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Editorials Globe editorial: For reelection in 2019, the Trudeau government’s biggest challenge will be itself

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had a decent year.

He and his Liberal government renegotiated the North American trade agreement with the protectionist U.S. President Donald Trump, and didn’t give up much in the process. They successfully brought in groundbreaking legislation to legalize and regulate recreational cannabis. They forged ahead with their commendable plan to impose a price on carbon on provinces and territories that don’t do the same, sticking to their guns on a fraught issue.

The Trudeau Liberals have also been lucky in 2018. They were blessed with a strong economy, in spite of problems in the oil patch. The country created a record number of jobs in November and saw unemployment fall to 5.6 per cent – the lowest rate in 40 years.

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And going into an election year, they are the beneficiaries of a fractured opposition. The New Democrats and their absentee leader, Jagmeet Singh, have largely been non-entities. The Conservatives are meanwhile fending off a populist right-wing insurgence led by Maxime Bernier that could split their vote in Quebec, a development that has already forced rookie party leader Andrew Scheer to dip his toe in the dark waters of anti-immigrant sentiment.

The current political math favours the Liberals, as does the economy. History does, too. Canadian governments elected to a strong majority, as the Liberals were in 2015, are almost never denied a second mandate.

So, why does Mr. Trudeau’s hold on power seem tenuous? Polls show the Liberals with, at best, a slight lead over the Conservatives.

That may simply be a question of the times. The political certainties of the past have been demolished by populist uprisings such as the election of Mr. Trump and the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote. Voters are more volatile than ever in the age of social media, and are quick to become dissatisfied with the status quo.

Mr. Trudeau knows what he is up against in the coming year – or, at least, he knows how he intends to characterize the Conservatives. He said in one year-end interview that he plans to continue “to demonstrate that a thoughtful, reasonable approach to solving our problems is better than the politics of fear, division, of stirring up populist anger and not really providing answers that are longer than fit on a bumper sticker."

But if Mr. Trudeau hopes to be re-elected, he ought to spend as much time looking critically at himself as he does at his political opponents. He will need a lot more than a self-belief in his own “thoughtful, reasonable” nature to win over an increasingly skeptical electorate that doesn’t take kindly to being called “populist” simply because it doesn’t agree with the Liberal agenda.

There are a number of issues that could hurt Mr. Trudeau in 2019. A big one is immigration. The government needs to demonstrate that the large number of irregular border-crossers, and the multi-year delays in deciding their cases, are not the new normal. The Liberals' less-than-urgent handling of this dossier suggests they are still banking on it resolving itself. They may get lucky. But if spring brings a resurgence in irregular crossings, voters could run out of patience.

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Another issue is pipelines. If the Liberals can get work started on the Trans Mountain expansion in British Columbia by next summer, it will be a win for them. If they don’t, it will hang over their heads at election time.

But the government’s biggest liability remains Mr. Trudeau himself. He is no longer the rookie hothead who throws elbows in the Commons, but he still has a blind spot about his own deficiencies. It was never more apparent than during his journey to India in April, an official trip that came across as an ego trip. It was also there in the condescendingly vague answers he sometimes gave in Question Period. And it was there in his odd soliloquy at a Group of 20 women’s panel – always his favorite forum – on the negative “impacts” of male construction workers. The chief impact was gifting conservative talk radio a month’s worth of outrage.

Canadians want a “thoughtful, reasonable” approach to governing. What they are rightfully reluctant to believe is that only Mr. Trudeau can deliver it, or that other politicians are the only ones who speak in “bumper stickers.” For a politician who says he doesn’t sow division, the Prime Minister sure is quick to divide Canadians into different camps.

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