Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is far more vulnerable to defeat than it was mere weeks ago. And the WE scandal isn’t the only reason why.
Straitened finances and a Conservative Party that will soon be stabilized by a new leader have combined with the scandal to put the Prime Minister’s future at risk.
If you think this contradicts everything I’ve been saying for months, you’re right. Mere weeks ago I wrote that “if an election is held any time within the next 12 months, the Liberals are probably destined for four more years,” because “a confluence of health, economic and political crises has rendered the right irrelevant.”
Nothing has changed over on the right. Former senior cabinet minister Peter MacKay and Durham MP Erin O’Toole have had nothing particularly interesting to say during the leadership campaign.
But they are both experienced, capable politicians. Either could rise to the challenge of being prime minister if given a chance. And the winner might get that chance.
For a scandal to have legs, you need to be able to explain it in one simple sentence. Here goes:
WE Charity, which paid Mr. Trudeau’s family members hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and gave Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s child a job, pushed for and landed a cushy contract that other charities never got to bid on.
The PM and Mr. Morneau have apologized for not recusing themselves when cabinet approved the deal, but that hasn’t stopped the ethics commissioner from launching the third investigation into Mr. Trudeau’s conduct.
As Lady Bracknell might have said: To be the subject of one ethics investigation may be regarded as a misfortune; to be the subject of three looks like carelessness.
At a time when governments are throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at people and businesses to prevent a pandemic-based depression, the Liberals have shaken the public trust. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau have reinforced the stereotype of entitled Liberals doing well while doing good.
It’s no surprise, then, that an Abacus poll released Monday has the Liberals losing support and the Conservatives gaining, though the Grits are still in the lead. There’s reason to suspect that support could weaken further in the months ahead.
First, unlike the SNC-Lavalin affair of last year, the Liberals in this minority Parliament don’t control the committees. The opposition parties can and will use their majority on those committees to drag the affair out for as long as they choose.
Second, the federal government’s financial situation is increasingly precarious. We now know why Mr. Morneau waited so long to provide an update on the federal government’s finances: This year’s deficit will be at least $343-billion, thanks to emergency fiscal measures to protect the economy amid the COVID-19 shutdown.
No one questions the need for that spending. But the situation is grim. The border with the United States will likely remain closed for months; whole sectors of the economy – aviation, tourism and entertainment, to name three – remain severely restricted; most students will have only limited access to classrooms this fall.
It isn’t hard to imagine the federal government running up against a fiscal wall next year, if unemployment remains high and growth low. People could start losing patience.
And then there’s the beard. No federal party leader with a beard has won an election since 1874.
Mr. Trudeau was a weakened politician before COVID-19 struck. He lost the popular vote in the last election; the Liberal response to the rail blockade by Indigenous protesters in the winter seemed weak.
Like every first minister in Canada, Mr. Trudeau benefited politically from the pandemic, as Canadians rallied to support their governments in a time of crisis. But will they support a Prime Minister who time (the trip to the Aga Khan’s island) after time (pushing for a deferred prosecution for SNC-Lavalin) after time (shovelling a sole-source contract to his friends at WE) reinforces the stereotype of the Liberals and their friends looking after each other?
That said, the scandal could fade, a vaccine could weaken the grip of the pandemic, and the public could vote in the next election for a party that has, on the whole, done a decent job of managing this crisis.
Political winds are changeable, something everyone needs to remember, especially columnists.
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