Party leaders in a dead heat in election campaign's final days
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Clad in boxing shorts, jacket, and ankle-high athletic shoes, he slipped unaccompanied from the gritty north Montreal neighbourhood into the gym across from a highway overpass, gear bag slung over his shoulder. He’s 47 but as trim and smooth as an undergraduate. Jacket removed, he stepped into the ring and donned his gloves, an aboriginal Earth-and-raven tattoo dominating his left triceps.
The boxer, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, didn’t, in fact, come alone. His security detail coordinated his arrival in black SUVs, and his media handlers instructed TV cameramen where to stand. This was less a morning workout than a bit of campaign choreography, part of the Trudeau brand of sex appeal. Reporters on the scene rolled their eyes because it was an exact rerun of a photo op from his 2015 campaign, itself an echo of a 2012 charity boxing victory that lit up his political future.
Eye rolling is an occupational hazard of political journalism, but, in this case, it’s indicative. Despite robust economic growth and an impressive number of campaign promises fulfilled (carbon tax passed, marijuana legalized, child poverty slashed), Trudeau—a left-leaning Liberal who galloped to an historic victory four years ago—is fighting for his political life as he faces reelection on Oct. 21. His disapproval rating has hit 58 per cent, worse than U.S. President Donald Trump’s, and he’s tied in the polls with his far-less-known Conservative opponent.
This is the man Rolling Stone magazine, following Trump’s inauguration, featured on its cover with the headline “Why Can’t He Be Our President?”
The complaints against him are varied and from both left and right. But what seems to stick in Canadian craws is the feeling that showmanship has outpaced substance. As John Ivison, a political journalist in Ottawa, put it in his recent book on the prime minister: “Trudeau promised to be a transformative leader, but his critics contend that he just plays one on television.”
It’s a harsh complaint, yet one frequently heard, even from those who should be his allies. Peter Donolo, who was communications director for another Liberal prime minister, Jean Chretien, says Canadians resent “what they see as excessive messaging and virtue signaling. The public likes moral politicians but not moralizing ones. We’re a Presbyterian political culture. Anyone who gets too big for their britches gets pulled down.”
Trudeau certainly began his premiership at a dizzying height. Having started the race in third place, he set records for bringing in new voters—the young, the indigenous, and the disillusioned. The son of Pierre, a raffish, generation-defining prime minister, Trudeau became a national and international sensation, drawing crowds and welcoming selfies wherever he went. He was utterly at ease in front of a camera, where he’d led nearly his entire life. He stood for a left-of-center program of environmentalism, immigrant absorption, taxation on the wealthy, and reconciliation with the country’s First Nations.
In Canada, where the term “bland” is high praise, many found themselves uncharacteristically seduced, even a little in love. Other Canadians with glitz—Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, Ryan Gosling—made their names south of the border. As the world was turning xenophobic and protectionist, here was a native son promoting Canadian exceptionalism. This nation of 37 million, where more than 1 in 5 is foreign born, became a beacon of multiculturalism amid the threatened liberal global order.
Nobody could have lived up to the buffed profile and endless list of promises put forth by Trudeau and his team of image makers. The old politics were out the window, they vowed, with electoral reform a top priority. Feminism, minority rights, global warming, and indigenous dignity would be front and center. His Twitter bio used to read: “Changing the world, a little bit every day.” The prime minister canoed with indigenous youth and hugged Syrian refugees at the airport. He and his wife spoke of how they taught their three beautiful children core values that all Canadians could share.
Except they took them on a private helicopter to the Bahamas as guests of the Aga Khan, an old family friend who also had a $200 million riverside project in Ottawa, which he might want to discuss with the PM. Trudeau said no such conversation occurred, but the parliamentary Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commission found him guilty of four contraventions.
And then he spent C$1.5 million taking the family to India for eight days, dressing them in native saris and sherwanis, without getting all that much done on an official level. To many Canadians, it felt not only a bit dopey but resembled a family vacation on the public dime. Especially for those who doubted his ability to confront international threats, it looked as if he had confused foreign policy with playacting.
Last year, Trudeau’s government paid C$4.5 billion for an oil pipeline because no one else would buy it, and oil remains a key source of jobs and income. Despite Trudeau pushing through a highly progressive carbon tax offset, U.S. environmentalist Bill McKibben said of the prime minister in the Guardian shortly thereafter: “The cutest, progressivist, boy-bandiest leader in the world is going fully in the tank for the oil industry.”
If you were to cast your ballot right now, which party would you vote for?
There were other controversies, including bullying his justice minister, an indigenous woman, over a corporate bribery case in his native Quebec. When she insisted on doing things her way, he fired her, producing a second reprimand from the Ethics Commission and accusations that this self-proclaimed feminist was a mansplainer. Then, last month, it was revealed that years ago he’d more than occasionally put on brown- and blackface, oblivious to the racist insult such an act entails. He apologized repeatedly and at length.
No single misstep has been the source of his plummeting popularity. Rather, there’s a feeling of betrayal by those who’d yielded to his charms. His sex appeal, so central to victory four years ago, is now working against him with some voters, who say they feel bamboozled. “They fell in love, and then, inevitably, some fell out of love,” a top Trudeau adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says. “It just means he has to get out there every day and sweat for them, which he can and will do.”
Asked by Bloomberg recently about his declining poll numbers, Trudeau replied a bit paradoxically that it’s because of his success: “Any government that makes big changes and that delivers on so many of the promises as we have is going to go through experiences where people have disagreements with them.” He’s campaigning vigorously across the land to win back support. Most predict he will squeeze through to form the next government, although perhaps a minority one. Key to victory will be for those who came out for the first time in 2015 to come back out, not stay home out of disappointment or apathy.
On a crisp October Friday in Quebec City, the prime minister was in his element. Sharp, autumnal colors blazed across the hills. Trudeau was chatting up late-morning breakfasters at a restaurant, his 10-year-old daughter, Ella-Grace, at his side. (A professional development day for her teachers gave her the day off.) A few blocks away, posters for his main competitor, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, said in French: “More for you. Starting right now.” It’s a reminder that, prosperity notwithstanding, pocketbook issues—spiking rents and high household debt —remain central to many voters.
Despite Trudeau’s origins, he can’t take Quebec, which accounts for nearly a quarter of Canada’s Parliament, for granted. It’s a volatile electorate that has swung wildly over the years, putting its weight behind three different parties in the last three federal elections. The last time, the province went from eight seats to 40 for the Liberals; as Trudeau faces losses in the West, along the Atlantic Coast, and in some Toronto suburbs, he desperately needs the Quebec vote to stay solid.
Trudeau tells those having breakfast that he’s going to bring down cellphone bills (among the highest in the world) by 25 per cent, by forcing the telecom monopolies to cut prices or face new competition. He promises more middle-class tax cuts, an increase in child benefits, and, over the next decade, to plant (count ’em) 2 billion trees. Toast and juice are on the table. Smiles abound. He’s still a political heat-seeking missile.
Two nights earlier, Trudeau faced three competitors in Montreal in a televised debate in French. Since he grew up speaking it, French is second nature to Trudeau (although eloquence isn’t his close friend in any tongue). Canada is that rare nation where two distinct languages and cultures coexist, and anyone who wants to lay claim to national leadership must be reasonably fluent in both. So there was Scheer, who has long represented deeply Anglophone Saskatchewan out west, debating the finer points of policy in heavily accented, poorly conjugated, but remarkably competent French. Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh who is leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party, his turban a canary yellow, lectured in French on the need for more focus on French culture and language. The fourth debater was Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, the nationalist party that has been edging up in the polls and could end up kingmaker.
The issues that animated the debate were abortion, right-to-die legislation, and a Quebec law barring religious garb or symbols in public institutions, including Sikh turbans and the Muslim hijab. Quebecers heavily support this very French approach to mandatory secularism, a challenge to much of the rest of the country. Singh took strong issue with it, but so did Trudeau in his more cautious way, saying that minority freedoms needed to be protected in Canada—although he left unstated whether he’d challenge the law. Similarly, Scheer, 40, who is anti-abortion and deeply Roman Catholic, says he won’t use the power of the federal government to restrict it.
Ironically, although balancing competing needs is key to Canadian well-being, it is Trudeau’s triangulating tendencies—to press for a carbon tax while offering tax breaks and subsidies to oil companies and to speak up for human rights while selling an unprecedented number of weapons to the Saudis—that has created much disillusion. He focuses on First Nations in a way no prime minister ever has, but their problems remain profound, including a lack of drinking water for many. Polls show his support among the indigenous has fallen by half since 2015. “There was a lot of hope in 2015,” says Leah George-Wilson, chief of the Tsleil-Waututh, a First Nation in the Vancouver area that opposes the oil pipeline. “Unfortunately, in 2019, we aren’t that hopeful because we’ve seen that the great work that could have been done was not.”
Trudeau’s tendency to seek middle ground is true to his party’s long history of centrism. But it’s bumping up against an increasing left-right polarization in Canada, a reflection of much of the rest of the world. To stay in power, then, Trudeau faces the unenviable task of working both sides: persuading moderates not to turn to the Conservatives and convincing environmental activists that he can do more for them than the Green or NDP parties.
Many analysts predict he’ll stay in power, if just barely. They say Scheer isn’t a formidable enough opponent and none of Trudeau’s missteps have been bad enough to lead to massive defection. Canadians may resent the prime minister’s sense of entitlement, but they’re unlikely to turn elsewhere. On Wednesday, former U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted his endorsement for Trudeau.
Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, was leading a class on Canadian politics with 70 students shortly after photographs of a 29-year-old Trudeau dressed up in Arab sheikh finery with dark brown makeup surfaced; pictures of him as a teenager in blackface followed. Few of Wiseman’s students were offended. “One black student and seven or eight Indians spoke, and none said they were changing their vote for him,” he recalls.
The knock on Trudeau—that he’s a hypocrite and a showman—may have less impact in the wake of the discovery that Scheer, the Conservative, didn’t reveal that he’s also a U.S. citizen until a newspaper reported it. That didn’t stop Scheer during the lone English debate on Oct. 7 from saying to Trudeau onstage: “Mr. Trudeau, you are a phony, and you are a fraud, and you do not deserve to govern this country.”
The election will turn heavily on how many Canadians agree.
Election 2019. Find more in-depth coverage of the federal election campaign here. On Oct. 21, tune into BNN Bloomberg’s special election coverage starting at 5 p.m. ET and stream full coverage of the vote on BNNBloomberg.ca.