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Don’t Believe the Spin. Trudeau Isn’t Done

The pundits are wrong, in large part thanks to Pierre Poilievre.

Michael Harris 15 Aug 2023The Tyee

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the best-selling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

The not-so-shiny pony is headed for the political glue factory, or so goes the buzz from Justin Trudeau’s detractors. And there are a lot of them.

The way most pollsters and pundits and all Harper-Cons see it, you can put a fork in Trudeau; he’s done. But they can put away the cutlery for now. The chances are better than even that the current PM will defeat his fourth Conservative leader in a row — assuming he sticks around for the next electoral tilt.

Yes, the polling looks bad. But there are few things less relevant than a mid-summer poll with no election in sight.

Besides, there are a few bright spots. As of July 23, the Liberals have won five per cent more votes on average in the previous five byelections, mostly at the expense of the NDP.

After eight years in power, Trudeau is polling higher than both Stephen Harper and Pierre Trudeau at the same point in their careers. In fact, only former PM Jean Chrétien had higher numbers after eight years in office than Justin Trudeau.

And according to a recent Nanos poll, there has been no rush to make Pierre Poilievre voters’ preferred choice for prime minister. Trudeau and Poilievre are in a dead heat in that category, both at under 30 per cent.

None of this is not to say that Trudeau, who assumed office with not much more than a famous name and photogenic smile, isn’t carrying some pretty heavy baggage now. That’s what eight years in office does to all politicians. Making things worse, most of the prime minister’s best-known blunders were self-inflicted, what in the tennis world would be called “unforced errors.”

After accepting a Christmas vacation on the Aga Khan’s island, news of the furtive trip inevitably leaked out. That’s how Trudeau became the first prime minister in history to be found in breach of federal ethics laws, violating three provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act.

The political optics looked worse than the violations. Vacationing with billionaires on their dime, even if they are family friends, is not the best way of convincing middle- and working-class voters that you feel their pain.

In 2018, the Trudeau government stumbled through the SNC-Lavalin affair, which led to the departure from cabinet of then justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and health minster Jane Philpott, two female stars of the party led by a self-avowed feminist. A low point for the PM.

Wilson-Raybould claimed that the Prime Minister’s Office interfered in a decision her department had already made concerning the huge engineering firm. In August 2019, the ethics commissioner agreed with her, finding that the PM’s team had breached ethics rules by trying to get the justice minister to reconsider granting SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement, instead of a criminal charge.

In other words, Wilson-Raybould was dumped for being right, which is why Philpott followed her out of cabinet. That injustice cost the prime minister his principal secretary, Gerald Butts, who was forced to resign, and his majority government in the next election.

Then came the comical visit to India, where Trudeau and family donned traditional Indian garb. It was noted at the time that not even citizens of India dressed like that every day. To critics, it was a blatant exercise in cultural appropriation, all to get a funky photo-op. The Trudeaus, now separated, looked like extras in a Bollywood movie.

During the 2019 election, the infamous “blackface” scandal struck, though the PM’s critics had to go back nearly 20 years to bring out the news. Trudeau admitted that he had worn blackface back in 2001 when he was a teacher at West Point Grey Academy. And he couldn’t be sure that was the only time.

In 2020, the WE Charity scandal broke. WE was made the administrator of the $912-million Canada Student Service Grant. The program was designed to allow students to have summer jobs helping their communities during the pandemic.

The opposition and pro-Conservative press made much of the fact that Trudeau’s mother, brother and wife had given paid speeches at WE events.

A subsequent investigation by the ethics commissioner confirmed that it was the civil service, not Justin Trudeau, who recommended that WE administer the program. Trudeau was never paid for any events with the charity. Despite his exoneration, the affair left a lingering odour.

With a political rap sheet like that, how, one may reasonably ask, does the PM survive? In three ways.

Conservative scandals

The first one is the enduring record of Conservative scandal during the Harper years. It matches, and arguably surpasses, Justin Trudeau at his worst, because many of those scandals were blatant attempts to subvert democracy.

In 2006, the Conservatives broke election finance rules in that year’s tightly contested election. In what came to be known as the In-and-Out scandal, the party was caught disguising $1.3 million in national advertising as expenses incurred by local candidates. Four senior Conservative Party of Canada members, including Sen. Irving Gerstein and Sen. Doug Finley, now deceased, were personally charged in the affair.

Those charges were dropped in a plea deal that saw the Conservative Fund plead guilty to breaking election expenses rules, instead of the individuals who hatched and executed the plot. The CPC paid a fine of $52,000, the maximum penalty under the law. The judge noted that although the offences were regulatory, they were “significant to the democratic process.”

Party bigwigs weren’t the only people caught cheating. Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro was outed for overspending during his 2008 election campaign. Harper’s former parliamentary secretary was convicted of the offence in 2014. He was sentenced to one month in jail, four months of house arrest and 18 months of probation. Another Conservative MP, Peter Penashue, resigned his seat after allegations of spending irregularities in the 2011 election. He ran in a byelection to regain his seat but lost to Liberal Yvonne Jones.

Then there was the Afghan detainee scandal, amid credible allegations from the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and Canadian diplomats that some of those detainees were being tortured in Afghan prisons. They had been handed over to local authorities by Canadian forces.

As evidence of the torture mounted, the Harper government flatly rejected calls for a public inquiry. The story dragged on for three years.

When the demand for an inquiry reached a crescendo in 2009, Stephen Harper simply prorogued the House of Commons. The opposition called it an “almost despotic” attempt to muzzle parliamentarians.

The Harper government never investigated the alleged complicity of Canada in torture, falsely claiming that there was absolutely no proof to back up the allegation. Instead, Harper castigated the opposition for caring more about Taliban fighters than Canadian soldiers. For Harper, human rights was an apparently divisible concept.

Then came the the biggest unsolved crime in Canadian political history — the robocalls scandal emanating from the 2011 election that ended with a Conservative majority.

During that election, someone conducted a well-organized, national campaign to mislead voters, using both robocalls and live calls. Some of the calls were harassing, others directed voters to the wrong polling booths. Some callers allegedly posed as employees of Elections Canada. The organizers were very clever. They used prepaid gift cards, burner phones and a proxy server to cover their tracks.

The only person ever convicted in the infamous case was Michael Sona, a low-level campaign worker for the Conservative candidate in Guelph who did not have access to the Conservative Constituent Management System voting lists used to make the calls. For preventing some people from voting, Sona received nine months in jail and 12 months probation. He was paroled in 2016 and maintains his innocence.

After a toothless investigation by Elections Canada, which had no power to subpoena witnesses, the matter was dropped. But not before Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley confirmed that there had been voter suppression in the 2011 election. Suppressing the vote has long been a key component of the U.S. Republican party playbook.

Mosley did not find that the Conservative party was behind the robocalls. But he did conclude that the perpetrator or perpetrators used information from the party's database to make their vote-suppressing calls.

The Conservatives never asked for a public inquiry into this major assault on Canadian democracy. Nor did they ask for an RCMP investigation into who had accessed their constituent information system.

The Conservative party now wants a public inquiry into alleged Chinese interference in a handful of Toronto area ridings. But the party didn’t seem interested in getting to the bottom of an attack on Canadian democracy that reached into 260 of 308 federal ridings in 2011.

The F-35 fighter jet debacle followed on the heels of the robocall scandal. Harper wanted to make the largest purchase in Canadian military history up to that time, without revealing what the actual price tag would be.

Harper claimed that Canada could buy 65 of the stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin for $9 billion, but never produced a contract, or financial information, to back up his words.

Harper’s figures were challenged by the parliamentary budget officer of the day, Kevin Page, and by the opposition. Page said the real cost of the deal was nearly $30 billion — triple Harper’s announced price.

In the end, Harper’s refusal to provide costing information on the F-35 procurement led to his government being found in contempt of Parliament. It was the first time in history that any sitting government in the Commonwealth had suffered that fate.

Harper’s often aggressive abuse of power extended to his dealings with the judiciary. In 2014, Harper’s appointment of Judge Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court was rejected by the court in a 6-1 vote.

Why? The candidate simply didn’t qualify according to Quebec-specific provisions of the Supreme Court Act. He was neither a Quebec provincial court judge nor a current member of the Bar of Quebec. He was a Federal Court of Appeal judge.

It was seen as another major slap in the face to Harper, who had lost five recent cases before the Supreme Court, including one that struck down the government’s sex work law and another on one of his tough-on-crime initiatives.

Harper stewed for nine months before publicly accusing Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of an attempted “inappropriate” conversation with him. He was effectively accusing of her being a lobbyist.

In fact, the Chief Justice was attempting to point out to the PM that appointing Nadon wouldn’t fly. In other words, she was trying to help him avoid making a blunder that would not stand.

And she turned out to understand the issues at play far better than Harper, who saw his appointment struck down, and was also roundly criticized for impinging on the independence of the highest court in the land by attacking the Chief Justice.

The bottom line in looking at both Liberal and Conservative scandals is that there is no ethical dividend in electing the Conservative Party of Canada. When it comes to scandals, neither of the two mainstream parties can lay claim to the high ground.

Pierre Poilievre can bloviate all he wants about the Trudeau government’s sins and misdemeanours. But he can’t erase the fact that for almost 10 years he was an integral part of a government that spent a lot of time in the political sewer.

Liberal accomplishments

The second reason that Justin Trudeau has a realistic chance to win a fourth term is the difference between the legislative records of the two parties.

For all their missteps, the Liberals have passed a lot of legislation that enhanced Canada’s social safety net and directly impacted the lives of its citizens. More importantly, a lot of the legislation dealt with the pressing issues of our time.

Here is a partial list of what has been accomplished under Justin Trudeau:

After a couple of kicks at the can, Canada has gun control legislation banning the worst of the weapons that are wreaking havoc in the United States.

The Liberals created the Child Benefit for low- and middle-income families.

There was the crucially important Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry, set against the backdrop of an ambitious broader program of reconciliation.

The government negotiated the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trudeau created an over $82-billion multi-year national housing strategy, overseen by the popular Nova Scotia MP and cabinet minister Sean Fraser.

The government legalized marijuana and assisted dying, areas fraught with so many emotional downsides that no one else would touch them.

In the wake of the savage murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Trudeau government sanctioned 17 Saudis associated with the atrocity.

Canada answered the call in desperate times of war, admitting 40,000 Syrian refugees.

Trudeau cut middle class taxes and increased them on wealthier Canadians, while increasing CPP benefits for retirees.

And at a dire time in world history, with Maui burning, coral reefs dying and water wars about to break out in Central Asia, the Trudeau government passed and doggedly defended a carbon tax on greenhouse gas emissions.

Trudeau’s greatest initiative, or worst, depending on whether you believe COVID restrictions amounted to a public health necessity or an assault on civil rights, was the government’s massive response to the pandemic. According to the conservative C.D. Howe Institute, the government’s policies saved 35,000 lives.

During the Harper years, the priorities were different.

His government specialized in defence spending rather than social spending, and cut expenditures on First Nations.

Harper touted fiscal restraint and balanced budgets, but only managed one in his nearly 10 years in office. The second one he claimed was based on creative accounting. Despite having no COVID pandemic to deal with, Harper, the so-called champion of fiscal restraint, added $150 billion to the national debt.

Harper legislated fixed election dates, but promptly ignored them in 2008 when he called the October election that year.

Harper championed tough-on-crime legislation that upset both lawyers and judges in Canada, because it took away their discretion to administer the law on a case-by-case basis. The Supreme Court scuttled some of Harper’s legislation because it didn’t pass the Charter of Rights test.

In a nod to social conservatism, Harper introduced the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.

And none other than Pierre Poilievre came up with the Fair Elections Act, which not only made it harder to vote and easier to cheat, it also severely hobbled Election Canada’s ability to deal with another event like the robocall scandal.

Under Harper, Canadians saw the muzzling of scientists and bureaucrats, the end of the long-form census and a more or less relentless war on the media. Information, it seemed, was antithetical to the ideology of the Conservative government.

The most consequential difference with Liberal policy? The Harper government’s legislative response to global warming and climate change was to back away from the goals of the Paris Agreement, and champion an unregulated oil industry.

The skinny on the comparative legislative records of both parties? The Liberals have a decided edge on a Conservatives, whose policies tended to advance the agenda of the prime minister, rather than needs and values of Canadians.

Leadership and likeability

The third reason that Justin Trudeau is far from out of the running in the next election is a subjective one. The great Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who helped several U.S. Republican candidates win, talked about something simple — likeability. That was Ronald Reagan’s greatest asset. It not only formed the basis of his popularity, it papered over a lot of cracks in the man, including a dubious grasp of issues.

Despite all the personal foibles, the blunders and self-inflicted wounds, Trudeau has it, and Poilievre does not. Trudeau is not all politician the way Poilievre is. There is just enough human compassion in Trudeau to remind people of how little compassion the Conservative leader has. A recent Angus Reid poll showed 52 per cent of Canadians view Poilievre unfavourably.

Who ever heard of a brand-new leader needing a $3-million makeover not long after he took the top job with the personal endorsement of Stephen Harper? Remember, Poilievre has been on the political scene since 2004, much longer than Trudeau. But he has only been a leader since 2022. Why the need for a fix?

Very simple. The Pierre Poilievre that Canadians know is the mean-spirited character who once advised Indigenous Canadians to get a better work ethic.

He is guy who demanded that First Nations protesters be removed from blocking railroad tracks during a protest, but endorsed the weeks-long occupation of Ottawa by truckers who were more anarchists than protesters. Remember, they wanted the government to resign so that they and their curious coalition could rule.

Finally, Poilievre is the guy who thought that the right not to be vaccinated or wear masks during COVID was the real issue. In a word, this is a guy prepared to get any big shape wrong, if he sniffs it to be a political advantage. Andrew Coyne described him as a recognizable political commodity, “the demagogue, the opportunist, the bunkum artist — rather than the harbinger of a new political order.”

The pony may not be quite as shiny as he was 2015, but Poilievre will have to do a lot more to defeat Trudeau than take off his glasses, pull on T-shirts or head to the political salon for a multimillion-dollar makeover.

Someone should tell the Dean of Mean that the one thing you can’t fake is who you really are.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Federal Politics

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