Justin Trudeau’s Gloomy Re-election Prospects

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his bid for re-election on Wednesday. He is globally prominent, but his popularity has ebbed in Canada. Credit Dave Chan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his bid for re-election on Wednesday. He is globally prominent, but his popularity has ebbed in Canada. Credit Dave Chan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Just as American presidents tend to get re-elected, Canadian prime ministers almost never get turned out by voters after their first terms. The last time it happened to a leader with a majority government behind him was during the Great Depression.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who officially announced his campaign for re-election on Wednesday, is well aware of a time when it almost happened. His father, Pierre Trudeau, went to bed on election night in 1972 fearing he’d lost. Trudeau père had swept to power four years earlier on a wave of Kennedyesque popularity — “like a stone through a stained-glass window,” in the words of one writer. But he seemed disengaged in office and ran an indifferent re-election campaign under the soporific slogan “The Land Is Strong.” Voters thought otherwise.

Pierre Trudeau squeaked out a win. Now Justin, who rode a similar wave into office only to see his popularity ebb, faces a similarly rough road ahead. Can he once again follow his father’s footsteps back into office — and this time by more than a squeaker?

Strikingly like his father in some ways, Justin Trudeau has also confronted unique challenges as prime minister. Pierre Trudeau barely registered on the world stage. Circumstances have made his son a global representative in a way that makes Canadians proud, but also somewhat uncomfortable. As much as we grinned, we found something odd and awkward about a Canadian prime minister photobombing a beach wedding or jogging shirtless.

Still, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government has delivered on many of its promises. It made the tax system fairer by increasing levies on those making more than 200,000 Canadian dollars (about $150,000), and by easing taxes on the middle class and the poor, especially those with children. It kept unemployment low and adroitly handled the NAFTA renegotiation.

It accepted Syrian refugees when other countries wouldn’t and increased what was already one of the world’s highest rates of immigration. It introduced “gender-based analysis” in cabinet documents. It imposed a carbon tax. It legalized assisted suicide and recreational use of cannabis. It has promised to toughen gun control and expand universal health care services to include prescription drugs. Mr. Trudeau has ticked the liberal boxes.

His opponent, the Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, will criticize the government as profligate, citing high government deficits. He’ll paint Mr. Trudeau as fickle and out-of-touch with average Canadians — someone more willing to apologize for historic wrongs than to admit his own mistakes or to understand what it means to balance the family pocketbook.

And he will try to capitalize on a recent scandal over meddling by Mr. Trudeau and senior Liberals in corruption charges against SNC-Lavalin, one of Canada and Quebec’s few global corporations. But it’s unclear this Liberal headache will swing many votes.

Mr. Trudeau will try, in turn, to link Mr. Scheer with Canada’s unpopular Conservative of the moment: Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, who rode into office on a populist wave but whose policy upheavals and rhetorical excesses have caused support to plummet. Mr. Ford was even booed at the Toronto Raptors victory rally.

But Mr. Trudeau’s problem is not, ultimately, the relative strength of his opponent. It’s that after four years of low-key success, he may not have given enough Canadians, across enough provinces, enough of a reason to give him another term.

Canada, with a land mass slightly bigger than the United States but a population of only 37 million, is a hard country to govern. Quebec, Mr. Trudeau’s home province, is a distinct society in all but name. Ontario was once an industrial powerhouse but is struggling to emerge from rust-belt status.

The Maritime Provinces, along the Atlantic, are in long-term decline, while rising Western Canada chafes against the centripetal force of Ontario and Quebec. Mr. Trudeau’s government is weighted toward those traditionally dominant central Canadian provinces, even if it doesn’t think of itself in those terms.

The result is the kind of brokerage politics that manages some people’s resentments while dissatisfying many others. Take climate change or, specifically, the balance between energy production — the West’s mainstay — and environmental protection.

Amid weak global energy prices and weak private-sector investment, the government bought a pipeline and pipeline expansion project to ship Alberta oil to the Pacific coast and on to Asia, where markets are better for producers than in the United States. But this has won few plaudits in the oil patch, which contends that the government’s environmental sensitivity caused the uncertainty that made nationalization necessary.

Mr. Trudeau has tried to assuage his more liberal base of his environmental bona fides by committing Canada to the Paris climate accords, but they complain that his ensuing carbon tax is set too low to make a difference, even as conservative provincial governments are challenging the very idea of the tax in court on the ground that it treads on provincial jurisdiction. This imbroglio may well cost Mr. Trudeau some of the few seats he holds in Western Canada, to the benefit of his Conservative opponents.

Canadian elections still turn on Quebec, where Mr. Trudeau appears dominant, and especially Ontario, where Mr. Trudeau is at the very least competitive with the Conservatives. But even there, Mr. Trudeau may be weakened by the left. The Green Party has made inroads with the sort of liberal urban voters who should be part of his base.

Mr. Trudeau’s inability to translate his global glamour into electoral excitement at home, combined with his failure to solve the riddle of Canadian politics, means that for all his success in office, he is unlikely to win outright on Election Day. Instead, he will probably end up bargaining with opponents to keep power.

That’s what Pierre Trudeau did in 1972 to survive. Two years later, he won the first of two more majority governments, ruling for nine of the next 10 years. Justin Trudeau knows that history too.

Drew Fagan is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

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