clings to its hold on Parliament, as observers expect, this bruising election campaign has done him no favours.

Ben Chin, the prime minister’s senior adviser, said that no politician could have sustained Trudeau’s initial popularity.

“If you’re in power for six years or five years, you’re going to have more baggage,” Chin said. “You have to make tough decisions that not everybody’s going to agree with.”

For much of his time in office, opposition party leaders have accused Trudeau of putting his personal and political interests before the nation’s good — of which the snap election being held Monday is the most recent example. They also have had rich material to attack him on over controversies involving a contract for a charity close to his family, and a finding that he broke ethics laws by pressing a minister to help a large Quebec company avoid criminal sanctions.

And for every accomplishment Trudeau cites, his opponents can point to unfulfilled pledges.

Anti-vax protesters have thronged his events, some with signs promoting the far-right People’s Party of Canada, prompting his security detail to increase precautions.

One rally in Ontario where protesters significantly outnumbered the police was shut down over safety concerns, and at another in the same province, the prime minister was pelted with gravel as he boarded his campaign bus. A local official of the People’s Party later faced charges in that episode of assault with a weapon.

Trudeau has many achievements since 2015 to point to. His government has introduced carbon pricing and other climate measures, legalised cannabis, increased spending for Indigenous issues and made 1,500 models of military-style rifles illegal. A new plan will provide day care for 10 Canadian dollars a day per child.

Although his popularity has diminished, Trudeau’s star power remains. When he dropped by the outdoor terrace of a cafe in Port Coquitlam, an eastern suburb of Vancouver, for elbow bumps, quick chats and selfies with voters, a crowd soon swelled.

“We love you, we love you,” Joy Silver, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher from nearby Coquitlam, told Trudeau.

But as Election Day nears, many Canadians are still asking why Trudeau is holding a vote now, two years ahead of schedule, with COVID-19 infections on the rise from the delta variant, taxing hospitals and prompting renewed pandemic restrictions in some provinces or delaying their lifting in others.

Also criticised was that he called the vote the same weekend Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, when Canadian troops were struggling to evacuate Canadians as well as Afghans who had assisted their forces.

“They’ve been struggling with answering that question the whole campaign,” said Gerald Butts, a longtime friend of Trudeau’s and a former top political adviser. “And that’s part of why they’re having trouble getting the message across.”

Trudeau has said that he needs to replace his plurality in the House of Commons with a majority to deal with the remainder of the pandemic and the recovery that will follow — although he avoids explicitly saying “majority.” The Liberal Party’s political calculation was that it was best to strike while Canadians still held favourable views about how Trudeau handled pandemic issues, particularly income supports and buying vaccines.

“We’re the party with the experience, the team and the plan to continue delivering real results for Canadians, the party with a real commitment to ending this pandemic,” Trudeau said at a rally in Surrey, another Vancouver suburb, standing in front of campaign signs for candidates from the surrounding area. “Above all, my friends, if you want to end this pandemic for good, go out and vote Liberal.”

During much of the 36-day campaign, the Liberals have been stuck in a statistical tie with the Conservative Party of Canada, led by Erin O’Toole, each holding about 30% of the popular vote. The New Democrats, a left-of-center party led by Jagmeet Singh, lies well behind at about 20%.

Kimberly Speers, a political scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, said that Trudeau’s personality and celebrity may be working against him.

“The messaging, from the NDP and the Conservatives especially, is that it’s a power grab and it’s all about him,” she said. “And that message has just really seemed to stick with voters.”

Some scandals during Trudeau’s tenure have helped the opposition, too. In 2019, Trudeau’s veterans affairs minister, an Indigenous woman, quit amid allegations that when she was justice minister, he and his staff had improperly pressured her to strike a deal that would have allowed a large Canadian corporation to avoid a criminal conviction on corruption charges.

Despite his championing of diversity, it emerged during the 2019 election that Trudeau had worn blackface or brownface three times in the past. And last year a charity with deep connections to his family was awarded a no-bid contract to administer a COVID-19 financial assistance plan for students. (The group withdrew, the program was cancelled, and Trudeau was cleared by the federal ethics and conflict of interest commissioner.)

His opponents have also focused on promises they say he has fallen short on, including introducing a national prescription drug programme, creating a new electoral structure for Canada, lowering debt relative to the size of the economy, and ending widespread sexual harassment in the military and solitary confinement in federal prisons. The Centre for Public Policy Analysis at Laval University in Quebec City found that Trudeau has fully kept about 45% of his promises, while 27% were partly fulfilled.

Singh has been reminding voters that Trudeau vowed to bring clean drinking water to all Indigenous communities. There were 105 boil-water orders in effect at First Nations when Trudeau took power, with others added later. The government has restored clean water to 109 communities, but 52 boil-water orders remain.

“I think Mr Trudeau may care, I think he cares, but the reality is that he’s often done a lot of things for show and hasn’t backed those up with real action,” Singh said during the official English-language debate.

O’Toole, for his part, has sought to portray the vote as an act of personal aggrandizement.

“Every Canadian has met a Justin Trudeau in their lives: privileged, entitled and always looking out for No. 1,” he said at a recent event in rural Ottawa. “He was looking out for No. 1 when he called this expensive and unnecessary election in the middle of a pandemic.”

Security and secrecy have increased at Trudeau’s campaign stops after several of them were disrupted by protesters angry about mandatory COVID-19 vaccination rules and vaccine passport measures that the prime minister has imposed.

At the rally outside a banquet hall in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, Trudeau, sleeves rolled up and microphone in hand, gave an energetic speech before diving into a mostly South Asian crowd eager to pose for pictures with him.

In a change from previous practice, the crowd had been gathered by invitation rather than by public announcement, partly to keep its size within pandemic limits, and no signs promoted the event on the formidable gate to the remote location. Up on the hall’s roof, two police snipers in camouflage surveyed the scene.

After an earlier rally in Ontario was canceled, Trudeau was asked if US politics had inspired the unruly protests. His answer was indirect.

“I think we all need to reflect on whether we do want to go down that path of anger, of division, of intolerance,” he said. “I’ve never seen this intensity of anger on the campaign trail or in Canada.”

Translating wider poll results into precise predictions of how many seats the parties will hold in the next House of Commons is not possible. But all of the current polling suggests that Trudeau may have alienated many Canadians with an early election call and endured abuse while campaigning, for no political gain. The most likely outcome is that the Liberals will continue to hold power but not gain the majority he sought.

If that proves to be the case, Butts said, “it’s going to end up pretty close to where we left off, which is a great irony.”

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