On Thursday, Justin Trudeau appears before a House of Commons committee in an effort to salvage his and his government’s good name. Both are at a low ebb.
Politics is a pretty simple business: You seek to accumulate political capital through wise – or at least smart – moves, and to avoid losing capital through dumb ones.
Mr. Trudeau used his name and his considerable talents to capture the leadership of a Liberal Party that was on the verge of extinction, and through wise and smart moves led the party to victory in the 2015 election.
But he badly damaged Brand Trudeau by seeking to influence the criminal prosecution of the engineering company SNC-Lavalin. Photos that surfaced of him in blackface were just as harmful. He barely scraped through with a minority government in the election of 2019.
The Liberal Party is more fragile than many assume. It lost the popular vote in four of the past five federal elections. It has a base of downtown ridings, but needs the support of at least some francophone voters in Quebec outside the Island of Montreal and of suburban Ontario voters to win power. Both blocks are highly switchable.
After the government’s fumbling response to rail blockades over environmental and Indigenous issues last winter, and the Conservatives’ decision to replace Andrew Scheer as leader, the Grits looked vulnerable.
But the federal government accumulated huge amounts of political capital – as did every provincial government – by acting decisively (for the most part) to contain the spread of COVID-19, and to support workers and businesses at risk from the economic fallout.
A minority government appeared to be headed for a comfortable majority in the next election, especially since the Conservative leadership race revealed that the Official Opposition was internally divided and without anything interesting to say.
In the past month, however, the Liberals have been bleeding capital as though they had lots to spare, which they don’t.
Failing to secure a seat at the United Nations Security Council made a mockery of the Canada-is-Back foreign policy. Reports of a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall reinforced the impression that the government had failed to properly vet Julie Payette before making her Governor-General.
There’s a maxim that a politician’s greatest weakness is the flip side of their greatest strength. Decisiveness in the pandemic became Arrogant by Default when the government mostly ignored the rights of Parliament.
And tone-deaf, as well. Despite public grief and anger over the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, the Liberals declined to appoint a public inquiry, bending only when their own MPs rebelled.
And the WE affair reinforces public suspicion that the Liberals are in tight with well-connected friends who profit from those connections. The Prime Minister’s mother, brother and wife received speaking fees from WE Charity, which stood to benefit from administering a government program. Bill Morneau’s daughter works at WE, and the Finance Minister hastily repaid the charity $41,000 in travel expenses for two WE-sponsored trips.
Polls show Liberal hopes for a majority government evaporating. The latest poll by Leger has them badly trailing the Bloc Québécois in Quebec. The Liberal base is now Atlantic Canada, Montreal, Greater Toronto and Greater Vancouver. That is where they were when Stephen Harper first defeated them in 2006. And in less than a month, the Conservative Party will have a new leader.
Now, Mr. Trudeau faces grilling by opposition MPs on a parliamentary committee. There are two possible outcomes.
He could offer the kind of poised, confident, reassuring performance that earned him so much political capital at his daily briefings outside Rideau Cottage in March and April. Such a performance could reverse the downward trend and put the government back on track.
Let’s not forget: New COVID-19 cases and fatalities are generally going down; the economy is reopening; many students will be back in school in September. The Prime Minister and the premiers deserve full credit.
Or he could offer the kind of rambling, patronizing, entitled performance that the Kielburger brothers delivered to the committee on Tuesday, in which case things will go from bad to worse. Either way, judgment will be swift.
A prime minister testifying before a tribunal is always riveting political theatre. We’ll see whether Mr. Trudeau’s performance builds his political capital, or wastes it.
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