Toronto: Just as American presidents tend to get re-elected, Canadian prime ministers almost never get turned out by voters after their first terms.
The last time it happened to a leader with a majority government behind him was during the Great Depression.
But Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has officially announced his campaign for re-election, is well aware of a time when it almost happened. His father, Pierre Trudeau, went to bed on election night in 1972 fearing he’d lost. Trudeau senior had swept to power four years earlier on a wave of Kennedyesque popularity. But he seemed disengaged in office and ran an indifferent re-election campaign under the soporific slogan “The Land Is Strong.”
Voters thought otherwise. Pierre Trudeau squeaked out a win.
Can he follow in father’s footsteps?
Now Justin, who rode a similar wave into office only to see his popularity ebb, faces a similarly rough road ahead. Can he once again follow his father’s footsteps back into office?
Trudeau kicked off the fight of his political life Wednesday, under attack for an ethics scandal and other controversies as he opened a campaign for the October 21 general elections.
Polls showed Trudeau, once the youthful golden boy of Canadian politics, in a neck-and-neck race with Conservative Andrew Scheer who launched his bid for leadership by accusing the Liberal prime minister of lying “to cover up scandals”.
“He has lost the moral authority to govern,” Scheer declared, before boarding his campaign jet.
What are the challenges for Trudeau?
The parties have already been wooing voters with pre-election ads, announcements and whistle stops in key battlegrounds across the country. But Governor-general Julie Payette’s dissolution of parliament, at Trudeau’s behest, marked the official start of the race to the October 21 ballot.
As Trudeau left the viceregal’s residence, he said there was “a huge amount of work still do” and that it was “always possible to do better”. This election, he said, was a choice between “the failed policies” of his Tory predecessor or “continuing to move forward” with his team.
Strikingly like his father in some ways, Trudeau has also confronted unique challenges as prime minister.
How is junior Trudeau’s fate different from his father?
Pierre Trudeau barely registered on the world stage. Circumstances have made his son a global representative in a way that makes Canadians proud, but also somewhat uncomfortable. As much as we grinned, we found something odd and awkward about a Canadian prime minister photobombing a beach wedding or jogging shirtless.
Still, Trudeau’s Liberal government has delivered on many of its promises.
What are the good things Trudeau has done?
It made the tax system fairer by increasing levies on those making more than $150,000, and by easing taxes on the middle class and the poor, especially those with children. It kept unemployment low and adroitly handled the Nafta renegotiation.
It accepted Syrian refugees when other countries wouldn’t and increased what was already one of the world’s highest rates of immigration. It introduced “gender-based analysis” in cabinet documents. It imposed a carbon tax. It has promised to toughen gun control and expand universal health care services to include prescription drugs.
Trudeau has ticked the liberal boxes.
And where has he failed?
But Andrew Scheer will criticise the government as profligate, citing high government deficits. He’ll paint Trudeau as fickle and out-of-touch with average Canadians — someone more willing to apologise for historic wrongs than to admit his own mistakes or to understand what it means to balance the family pocketbook.
And he will try to capitalise on a recent scandal over meddling by Trudeau and senior Liberals in corruption charges against SNC-Lavalin, one of Canada and Quebec’s few global corporations. But it’s unclear if this Liberal headache will swing many votes.
Trudeau will try, in turn, to link Scheer with Canada’s unpopular Conservative of the moment: Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, who rode into office on a populist wave but whose policy upheavals and rhetorical excesses have caused support to plummet. Ford was even booed at the Toronto Raptors victory rally.
So what exactly is the problem?
But Trudeau’s problem is not, ultimately, the relative strength of his opponent. It’s that after four years of low-key success, he may not have given enough Canadians, across enough provinces, enough of a reason to give him another term.
Canada, with a land mass slightly bigger than the United States but a population of only 37 million, is a hard country to govern. Quebec, Trudeau’s home province, is a distinct society in all but name. Ontario was once an industrial powerhouse but is struggling to emerge from rust-belt status. The Maritime Provinces, along the Atlantic, are in long-term decline, while rising Western Canada chafes against the centripetal force of Ontario and Quebec.
What are the forecasts for the election?
Trudeau’s government is weighted toward those traditionally dominant central Canadian provinces, even if it doesn’t think of itself in those terms. The result is the kind of brokerage politics that manages some people’s resentments while dissatisfying many others.
Trudeau’s inability to translate his global glamour into electoral excitement at home, combined with his failure to solve the riddle of Canadian politics, means that for all his success in office, he is unlikely to win outright on Election Day. Instead, he will probably end up bargaining with opponents to keep power. That’s what Pierre Trudeau did in 1972 to survive. Two years later, he won the first of two more majority governments, ruling for nine of the next 10 years.
Justin Trudeau knows that history too.