It was the same place, the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal, where he celebrated his election as prime minister in 2015, but it was not the same Liberal Party waiting for the same Justin Trudeau. This time, the Liberal winners had spent five weeks watching their leader wrestle with the public’s doubts about his motivations.
He looks the same, still, at 49. But six years ago the Justin Trudeau of 2015 was a figure who for many seemed to symbolize good intentions, even for some who weren’t sure about his politics or ability. The 2021 Mr. Trudeau pulled through a campaign in which he had trouble convincing folks he had the right motivations.
The obvious question was about whether he had only called on an election, as a fourth wave of COVID-19 rose, for his political interest, to win a majority. But it wasn’t the only thing. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh campaigned on the idea that Mr. Trudeau promised progressive things but didn’t really care about them.
Mr. Trudeau gambled on a majority, and didn’t get it. But in fact, the gamble that Mr. Trudeau was taking in calling an election on Aug. 15 – that Canadians would want to move beyond the pandemic with the kind of “we have your back” expansive government they had seen in the crisis – didn’t turn out to be the real wager he was making. It was whether enough Canadians still believed he was motivated by the right things.
There were enough to return Mr. Trudeau to power. There had also been enough who struggled with doubts that the Liberals had sweated over that return to power, so a minority government was relief.
But the Liberals had started out expecting that after pumping out CERB cheques and delivering vaccines, they’d be riding favourable polls to a majority. On election day, they were prepared to count any margin of victory as a win.
On Monday night, the room at the Queen Elizabeth was populated more sparsely (for COVID-19 protocols) than the crowd that crushed in to applaud the just-elected Mr. Trudeau in 2015. Liberal insiders had been making hopeful predictions, yet fretted. There was no crowd of partisans to cheer when TV networks called the race.
There was still some resilience in Mr. Trudeau’s personal brand. The question about why he called the election dogged him longer than any Liberal strategist expected, but there was a bounceback in mid-campaign.
Taking a harder line against protesters, those opposing vaccine mandates or sometimes just shouting vitriolic conspiracy theories, brought back a level of passion to his campaigning. In the final days, Alberta’s COVID-19 emergency brought back the vaccine-mandates issue that Mr. Trudeau tried to make into a wedge with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole since the start. On doorsteps in Ontario, Liberals found it helped them to talk to voters again about the CERB and vaccines. On the hustings, Mr. Trudeau talked up Liberal climate-change policies to fight back against Mr. Singh’s assertion that he doesn’t really govern as a progressive.
Now Mr. Trudeau can govern, and probably entrench policies on child care and climate change. One lesson all parties will take is an election is not welcome soon. The Liberals have three potential partners for any vote in the Commons. Yet when conflict eventually comes, he can’t threaten an election.
The campaign showed doubts about Mr. Trudeau’s intentions are there. The 2021 Justin Trudeau had just enough resilience to return to office.
There’s a warning for his Liberal Party. It’s Mr. Trudeau’s party, the most undivided it has been in several decades. Liberals can question some of his decisions, but there is no one else waiting in the wings who appears able to match his presence on the political stage. Yet he struggles to get the benefit of the doubt from a plurality and for most politicians. That doesn’t get easier over time.
In political terms, Mr. Trudeau had a lot to work with, including a platform that promised $78-billion in new spending over five years, on top of a three-year $101-billion recovery plan outlined in the April budget.
But he still had to spend a lot of time telling voters this was about them, not him. Mr. Singh argued Mr. Trudeau didn’t care enough to solve problems including a housing crisis and a failure to eliminate First Nations boil-water advisories. When the Liberal Leader opened the campaign talking about stricter vaccine restrictions for travel and public servants, some asked: Why is he talking about that now?
The Liberals made mistakes before the campaign began, in failing to prepare the public for an election, or framing its purpose clearly.
But questions about his intentions had been a recurring obstacle. His popularity rose sharply in the first months of the pandemic; what halted that rise was not a public-health blunder or economic collapse, but the WE Charity affair – when Canadians started to question why a pandemic program was in the hands of people who had shared a stage with the Trudeau family.
Mr. Trudeau bounced back. Then struggled again in this campaign. Now he is back in power, but with a second minority that will one day be more uncertain than the first, and a public that questioned his motivations.
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