This is not what the end of Justin Trudeau’s first term was supposed to look like.
When the Liberal Leader soared to power four years ago, even his political rivals generally assumed that it was the start of a long and comfortable reign; that a second mandate was all but a forgone conclusion.
Mr. Trudeau and the people around him envisioned something bigger and better than that. He was ushering in a newly positive, anything-is-possible era in which collective purpose transcended partisan division. He was going to strengthen this country’s sense of self, serving as the youthful and charismatic embodiment of its progressive values. He was going to offer generational leadership that put Canada at the forefront of tackling the most confounding issues of our time, from mounting economic inequality to the tensions around mass migration to climate change.
Now, fighting for his political life, Mr. Trudeau has mostly traded in his soaring rhetoric for a very well-worn Liberal message, about the perils of returning the Conservatives to power and the need for voters to rally behind his party to stop them.
It’s a crashing to Earth that was well under way before this strange fall election campaign; before people who had admired Mr. Trudeau for his modern sensitivities were forced to reckon with images of him in blackface.
Mr. Trudeau bears much responsibility for disillusionment with him, and not just because he set expectations at a sky-high level that he was never going to meet. At times, most notably anything and everything around the SNC-Lavalin affair, he has committed unforced errors that made a mockery of his promise to do politics differently. But there is a lot else at play here, too, and it needs to be acknowledged by anyone trying to fairly appraise whether Mr. Trudeau has governed well enough to deserve a second term.
A Prime Minister who briefly seemed to have great leeway to implement his political vision has turned out to be a man in the middle of forces that are largely beyond his control.
Those forces have been global: the crumbling of the liberal international order, the rise of a nationalist U.S. President who forced Mr. Trudeau to devote much of his attention to preserving the status quo in Canada-U.S. trade. Not to mention the feud between the world’s two superpowers, which Canada found itself caught between when it followed its legal responsibility to act on a U.S. arrest warrant for an executive from Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant.
They have been demographic, with a growing gap in the sensibilities of baby boomers seeking stability and millennials increasingly worried about the very future of the planet. They have been regional, with Western alienation spiking sharply and Quebec veering in new nationalist directions. They have been cultural, with communication and consumption in the social-media age rewarding the loudest voices on the left and right, often giving the impression that a pragmatic prime minister is incapable of pleasing anyone.
They might have thrown anyone in his job for a loop, and turned whatever exactly that person promised four years ago into a distant memory.
To judge Mr. Trudeau through the rosy lens of 2015, then, is to ignore the real world in which he has been governing. The more confounding question is whether he has taken the opportunities he has actually had to advance his priorities, and whether he has reacted sufficiently to the many unexpected challenges that have arisen. And that leaves voters to consider whether they can live with the sort of modern centrism that Mr. Trudeau has attempted, while being stuck in the middle, even if it’s not quite most people’s ideal.
If there was one moment in this fall’s campaign that encapsulated the balancing act Mr. Trudeau has tried to walk, it was when he marched among hundreds of thousands of climate strikers in Montreal. For his trouble, he was heckled by activists there, while skeptics of the need for aggressive policy to curb carbon emissions snickered from afar.
Although certainly a live issue four years ago, climate change could then be afforded relative few lines in the Liberal platform. And it wasn’t a source of great controversy that Mr. Trudeau vaguely promised to “provide national leadership and join with the provinces and territories to take action on climate action, put a price on carbon, and reduce carbon pollution.” Nor that he expressed support for the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, to get more of Alberta’s oil to port in British Columbia, promoting that and carbon taxation as a trade-off.
Since then, the seemingly consensus-oriented position that Mr. Trudeau is occupying on the matter of carbon-emission reduction has become lonelier, amid two increasingly polarized sides.
Among progressives, particularly younger ones, it has become a matter of vastly more urgency than it was a short time ago. With the United Nations climate-change panel warning that the world must dramatically cut emissions over the next decade to avoid irreversible catastrophe, and Canada having one of the world’s highest per-capita emissions rates, any support whatsoever for more oil extraction is increasingly treated by activists as a dealbreaker.
Among conservatives, opposing carbon pricing has become more an article of faith than it was four years ago, after the election of stridently anti-tax premiers in Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick, playing primarily to older voters suspicious of having to shell out more at gas pumps. More than just that, the oil and gas sector’s current challenges (owing partly to low global prices), and a creeping awareness of how much worse things might get for that industry in a low-emissions world, has made for an increasingly angry response out of Alberta to anything but full-throated support.
To further complicate matters, the United States has gone from a president roughly aligned with Mr. Trudeau on climate policy, in Barack Obama, to a climate-change denier in Donald Trump. That points to either the need for Canada to show more leadership on the issue or to the futility of doing so, depending on one’s perspective.
Viewed through a generous lens, Mr. Trudeau has carved out a sort of muscular moderation on the issue, setting a path for Canada to gradually transition away from fossil-fuel reliance without causing excessive short-term pain.
He can credibly claim to have by far the most aggressive climate-change plan that any federal government in this country has offered. In addition to the imposition of a national carbon price (which Ottawa collects through a carbon tax, then returns to taxpayers through other means, in provinces that don’t impose their own), his measures have included the development of a new clean-fuel standard requiring gasoline to be less carbon intensive, the mandated closing of remaining coal-fired power plants and new methane regulations.
He can also push back against any suggestions that he has abandoned the resource sector by virtue of not just maintaining his support for Trans Mountain, but having Ottawa purchase it for a whopping $4.5-billion when Kinder Morgan, which previously owned it, suspended expansion plans after delays.
But if Mr. Trudeau was expecting thanks from either side, he was sorely mistaken.
He has at times not helped his own cause in earning trust. Albertans seized, unsurprisingly, on comments by Mr. Trudeau in Ontario in 2017, when he talked about the need to “phase out” the oil sands – arguably an accurate reflection of long-term plans, but unhelpfully blunt at the least. More substantively, Trans Mountain development was halted in 2018 because of a Federal Court of Appeal ruling that Ottawa had failed to meet its obligations to consult affected First Nations, and had fallen short in environmental assessments.
The more overarching challenge, though, is that he hasn’t really given either side what it wants.
The resource industry and its allies are unsatisfied that Mr. Trudeau’s government approved only one of the three major pipeline projects that were in place when it took office. And they take umbrage at other regulatory measures Ottawa has imposed, including legislation to ban oil tankers on B.C.’s northern coast and to set tougher environmental-assessment standards. Meanwhile, those who demand urgent action on climate change are frustrated that – partly because of continued oil sands support, as well as carbon pricing and other measures being ramped up fairly slowly – Canada is still not on pace to meet its emissions-reductions targets under the Paris Agreement.
Mr. Trudeau’s hope, politically, is that while social media and other public discourse make it appear that he’s in an untenable position, pleasing no one when it comes to steering a resource-reliant economy toward serious climate policy, he’s actually appealing to a large swath of Canadians who quietly prioritize moderation.
That would align with what was once a winning formula for Liberals: noisy opposition from both their left and right helping persuade many voters that they were the reasonable ones. And maybe, with more of that noise than ever, such middle ground looks especially appealing.
Or maybe it’s too uneasy a fit in the current, polarized political world; even those who aren’t firmly on one side or the other of this debate may only see chaos, and figure someone else couldn’t do much worse.
It comes back to whether Mr. Trudeau is seen to have done as well as can reasonably be expected, with the space available to him in the middle of the squeeze. And that applies, to varying degrees, to most of the other big policy issues he has tried to navigate, too.
There are a few ways in which Mr. Trudeau has clearly used the space available to him to effect meaningful and lasting change, evidenced by would-be successors having no intention of reversing major policy decisions.
The most obvious positive example of that is a campaign promise that his government was able to implement rather quickly and easily: a reworking of several pre-existing support payments for parents into the new Canada Child Benefit, which directs more money to families with modest incomes and has helped get hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. And to some extent, other changes to benefits programs, such as an expansion to the Canada Pension Plan negotiated with the provinces, also fit that bill.
The legalization of cannabis arguably qualifies, too. It was more contentious, and the creation of a legal market has been somewhat tortuous. But it is a bold change that was important to some of Mr. Trudeau’s younger supporters, that his older ones could seemingly live with, and that is now here to stay.
His government has also had abject failures, first among them the abandonment of his promise that the 2015 election would be the final one contested under the first-past-the-post system. That’s not something that can be blamed on outside forces: Mr. Trudeau could have advanced electoral reform if he wanted, albeit over the objections of some nervous members of his caucus. Instead, he botched and then aborted the process in a way that may have dissuaded subsequent governments from taking it up, and alienated a fair number of his younger supporters in the process.
And on broken promises, there is no getting around his choice to run much larger and more lasting deficits than he said he would in 2015. It’s one major way in which he has veered away from the centre, with a significant left turn. His political calculus seems to be that there is currently broad acceptability for it, and that it’s a necessary trade-off in order to avoid breaking other commitments around spending and tax policy that would hurt more.
But in most other policy areas, Mr. Trudeau has gone less neatly in one direction or another – and rarely has his balancing act led many people to be fully satisfied.
His attempts to get the wealthiest Canadians to pay more tax is one of the areas where harsh political realities have forced the most compromises. While cutting middle-income tax rates, his government did increase the rate on personal income above $200,000, and ended income splitting, which allowed higher earners to save money by transferring reported income to their spouses. But it significantly watered down a package of tax changes aimed at taking away various tax sheltering mechanisms, after an outcry from doctors, small-business owners and others with sympathetic audiences. And late in their term, foreign pressures – in the form of Mr. Trump’s massive corporate tax cuts – prompted the Liberals to announce billions of dollars in business tax breaks to try to preserve competitiveness.
In his government’s relationship with Indigenous populations, about which there was great optimism when Mr. Trudeau entered office, there has been progress in improving access to basic human needs, most notably clean drinking water. But this month, the government launched a challenge to a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling requiring about $2-billion in federal dollars to make up for shortfalls in funding for First Nations child welfare. That could possibly be a punt until the election is over, but it’s perceived as the latest among many signals that Mr. Trudeau’s government isn’t prioritizing such spending to the extent it once seemed to promise. Meanwhile, it has moved sympathetically but more slowly than Mr. Trudeau’s earlier campaign rhetoric suggested on the “nation-to-nation” reconciliation over the continuing legacy of residential schools, and other past abuses. It’s another defining policy area that Mr. Trudeau has taken more seriously than past prime ministers, but in a more compromised way than he once imagined.
On migration policy, Mr. Trudeau more or less managed through much of his mandate to deliver the liberal approach he had promised, quickly making good on his pledge to welcome tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, and significantly increasing immigration levels. But then his Liberals plainly struggled with how to reconcile their values with unforeseen events, in the form of a surge in asylum seekers at unauthorized points of entry from the United States after Mr. Trump’s election. After initially striking a relatively welcoming tone, and then resisting calls for a crackdown, Mr. Trudeau this year shifted to a harder line that could see such border-crossers denied access to full refugee hearings – an apparent reflection of concern about breathing life into the sort of populist backlash against migrants recently experienced through much of the rest of the Western world.
It’s been a similar story on matters more symbolic. Mr. Trudeau’s configuration of his cabinet sent important signals by setting a precedent of gender parity, featuring a heretofore unusual degree of ethnic diversity, and quickly elevating to positions of power genuine outsiders to Ottawa. But it became clear that what he expected from some of those ministers and how they viewed their jobs did not align – culminating in opposite signals being sent by the demotion and subsequent ouster from caucus of Jody Wilson-Raybould, who had been the country’s first Indigenous attorney-general.
And there has been Mr. Trudeau’s recent handling of Bill 21, the Quebec legislation that bans teachers, police officers and other public employees in that province from wearing religious symbols while working. With pluralism at the heart of his political identity, Mr. Trudeau might once have been expected to strike the toughest possible line against a law that affects a couple of minority groups, Muslims and Sikhs, in particular. Instead, while expressing his disagreement with it, he has hedged on whether his government would intervene in a court challenge, landing on a line that he will merely keep that option open.
But then, that’s still further toward a possible intervention than any of the other leaders of major federal parties have promised this campaign, despite all of them saying they disagree with the law. Like Mr. Trudeau, they plainly are trying to straddle between public opinion elsewhere in the country, which seems generally negative toward Quebec’s law, and public opinion within that province, where the law has strong support.
And that serves as a useful reminder of the extent to which anyone serving in the country’s top job is likely to be defined largely by their response to forces that aren’t fully within their control.
At the outset, nobody would have predicted that a large chunk of Mr. Trudeau’s term would be dominated by renegotiating the North America free-trade agreement.
Reviews of how the Liberals handled those volatile talks were generally positive. And the end result – a new deal, still pending ratification, with fairly minor tweaks from the previous one – was probably about as well as Canada could reasonably expect to emerge from the situation.
But the bandwidth his government devoted to that file, with Mr. Trudeau and his top staff spending much of their time on it, affected its performance in other ways. Distraction and fatigue seemed to contribute to the terrible decision-making leading up to the SNC-Lavalin affair breaking open. And other policy ambitions Mr. Trudeau could have been pursuing, the sort he campaigned on last time, didn’t get as much focus as they otherwise would have.
Although the impact would have manifested in different ways under a different prime minister, anyone in that office would have been similarly consumed by suddenly having to deal with Mr. Trump.
And to look at the chaotic state of the world outside Canada’s borders – and the volatile political, economic, cultural, demographic and regional dynamics currently at play here – is to know that whoever holds power after this election probably won’t get as much time or space as they would like to focus on their preferred issues, either.
But that doesn’t make prime ministers purely hostages of fortune, compelled to only be reactive. They have agency, are tested and are set apart from the alternatives by how they use the available space they have.
Some prime ministers might choose to focus on a small number of things they think they can focus on under those circumstances, and set aside the rest. Others might see opportunities to firmly pick sides among the colliding forces that are outside their control – to decide whether being the champion of young or old, East or West, left or right allows them to advance something they believe in.
Mr. Trudeau has tried to navigate between those forces, while continuing to try to tackle a wide range of policy priorities, with evidently mixed success.
Canada is further along toward addressing everything from inequality to climate change to reconciliation than it was four years ago, but not as far as many might wish.
It feels more divided than four years ago, too, but perhaps less so than it would if someone else had been in office.
It has maintained its standing in the world at a time of enormous global volatility, but not elevated it the way that Mr. Trudeau seemed capable of, at the outset.
He is no longer an avatar for all that Canadians might want to see in their country and its future. But he was never going to be that, once he got down to the work of governing.
The question is whether enough voters can live with what he is, or would prefer to see how someone else navigates the centre of the storm.
Further reading: A look at other federal leaders
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