It was supposed to be one of those feel-good PR moments. Justin Trudeau was scheduled to address 338 bright and shiny young women who were in Ottawa Wednesday for an event put on by an outfit called Daughters of the Vote. Its mission is to inspire female leadership in politics. What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was the same thing that’s been going wrong every day since Feb. 7. The SNC-Lavalin affair sucked all the oxygen out of the room. No matter what he does, Mr. Trudeau has lost control of the narrative.
And so, on Wednesday, he struggled to explain to the Daughters of the Vote that even feminists can disagree. “Nobody in here wants to have to pick who to believe between Jody Wilson-Raybould and Chrystia Freeland,” he told them. But they weren’t buying it. Nearly 50 impassioned young women rose to their feet and turned their backs to him. They were protesting the expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the caucus the night before.
To them, Mr. Trudeau no longer represents the politics of youth and change. Now he’s just another old guy who tries to shut women up.
It doesn’t help his cause that the people he kicked out of caucus don’t fit the profile of your average renegade MP. As Charlie Angus, the NDP veteran explained in the Daily Press, “In 15 years I’ve seen people kicked out for scandal. I’ve seen people kicked out for smutty behaviour. I’ve seen people kicked out because it was a soap opera. This is the first time that two women cabinet ministers have been kicked out of their caucus for speaking up about protecting the rule of law and constitutional obligations.”
Mr. Trudeau hoped that by expelling Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from caucus, he would get control of the narrative again. No such luck. He has simply turned the miscreants into martyrs. He hints that they are traitors to the party, for reasons he finds it hard to explain. But to people outside the party, they are heroines who speak truth to power.
Poor Justin. These days everybody is throwing his own words back in his face. How dare he talk about diversity, they ask, when he expels dissenting voices from his caucus? How dare he talk about reconciliation when one of those voices is Indigenous? How can he claim to be a feminist when the people he is punishing are strong women who have stood up for their beliefs?
Those questions don’t seem fair. But the way he appropriated the feminist label in the first place scarcely seems fair either. When you make big claims, you create big expectations. Let’s face it. He’s not doing politics differently any more. He’s doing them the same way everybody else does, sooner or later. And in the battle for public opinion, he has been utterly demolished by the renegade women. The SNC-Lavalin affair, which began as a dry dispute over deferred prosecution agreements, has turned into an epic morality play, with Mr. Trudeau representing the forces of darkness.
This is a battle Mr. Trudeau can’t win. And so, instead of trying to claim the moral high ground, he has done his best to paint this matter as nothing more than an internal party dispute – a family quarrel where his most important job is restoring harmony. “Diversity only works if there is trust,” he told reporters, explaining why the women had to go. Even to himself this line must have sounded lame. Everybody knows that the real problem was a high-stakes policy dispute involving the fate of one of Canada’s most important companies. But in Mr. Trudeau’s telling, the real problem was that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott had stopped playing for the team.
Both women are hinting that the fallout isn’t over yet. Many First Nations leaders are condemning Mr. Trudeau for removing Ms. Wilson-Raybould, saying that she was their champion even though she wasn’t responsible for Indigenous issues.
This reaction makes sense if you are playing by the rules of identity politics, as Mr. Trudeau has so shamelessly done. This means you can take all the credit for enlightened thinking when you appoint an Indigenous woman to high office and when things go badly, you take the blame. Ms. Wilson-Raybould, a rookie MP, was appointed as Justice Minister and Attorney-General not because of her exceptional skills – many people say her qualifications were slender at best – but because of her identity. Mr. Trudeau may be reflecting that if he had appointed someone he couldn’t show off so much, he might never have got himself in this mess in the first place.
As for the Daughters of the Vote, they got much, much more than they bargained for. They got a lesson not in the politics of uplift and idealism, but in politics as it is really done. They saw how the sausages get made. Sometimes it isn’t pretty.