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Federal Politics

Trudeau’s Election Chances Are Trashed

Thanks to a slew of scandals, he must go, or go down with the ship.

Michael Harris 23 Feb 2024The Tyee

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. His investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

Pundits, politicos and pollsters have been chattering for weeks about the impending demise of Justin Trudeau.

A lot of observers and insiders have taken up the Justin Trudeau “death watch,” a word that appeared in a headline in the National Post over a column by Tasha Kheiriddin.

Most recently, Stephen Taylor mused that Trudeau’s resignation would come out of the blue, catching the country by surprise. Chrystia Freeland would be sworn in as interim prime minister. After a short leadership race, the party would crown Trudeau’s replacement, or so this right-leaning columnist saw it.

Up until now, the sense that the tide was going out on the Trudeau era was based primarily on how badly Justin Trudeau has been tanking with Canadians. For months, Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative Party of Canada have been drubbing the Liberals in the polls. They have taken full advantage of the sense of anger and aggrievement in the land at Trudeau’s expense.

The most recent Abacus poll gives the Conservatives a jaw-dropping 19-point lead, the largest national lead the company has ever measured for the party.

By contrast, the numbers for the Liberals were the lowest Abacus has measured since the Grits won a majority government under Trudeau in 2015.

Only 14 per cent of respondents thought that the Liberals deserved to be re-elected.

Trudeau’s favourability rating came in at a dismal minus 33, while Poilievre scored a plus two.

The government’s approval rating in this poll is down to a mere 24 per cent. As for the PM’s job performance, 59 per cent of respondents gave it thumbs-down.

In politics, these are man-the-lifeboats numbers. Nor has Trudeau’s personal judgment helped with the party image. At a time of high prices, including unavailable or unaffordable housing, it was not the best of times for the PM to accept an exotic Christmas holiday in Jamaica.

That 10-day trip would have cost paying customers $89,000, but the Trudeau family got it from a “family friend” without a bill.

This despite the fact that the Prime Minister's Office had initially claimed that Trudeau was paying for the trip. Shades of the disastrous freebie to the Aga Khan’s private island. The key to longevity in public life is learning from your mistakes, something apparently lost on this PM when it comes to luxury vacations on someone else’s dime.

Squandered possibilities

As bad as the polls have been for the Liberals since last September, they had a couple of things on their side. For starters, their legislative record has some signal accomplishments that can’t be forgotten.

Ten-dollar-a-day daycare, massive investments in Canada by international companies like Volkswagen and Stellantis for battery plants in St. Thomas and Windsor, Ontario, a fledgling dental care plan designed to expand over time and a $20-billion investment in rental housing.

Despite all that, and the recognition by at least some Canadians that Trudeau has governed in difficult times, the government’s popularity has declined. But it still had one big asset — time to hit the reset button.

Thanks to the supply and confidence agreement with the NDP, Trudeau could push an election off to as late as October 2025.

That would allow time for interest rates to ease and inflation to come down even further than the current 2.9 per cent. It would also give some of the longer-term Liberal programs a chance to begin to bear fruit.

And if better times are on the way, as they appear to be in the United States, there could even be a budget or two to dole out more voter clickbait.

All that changed with auditor general Karen Hogan’s value-for-money report on the controversial ArriveCan app.

The doomsday arithmetic of this contract says it all. The app came in at 750 times the original estimate. What was supposed to cost $80,000 turned into a $60-million boondoggle, made all the worse by the fact that the app never really worked properly.

In fact, U.S. legislators and mayors from cross-border cities claimed that ArriveCan actually “disincentivized travel and hurt commerce,” the polar opposite of what it was supposed to do.

Two guys in their basement, who virtually drafted their own contract, got $19.1 million, even though they never did any IT work on the project themselves but instead subcontracted it out, as co-partner Kristian Firth told a parliamentary committee. GC Strategies took a commission for itself of between 15 and 30 per cent.

The same company has received more than 30 contracts since 2015. “ArriveScam,” as the Conservatives quickly dubbed it, smelled like a 100-gallon drum of rotting fish.

An ugly shade of green

The Trudeau government’s latest and most egregious scandal comes on the heels of another albatross around the government’s neck: the billion-dollar green fund.

In 2023, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, or SDTC, a non-profit foundation established by the federal government, was accused by a whistleblower of mismanaging public funds. A subsequent investigation of those claims by the firm Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton identified issues with conflict of interest and problematic spending.

By an agreement with the federal Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, SDTC is responsible for distributing $1 billion over a five-year period that began in 2021. The program is designed to help small to medium-sized companies involved in the clean-tech sector.

There was a general uproar on the parliamentary committee looking into the matter after it was revealed that SDTC chair Annette Verschuren took part in a decision to approve $217,000 in funding to her own company. While chair, she also received a $120,000 salary from that company, in addition to her payment for her work on SDTC.

In her defence, Verschuren said that she approved the funding after taking advice from her lawyer. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre wasn’t buying that defence. He demanded that the SDTC chair be fired by the government. That wouldn’t be necessary. When Verschuren learned that she was under investigation by the ethics commissioner over alleged conflict of interest, she resigned.

As a result of the uproar over the green fund, SDTC president and CEO Leah Lawrence also resigned last November, citing a “sustained and malicious campaign to undermine” her leadership. The auditor general is now conducting a separate investigation into the financial administration of the SDTC.

Why make such a fuss about these two cases? Because unlike policy differences, economic conditions, high interest rates or a politician’s dubious personal style, scandals never ameliorate, and never go away.

They become the symbol of an administration, the signature of its character. They signal to the public that those who govern them have grown slothful or arrogant in office and that it’s time for a change.

The ghost of Adscam

Scandal is exactly what ended 12 years of Liberal government back in the day of the ad sponsorship fiasco, otherwise known as Adscam or Sponsorgate. It ended the career of an otherwise unbeatable politician, Jean Chrétien. It prevented another Liberal star, Paul Martin, from ever being elected prime minister. It turned over the country to Stephen Harper and the CPC for a decade.

That scandal is as sleazy now as it was then. More importantly, it shares more than one similarity with ArriveCan.

One man, Jacques Corriveau, was convicted of fraud in the ad sponsorship scam. Often through Corriveau, a close friend of then PM Chrétien, some of the money from public contracts that was given to friends of the Liberal party in Quebec was kicked back to the party. It was $40 million worth of temptation, and millions were wasted.

Fake invoices, no work done and cash in envelopes to party officials sealed Corriveau’s fate and that of the Liberal party. He received a four-year prison sentence and a $1.4-million fine. Although it all came out at the public inquiry headed by Judge John Gomery in 2005, Corriveau wasn’t charged by the RCMP until 2013. He never did serve his sentence.

Ironically, former prime minister Paul Martin himself, who played no part in the ad sponsorship scandal, called the inquiry that sank the Liberal ship. He really had no choice.

When faced with such a damning scheme running straight back to his own leader and party, the only real alternative was to advocate transparency and accountability.

However belated that honesty, however unsavoury Judge Gomery’s findings, the hope was that Canadians would give Martin some credit for at least facing the music in a public way. They did not.

One possible reason is that Canadians remembered another Liberal fiasco of that era, the doomed long-gun registry.

The auditor general of the day, Sheila Fraser, reported that the program would end up costing taxpayers 400 times the original estimate given by then justice minister Allan Rock, when he introduced the Canadian Firearms Program in 1993.

A billion-dollar boondoggle. And that was just an estimate, since Fraser also reported that records in the Department of Justice were in such a deplorable state that it was impossible to make a full assessment of the actual costs of a program. Sounds a little like auditor general Hogan’s assessment of the books relating to ArriveCan, yes?

Pressure on New Democrats

In the wake of the current scandals besetting the Trudeau government, the Liberals can no longer count on the NDP to guarantee their survival until 2025.

Now that Jagmeet Singh has denounced the government over ArriveCan, he will inevitably have to walk away from the supply and confidence agreement, if only to re-establish the NDP’s identity separate from the Liberals before the next trip to the polls.

After all, there is not much political advantage in propping up a government Singh has now called “out of touch.”

And there is another reason the Liberals will soon find themselves on their own. With the scathing report from the auditor general in his back pocket, Pierre Poilievre has written to the RCMP requesting that they widen their investigation into the ArriveCan scandal.

That is important.

The NDP must consider what its exposure would be should that investigation turn up evidence of criminality, rather than just gross incompetence. A coalition with corruption is not a good look.

And the longer the NDP waits before ending its alliance with the Liberals, the more such belated distancing will come across as expediency, rather than principle. Not much of a political dividend there.

Abandon ship?

The Trudeau government’s response to the ArriveCan debacle has been underwhelming. Prime Minister Trudeau skipped the first question period dealing with the scandal, leaving it to others to offer the usual bromides: the government welcomed the damning report; the government thanked the auditor general for her work; the government promised that if there was any wrongdoing, there would be consequences.

Despite these tired attempts to reassure Canadians, the Liberals are facing the perfect political storm. Dreadful polls, outrageous scandals, an unpopular leader and a skittish coalition partner beginning to smell the smoke in the barn.

Without the help of the NDP, there is simply no guarantee the government will have enough time to improve its dismal prospects before the next election — or, for that matter, hold a leadership convention.

For Justin Trudeau, the options at the moment are the stuff of which political nightmares are made. He must either go, or go down with the ship.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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