By David T. Jones*
(FPRI) — It has been a curious spring of discontent for Canadian Liberals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Curious, because in many respects, Canadian economic and social circumstances are positives; there are no “body bag” foreign engagements, and the new Opposition leaders have not gained traction. Still, the Liberals have fallen behind in the polls, and Trudeau is no longer a Teflon telegenic global political rock star. Some of the problems reflect the differences between the plethora of promises made and the paucity of promises kept. Still, Liberals don’t face election until October 2019, and the odds are greater that it is a mid-mandate malaise than a harbinger that Trudeau will be a one-term prime minister.
Winter is always difficult in Canada and particularly in Ottawa (the second coldest national capital in the world—only Ulan Bator is colder). Spring always arrives later than desired. But this year, spring has brought its own discontents.
Justin Trudeau’s smashing electoral victory was 30 months ago (October 2015). He doesn’t face the electorate until October 2019. And, indeed, under normal circumstances, Trudeau/Liberals should be confident of reelection: parties normally get a second mandate, and the Tory and New Democratic (NDP) political opposition is dull rather than dynamic; the economy is strong with solid growth and low unemployment; Quebec’s sovereignty issue remains quiescent; and there are no overweening foreign policy problems or body bags being returned from far off places.
Yet, there remains a sense of drift. That Trudeau’s Liberals came to power on a sea of promises that are nowhere near being fulfilled. To wit:
Balanced Budget. Promises that deficits would be minor and the budget balanced by 2019 have been drowned in a torrent of red ink. Deficits are running at CN$ 18 billion (2018), and budget balancing has run into the never-never with no mentioned date for returning to balance. Liberals are gambling that massive “investment” (deficits) when interest rates are low will prompt strong growth to cover current deficits.
Electoral Reform. Trudeau promised that 2015 would be the last “first past the post” election. The longstanding electoral process would be replaced by some combination of proportional representation, weighted choice balloting, provincial wide electoral lists, or political science constructs reflecting the musings of Rube Goldberg acolytes.
The Liberal design as hypothetically presented in parliament appeared to favor—surprise—the Liberals. Opposition parties were not amused, insisting inter alia that any massive change in the historical election process required a national referendum in which the existing “first past the post” option was included. (Liberals opposed such choice as previous efforts to change election rules at provincial level failed as voters continued to prefer the status quo.)
Trudeau selected a just-elected MP to manage the process—a curious choice almost designed to fail. And fail it did, with electoral reform grinding to a halt.
Deaths of Aboriginal Women. Over decades, substantial numbers of Aboriginal women have disappeared. Consequently, there has been a drumbeat of demands to address the issue through a national examination. Trudeau so promised, taking a stance against positions of other parties that argued it would become an opaque, undefinable project ending inconclusively. And such has proved to be the case. The effort bogged in definitional problems, time lines, and efforts to take testimony and hold hearings. The underlying intimation has been that many of the deaths/disappearances were family-connected. The traditional “Canadian way” when facing amorphous problems has been to “do a study” (that will drag long enough to exhaust its proponents into amnesia), and the effort to review circumstances/causes for these deaths has lost impetus with no specific concluding date.
Legalize Marijuana. There is a projected date for legalization in the summer of 2018; however, many questions remain regarding what facilities (pharmacies or “pot shops”) will serve as vendors and how to test drivers for intoxication. The 2018 federal budget includes funds to educate the public on the issue. Prosecution for possession of small amounts has ceased.
Environmental Concerns. Trudeau projected the image that he was “green” through and through. Although supporting “pipelines,” he gave the impression that he would work with the environmental and anti-pipeline groups to create an environment of compromise while not damaging Alberta’s oil patch. Unfortunately for Trudeau, environmentalists have indicated greater willingness to obstruct until a final court decision rather than compromise. Their driver is ideology rather than logic/economics. So we now have Alberta and British Columbia at ostensibly irreconcilable loggerheads over a projected “Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain” pipeline to bring Albertan oil to BC ports. Trudeau has said the federal government will buy-in financially to move the project forward—if necessary. Confrontation looms.
Military Reform. During the campaign, Trudeau spoke against the projected purchase of U.S. F-35s as replacements for antiquated CF-18s. Ottawa would conduct a bottom-up, total lifetime cost projection of all feasible options (including no advanced fighter replacement). The entire review continues to grind (one can hardly say “forward”) with the protracted process reflecting implicit Liberal disinterest in spending on national security.
Concurrently, the plans for a massive rebuild of Navy “rusted out” vessels are characterized by debate over what will be built; who will build it; and what it will cost. The two antiquated seagoing supply/support ships have now been scrapped with no decision over lease/purchase for replacements. A modern icebreaker for Arctic use remains conceptual. Current naval craft are not sturdy enough for Arctic winters.
Foreign Policy. During the campaign, Trudeau excoriated both former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s participation in the coalition anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign and his dismissive attitude toward the United Nations. Upon election, Trudeau quickly withdrew Canadian CF-18s from anti-IS action (but permitted the continuation of a small contingent of trainers).
Canada’s contribution to NATO/North Atlantic security (20th of 28 NATO members at 1.02 percent of GDP) remains minimalistic, and Ottawa has de facto ignored the two percent Alliance commitment. Ottawa argues it contributes, for example, by leading an Alliance battlegroup stationed in Latvia.
Under a “Canada Is Back” rubric, Trudeau has reemphasized support for the UN (maneuvering to obtain third world support for a nonpermanent Security Council seat in 2021). Attempting to solidify third world support for the UNSC seat, Trudeau is scorning status as a “best friend” of Israel/PM Netanyahu, and, reversing former PM Harper’s views, Trudeau is blithely critical of Israeli policies.
And Some New Problems.
None of the foregoing issues are game changers so far as Liberal prospects in 2019 are concerned. What are proving more problematic, however, is Ottawa/Trudeau’s bilateral relations with the United States.
U.S. Bilateral Relations. Trudeau’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump certainly started right foot forward. Trudeau was honored with a state visit in February 2017 (one denied PM Harper by Obama Democrats); he adroitly avoided criticizing Trump’s immigration policy, and nice words were exchanged in the formal statements, including U.S. government endorsement of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
After all, both Trump and Trudeau have remarkable hair, lovely wives, and picture perfect offspring. Both believe in their ability to achieve objectives through personal charm.
In contrast, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has yet to visit Washington.
Nevertheless, as is the case for all who deal with President Trump, Trudeau must attempt to calculate what is reality and what is persiflage from Trump/U.S. government announcements. Is Trump serious, partly serious, or not serious over threats to “tear up” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)? Both sides immediately and intensively engaged (along with Mexico) in efforts to negotiate adjustments to NAFTA in time for congressional approval prior to the November U.S. elections. A “victory” is more important for Trump, reflecting his campaign commitments, which suggests Trudeau might have some leverage, but Trump’s mercurial nature leads to the conclusion that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” And, even then, a Trumpian reversal is always possible.
Nevertheless, observers can reasonably conclude that bilateral relations range between good and excellent. Issues such as border control, illegal immigrants, etc. are “managed” without requiring high level attention. As the proverbial “mouse,” Trudeau carefully has paid attention to manipulating the “elephant.” And Trump, with more than enough alternative problems to occupy his “tweets,” does not need another headache.
The Mali Expedition. In September 2016, Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan returned from a tour of Mali, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo, making a pledge of a Canadian-UN force of 600, including engineers, medical personnel, and aircraft. And then, nothing. Presumably, there were second (and third) thoughts about such a commitment, and it moved to the back burner (many thought the stove had turned off).
But now, it is back with an apparently solid commitment to provide two Chinook helicopters and four armed Griffon helicopters as escorts for the Chinooks, along with support personnel. In Canadian-speak, Mali is a “complex conflict zone” (but not a “war zone”). Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa will be “thoughtful and prudent in the actual planning of the deployment,” and Sajjan has assured that personnel will be “given the training and equipment needed for the operation.”
There is no deployment date. But a Mali commitment without clear parameters, national commitment, and a “stop loss” concept could easily become a debacle. Think surface-to-air missiles. Mali has proved intractable for already-committed UN forces with over 150 military personnel killed in the conflict.
Is Trudeau’s Charm Fading? From the moment Trudeau became Liberal Party leader, his personal charisma has been the party’s most important asset. Trudeau was the antidote to the dull competence of PM Harper, whose personal probity and intellect never won media hearts. For those old enough to recall the “Trudeau mania” characterizing his father in the 1960s-70s, “Justin” translated personalized politics into 21st century terms. Trudeau campaigned more as a rock star than a politician, sliding past infelicities that would have devastated “normal” politicians. In large regard, he carried the Liberal Party from its third-place doldrums into an unexpected majority victory.
And Trudeau has continued as prime minister to be more a charismatic, popular persona than a standard head of government. He is not particularly adroit as a “Question Period” parliamentary performer. For much of his early months in office and still continuing, Trudeau globe-hopped, conference attended, and posed for “selfies” with anyone holding a camera. Frequently, accompanied by lovely wife and cute-as-buttons children, Trudeau simply floated above any (potential) criticism voicing “Canada Is Back” and touting the glowing prospects for every dimension of Canadian society and economics.
But even the most glorious honeymoon eventually must deal with day-to-day housekeeping. Such has been the case for Trudeau. His net approval rating in March 2018 was minus 16 (significantly lower than Harper’s minus one at the same point in his mandate). The popularity collapse is multi-sourced. To a degree, it can be traced to the juxtaposition between promises made and promises kept. But a more salient source is Trudeau’s personal actions which seemingly ignored the optics they give “severely normal” Canadians. Most obvious of these was his 2016-17 secret holiday vacation at billionaire Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas. Trudeau blew off suggestion that the Aga Khan could subsequently influence decisions by Canadian government officials by stating that he was an old family friend.
More topical and damaging was Trudeau’s eight-day February 2018 India trip. For much of the visit, Trudeau and family played tourist, dressing in Indian garb and participating in festivals/dances. He generated global ridicule, with sneers about “Mr. Dressup,” which embarrassed Canadians. Moreover, Trudeau doubled down disaster by (inadvertently) including a Sikh separatist in a Canadian event. Indian officials were not amused; despite profuse apologies and finger-pointing among Canadian officials, the visit accomplished virtually nothing substantively and qualified as a textbook case of what not to do.
And Quebec. It is now verging on 22 years since the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum threatened to eviscerate Canada. Quebec is now closer to a “normal” province rather than a national concern/crisis. To be sure, a substantial percentage of Quebeckers still support sovereignty—but no one wants another referendum. Jean-Francois Lisee, current leader of the Parti Quebecois (PQ), has rejected any first mandate referendum. The Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future/CAQ) is a spinoff from the PQ and described as “center-right” by political observers. It has rejected a referendum, but seeks greater Quebec autonomy.
Quebec premier, Liberal Party leader Philippe Couillard, elected in 2014, holds a majority in the National Assembly, but must face the electorate on/about 1 October. At this point, CAQ leads in polls, but Couillard’s just-presented balanced budget cuts business taxes and was well received. Moreover, Quebec’s economy is strong, and unemployment is at record lows.
A discordant note in Quebec’s multicultural society is a recent law prohibiting face covering for providing or receiving public services. Criticized by human rights observers, the law is popular outside Montreal and among Francophones, whose attitudes toward immigrants are negative.
Quebec remains highly protective and proud of its status as a Francophone society. Relations with the Rest of Canada will always be neuralgic.
But the Election Is Still Far in the Distance. The above cited polls have benefitted the Tories who moved above the Liberals for the first time since the 2015 election. (Tories: 40 percent; Liberals 30 percent; NDP 19 percent.) Such numbers, however, may well prove as ephemeral as the Canadian summer.
Neither of the opposition party leaders (Tory Andrew Scheer or New Democrat Jagmeet Singh) have ignited significant public interest.
Scheer is the only one of the three leaders with a positive rating, but it may reflect more his lack of visibility than popular endorsement. First elected to parliament at 25 from Regina, he became Speaker of the House after the Tory 2011 election victory—the youngest in Canadian history.
Elected Tory party leader in May 2017 with 50.95 percent of the vote on the 13th ballot, Scheer is a social conservative (but cautious in his positions). He has been dubbed “Harper 2.0” for conservative economic positions and commitments such as a pledge to repeal the “carbon tax” and determination to appoint Tory supporters to open Senate positions.
Singh, the first Sikh-Canadian to lead a major political party, is a high risk/high gain choice as party leader. Having defenestrated Thomas Mulcair after his loss in the 2015 election, the NDP has moved further left. Singh, with a strong block of support among Sikh-Canadians, was able to out organize and out fundraise his competitors, being elected in October 2017 as the first non-white to lead a major Canadian political party. Lacking a seat in Parliament, however, Singh has been relegated to introducing himself nationally with speeches and travel. In the process, however, he has struggled to avoid implicit connection to Sikh nationalists/terrorists who seek an independent state in India.
The NDP may ultimately rue the day they jettisoned Mulcair, whose major shortcoming was not winning the 2015 election and dropping the NDP to third place. In contrast, Mulcair’s predecessor, Jack Layton, led the NDP to defeat four times prior to winning Official Opposition status in 2011.
Consequently, one is more likely to conclude Trudeau/Liberals are suffering mid-mandate malaise rather than anticipating Justin will be a one-mandate prime minister.
About the author:
*David Jones, an FPRI alumnus, is a retired senior Foreign Service Officer who was Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at U.S. Embassy Ottawa.
This article was published by FPRI.