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Opinion You can’t just smile through it: Four pieces of advice for Trudeau to quell the storm

For political watchers here in the West, the trials and tribulations of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have a whiff of familiarity about them.

Of course, scandals engulf all governments, regardless of locale. Caucus and cabinet revolts aren’t the sole domain of federal politics. Uprisings like the one we are currently witnessing in Ottawa are always unique in their own way, and consequently, one can never be sure of the final outcome.

When former Alberta premier Alison Redford led the Progressive Conservatives to an unlikely win in the 2012 election, her stock in the party rose considerably. But just as quickly, all the goodwill she engendered began to fade as a result of self-inflicted wounds.

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She began making headlines for her profligate spending habits. There was a $45,000 trip to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral. There were plans to build a penthouse apartment in a government building near the legislature in which she could stay while the government was sitting. Flight logs revealed her daughter and friends were sometimes flying on government planes.

The resulting publicity was deadly. Ms. Redford’s popularity plummeted. She repaid the $45,000, but by that point, people – including many in her own party and caucus – had had enough. Two of her MLAs resigned to sit as independents. Tory riding associations planned to intervene in calling for her resignation, as they could not see a world in which the then-premier did not drag the party to defeat in the next election. So she resigned.

One year later, the party would suffer a historic loss to the NDP, a disaster that would relegate the Tories to the dustbin of history.

Many believe this fate could have been avoided had Ms. Redford handled the situation differently. There was a feeling she wasn’t contrite enough for her lapses in judgment, that she didn’t do enough to persuade the public these problems would not arise again. In other words, the remorse she did express wasn’t believable.

Justin Trudeau is leading the Liberals over a cliff

Consequently, she went from hero to zero in two short years.

Former B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark faced caucus problems of her own in 2013, after it was revealed that senior people in her party were using taxpayer dollars to develop a horribly cynical strategy to get “quick wins” in the ethnic community ahead of a spring election. The plan included things like offering apologies in the legislature for historical wrongs.

There was a faction inside her caucus that wanted her to resign. She remained defiant. She expressed regret for the actions of her officials and faced down her internal detractors – a challenge made somewhat easier by the fact the Liberals were a mere two months away from an election.

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Largely as a result of the controversy, Ms. Clark headed into the campaign trailing the New Democrats by 20 per cent in the polls. She ended up winning a majority.

This is all to say that no one knows how the current drama enveloping Mr. Trudeau is going to play out. To some extent, he has time – namely, the lack of it before the federal election – on his side. However, if people in his party and caucus believe his continued leadership portends certain defeat at the polls, then all bets are off.

Jane Philpott’s resignation should have sent an unmistakable message to the Prime Minister: that his handling of this matter has fallen far short of what is necessary to quell the storm. But he really hasn’t grasped the seriousness of it at all. Instead, he’s tried to smile his way through it, as if pretending everything is okay will make it so.

If I were advising Mr. Trudeau, I would suggest the following:

  1. Express “upon hindsight” regret for the pressure put on Jody Wilson-Raybould to give SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement and announce that any efforts to help the company secure such a deal in the future are over.
  2. Have a legal body examine the possibility of splitting up the role of justice minister and attorney-general, to protect the independence of the AG and avoid such messes in the future.
  3. Go to extraordinary lengths to make amends to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, including a public apology for the ordeal she was subjected to.
  4. Apologize to the Canadian public for the entire affair and for the taint it put on the government. In other words: wake up to what’s happening here.

I don’t know if any or all of these actions would be enough to stop this story in its tracks. But I do know it would be the right thing, regardless.

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