A young and exuberant man with an appealing platform, a charming wife and family, the prime minister made waves during the election campaign and beyond. A refreshing change from his predecessor, Trudeau was upbeat, offering hope, change and sunny ways. After the results were in, there was a sense that the planet had settled back on its axis because Canada was back.
Barely a year after the Liberal victory, much of the euphoria has evaporated.
To imply that the honeymoon is completely over would be an exaggeration. Canadians applaud many Liberal initiatives, including: a gender-balanced cabinet, bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees within months of the election victory, the Paris accord on climate change and an enquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
But there’s creeping unease on a number of fronts, leaving some voters disillusioned.
Many Canadians are disappointed that Canada is selling arms to Saudi Arabia, that the government hasn’t amended Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill, and that infrastructure spending is slow in coming.
But two issues cut deeper and could inflict long-term damage to Trudeau’s credibility: electoral reform and the cash-for-access debacle.
The electoral reform file has been botched. After what seemed like an ironclad guarantee that the 2015 election would be last time we would vote in a first-past-the-post system, Trudeau’s enthusiasm seems to have diminished. His comment that reform is no longer required because Canadians now have a government they like was met with disbelief. The Liberals probably won thousands of votes because of this single commitment so there will definitely be political fallout.
The second issue revolves around exclusive events that provide opportunities for the well-heeled to rub shoulders with the prime minister and his cabinet. Such functions aren’t illegal but they do violate Trudeau’s own guidelines. Eager to differentiate his government from the Conservatives, he instructed his ministers to ensure that “there should be no preferential access to government or appearance of preferential access.” He also stressed that they couldn’t defend their actions as being legal.
Neither of these matters is of cosmic significance and the money involved in the latter case is trivial. But as Trudeau doggedly defends the practice in question period, he comes across at the very least as disingenuous. If solemn pledges are treated in such a cavalier fashion, what else may be in jeopardy?
No one believed that the prime minister would coast through his term scattering stardust in his path. Reality was bound to set in and with it disappointment, and the loss of something much more serious – trust.
Trust is the most precious commodity a politician can possess. Although Trudeau was swept into power, in part, due to his physical attributes and other qualities, more than anything, voters believed he was trustworthy. There was an authenticity about the Liberal leader that led to visceral support.
While pessimism, anger and disillusionment were sweeping many countries, we had a leader who appealed to the best in people and believed the best of people.
What has changed?
Some candidates for public office embrace positions merely for strategic or tactical purposes – I’ve heard a campaign manager confess this.
If Canadians begin to believe that the prime minister’s stand on certain issues was mere political expediency, they’ll abandon his party in droves.
If this is a misperception and he rectifies the problems, then his reputation can be salvaged and the damage won’t be permanent.
Unusually, Canada garners attention on the international stage as a beacon of hope in an increasingly xenophobic world. Trudeau and embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel are regarded as the last champions of progressive, open democracies. It’s possible he’ll be the last man standing after the upcoming German election.
With so much riding on his shoulders, it’s essential he regain the trust so many vested in him on election day.
If he doesn’t get the message on his current listening tour and in the months to come, Trudeau might find in 2019 that his warranty has run out.
Doreen Barrie is an adjunct assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary.