Teflon Trudeau Is His Own Worst Enemy
In the absence of a serious political challenge from the left or right, Canada’s prime minister is suffering from self-inflicted damage.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s honeymoon with voters was supposed to end on May 18, 2016. In Parliament that day, members of the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) attempted to obstruct their fellow MPs as they took their assigned places to vote on a time-sensitive motion. In a scene captured on video, Trudeau pushed a Conservative Party opposition member through the crowd to hurry things along, elbowing a female member of the NDP in the process. The Conservative MP Peter Van Loan described it as “physical molestation.” An NDP member called it “assault.” Pundits coined it “Elbowgate” and declared that this would be the scandal that finally put a scratch on Teflon Trudeau’s political career.
It didn’t. Within a week, polls showed that voters didn’t care about Elbowgate. They also didn’t care much about Trudeau abandoning his campaign promises on electoral reform, revelations about his cash-for-access political fundraising, or his oddly affectionate comments following the death of Fidel Castro. For more than two years as prime minister — an eternity in politics — Trudeau’s government has seemed to defy gravity.
But now there are signs that it is finally being brought down to earth. New polling data indicate that support for Trudeau’s Liberal Party government is now at just 36 percent — the lowest since the 2015 election and only three points higher than the opposition Conservatives. Amazingly, the controversy that seems to have dented Trudeau’s popularity unfolded more than 7,000 miles away from Ottawa.
The prime minister’s weeklong family trip to India in February generated not one controversy but two. The first media uproar focused on the Trudeaus’ appearance at public functions in an endless parade of brightly colored traditional Indian outfits, which had some locals wondering whether the whole trip was just an excuse for Bollywood cosplay. “FYI we Indians don’t dress like this every day sir, not even in Bollywood,” one prominent Indian politician tweeted. Back in Canada, the CBC commentator Robyn Urback compared Trudeau to a character in the hit TV show Modern Family, complaining that the prime minister had “danced the bhangra like a bad impression of Phil Dunphy after his first yoga lesson.”
The second, far more substantive controversy surrounded a dinner at the Canadian high commissioner’s residence in New Delhi. The guest list for that event included Jaspal Atwal, a Sikh extremist who served five years in a Canadian jail for his role in the attempted murder of a visiting Indian cabinet minister, Malkiat Singh Sidhu, in 1986. Although Atwal was disinvited before the dinner took place, the Canadian government’s efforts to shift blame for the incident became a farce. At first, Trudeau’s inner circle pinned the blame on a Liberal MP, Randeep Sarai, who fell on his sword and assumed full responsibility. Then the prime minister’s national security advisor suggested to reporters, with no apparent evidence, that Atwal had been a pawn in a scheme by elements within the Indian government to embarrass Trudeau. That story understandably enraged the Indian government, convinced no one in Canada, and only focused further attention on the fact that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi snubbed Trudeau until a last-minute, face-saving hug for the cameras.
Trudeau’s Indian misadventure hurt him in a way that Elbowgate didn’t because it validated two of the underlying suspicions that Canadians have always had about the prime minister and his party. The first suspicion is that Trudeau is a snowboarding party boy who was “just not ready” for the burdens of leadership, as a stinging campaign ad once declared.
Trudeau originally helped put this suspicion to rest by running a flawless election campaign in 2015. He then spent more than two years leading the country in a sensible, sober manner while much of the rest of the world succumbed to populism. Trudeau has gotten the big issues right: fighting income inequality with progressive taxation, keeping the welfare state well-funded, addressing infrastructure needs, and, most importantly, working carefully to defuse U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade bomb. At international gatherings, Trudeau joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel (and then French President Emmanuel Macron) as a principled G-7 voice for globalization. In return, much of the world press has fawned over Trudeau, both for his policy and for his youthful style, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed in Canada.
But Trudeau’s Indian outfits and dance moves marked the moment when the attitude in some international quarters turned to open mockery. Particularly damaging was a Daily Mail splash whose headline asked “Is Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau the world’s most PC politician?” alongside a photo montage of Trudeau at his most fey and silly. The Mail is a tabloid of course — and the article had the feel of clickbait. But the piece got wide circulation on Canadian social media and helped undercut the idea of Trudeau doing Canada proud on foreign shores.
The Atwal affair tapped into a second set of long-standing voter suspicions about Trudeau and the Liberals more generally. Before Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won power in 2006, the Liberal brand had been tainted by the party’s habit of indulging extremist elements within ethnic communities, including Arabs, Sikhs, and Tamils. In 2000, in a notorious episode, two Liberal MPs — Maria Minna and Paul Martin, who would become party leader and prime minister three years later — attended a dinner for a group that had been identified by security officials as a fundraising front for a Tamil terrorist group. (When the opposition properly took the Liberals to task for this, Minna claimed their questions amounted to “pure racism.”) All of this transpired before 9/11, and the Liberals have now reinvented themselves under Trudeau. But on some issues, voters have long memories. The Atwal story has reminded Canadians of an era of shameless ethnic pandering, including to voters who supported extremist groups — a chapter Trudeau would prefer that they forget.
Remarkably, Trudeau’s recent political wounds seem entirely self-inflicted. The Liberals did well in a round of by-elections three months ago, including a victory in the Toronto district of Scarborough-Agincourt, where foreign-born voters make up two-thirds of the electorate. Trudeau is popular with most ethnic communities and had no particular reason to attempt a high-profile gambit in India. The whole affair had the unfortunate air of a self-indulgent multicultural junket.
Equally amateurish was the Liberal response to the Atwal affair. As with many scandals, the attempted cover-up was the worst thing about it — especially since the Liberals didn’t even pretend to have an explanation about how blame for the incident rested with both a Sikh Canadian MP and conspiratorial elements within an Indian government led by Hindu nationalists. And when Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was questioned about this apparent contradiction, all he could do was utter vague generalities about “classified” material before fleeing.
Trudeau’s government has made other mistakes in recent months that also bear the hallmark of sloppiness. The prime minister became a laughing stock on social media in early February when he publicly admonished a woman in Edmonton for saying the word “mankind” instead of “peoplekind.” (The Conservatives’ deputy leader responded by urging the prime minister to “person up.”) The comment was a joke, not a sincere effort to police a woman’s use of a common English word, but it took days for Trudeau to admit as much, during which time he was pilloried globally, reinforcing his image as the king of political correctness.
Although Trudeau has gotten the big issues right since becoming prime minister, he has gotten enough small things wrong lately that many observers have started to wonder whether his senior brain trust — led largely by the same small group of people who brought him into the prime minister’s office in 2015 — is getting bored or tired or both.
In December, the Liberals needlessly alienated conservatives by changing the eligibility criteria for a government-subsidized employment program, essentially forcing employers to declare their support for abortion rights. Pundits and opposition politicians panned the regulatory change, yet the Liberals have refused to back down on the issue. It’s as if, in the absence of any real culture war north of the border, distracted Canadian progressives are playing Ottawa politics with one eye on U.S. cable networks.
While Washington is now embroiled in a crisis of partisanship, with debates on most policy issues reduced to vicious bickering between Republicans and Democrats, Canada has experienced the opposite condition during Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister. With a parliamentary majority, Trudeau’s Liberals have been able to enact their entire agenda more or less unopposed. Budgets pass without much public notice. Assisted suicide has been legalized, and Canadians will soon be able to buy recreational marijuana in state-run stores. Meanwhile, on the Liberals’ right flank, the Conservatives are led by Andrew Scheer, a man whom most Canadians wouldn’t recognize if they sat down next to him on the bus. And on the left, the NDP has a leader, Jagmeet Singh, who hasn’t yet bothered to get elected to a seat in Parliament, despite several by-election opportunities.
Trudeau’s Liberals are a bit like polar bears — animals that, when fully grown, exist in the wild without any sort of natural predator. That may sound like every politician’s dream, but the threat of predators keeps a political animal sharp. Inhabiting a world without fear, the Liberals have gradually curled up and taken a snooze. The question is whether they’ll wake up before the next election.