Why Trudeau will be his best advertisement—and worst enemy—in 2018

Ahead of the 2019 election, it’s hard to imagine Trudeau’s opponents doing damage to him approaching what he routinely does to himself

Justin Trudeau. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

Justin Trudeau. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

It’s standard operating procedure when predicting an entire year’s worth of politics in advance to protest that it can’t be done. The ritual incantations are many: if a week’s a long time in politics, then a year’s an eternity. Events, dear boy, events. And so on.

Yet for all his supposed dynamism, what’s striking about Justin Trudeau at the dawn of 2018 is how closely his prospects and pitfalls resemble what he faced at the dawn of 2017. The surprise with this Prime Minister is that he is becoming a known quantity.

Here’s a Toronto Star headline from Jan. 7: “Justin Trudeau tries to shake air of entitlement.” A year later, he’s still shaking. Another January headline: “Trudeau’s Trump tactics seem to be working—so far.” Still true, so far. A year ago, we didn’t even know which party leaders Trudeau would face at the next election. Now we know, but it doesn’t help: Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh have made hardly any progress imprinting their personalities and projects onto the national psyche.

The likeliest outcome from 2018, then, is that Justin Trudeau will continue to be his own best advertisement—and worst enemy. By the end of the year ahead, Canada will be in the long approach to an election in the fall of 2019. Campaigns are about opponents giving the gears to incumbents, but it’s hard to imagine Trudeau’s opponents doing damage to him on a scale approaching the damage he routinely does to himself.

So 2018 will be a fight between Trudeau and Trudeau. Let’s sketch a portrait of the Trudeau who could be hard to beat in 2019, before describing the Trudeau who could be surprisingly vulnerable by then.

On the bright side: the Prime Minister continues to bring formidable energy and organizational chops to his big tasks. He won the 2015 debates by outpreparing his adversaries. He responded to Donald Trump’s election in similar fashion, by flooding the zone. Trudeau accomplished what several prime ministers always meant to do, identifying and motivating the most elaborate network of pro-Canadian contacts any Canadian government has ever pieced together on American soil. He has put most of his cabinet, much of his Liberal caucus and even some erstwhile opponents—Conservative icons like Brian Mulroney and Rona Ambrose, the normally adversarial Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall—to work making the case for the NAFTA trade deal, and for Canada more generally, south of the border. He has kept up his warm personal relationship with Trump even as his government has moved aggressively to position Canada as a better home for talent and investment than the United States.

READ: Andrew Scheer of the suburbs vs Justin Trudeau and his throngs

Whether any of this activity neutralizes Trump as an economic threat is a question only time can answer. But it was probably worth doing anyway: someday, when the great republic to the south is under less mercurial executive leadership, it’ll be handy to have all of Canada’s friends on one contact list.

Meanwhile, Canada’s economy is growing nicely. Alberta is rebounding from the worst job losses of the oil crash. Quebec is a relative growth tiger amid the general good news, which helps ensure that separatist sentiment is so low it’s hard to measure.

By the new year, one of Trudeau’s biggest projects, the Canada Infrastructure Bank, should be connecting the world’s biggest institutional investors to very large projects to build Canadian roads, bridges, rail networks and power grids. If the bank works, it’ll mean billions of dollars injected into an already robust economy, in highly visible ways. Meanwhile, new visa rules are making it easier for tech firms to attract international talent, leading several companies to announce office expansions in Vancouver and Toronto. 

Trudeau’s early moves on what are sometimes called identity politics are lately looking prescient. The women who comprise half of his cabinet are at least as impressive, on average, as the men who constitute the other half. Trudeau’s gender-parity advocacy—in international development, trade and the military—is mentioned by other world leaders as often as his other economic measures. The zero-tolerance policy that has led to four Liberal MPs leaving the caucus over assorted accusations of personal misconduct seems, in retrospect, to have put the Trudeau Liberals ahead of a societal curve, given recent debates over sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace.

The Senate, which was rattled when Trudeau kicked every Liberal senator out of his party’s national caucus, is reconstituting itself as an august debating society whose independent-minded new members sometimes forget to support the government. So far it’s at least arguable that the changes Trudeau wrought have improved the place.

That’s a tidy suite of stories an incumbent government can look forward to telling about itself on the campaign trail. And if in the end none of it saves Trudeau’s bacon, it will be because he has already sown the seeds of a very different competing narrative.

Start with that Senate: the new Trudeau-appointed “independents” are actually pretty Liberal, voting most of the time for policies favoured by the Prime Minister to whom each of them had to apply for a job. But not all of them and not all the time. That’s made the Senate the most unpredictable place in Ottawa. Soon enough, some of its members will delay or block crucial legislation, derailing Trudeau’s attempt to deliver on a major commitment. For a while in the spring it looked like it would be the infrastructure bank. These days it’s cannabis legalization.

Trudeau’s efforts to position himself as a champion of the middle class have been somewhat undermined by his privileged background (Adam Scotti/PMO)

Trudeau’s efforts to position himself as a champion of the middle class have been somewhat undermined by his privileged background. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

It’s not a rebellious spirit that is making the Senate a dangerous place for Liberal projects, merely the unaccustomed outbreak of intellectual curiosity. In June, the upper house came within a vote of considering the infrastructure bank separately from the rest of Bill Morneau’s 2017 budget, a move that could have delayed the proposed bank’s creation. André Pratte, a Trudeau-appointed former La Presse editorialist, wanted the proposed bank studied in more detail. Every Conservative lined up with him, plus a handful of other independents and independent-minded Liberals. That’s the sort of odd geometry that comes into play on vote after vote in the new Senate. There will surely be further chaos in the year ahead.

That matters because Trudeau really needs to deliver results on big files. If the infrastructure bank is a dud, the energy expended to get it up and running will be hard to explain. What could make it a dud? Perhaps the creeping suspicion among big global investors—fed in part by the infernal difficulty oil companies have had getting pipelines built—that Canada is a nice place where nobody ever actually makes a decision.

If drinking water doesn’t get measurably cleaner in Indigenous communities, or the Phoenix pay system can’t work out the bugs, or the Liberals make it through an entire electoral mandate without buying a single serious piece of military equipment, it’ll be all the harder to take “managerial competence” back to the voters and ask for a refill on the mandate. None of these outcomes is a long shot. In fact, it’s starting to look like all three chronic problems are likelier to get worse than better in the next two years.

Trudeau’s relatively smooth ride on federal-provincial relations will be tested in 2018 too. Elections, in Ontario in June and Quebec in October, will threaten two dependable Trudeau allies, Kathleen Wynne and Philippe Couillard. Both have been trailing opposition parties in recent polls. The biggest threat to Couillard comes from François Legault of the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec, a centre-right party whose leader is cheerfully incurious about the rest of the country and whose reflexes on most intergovernmental files would be fundamentally unpredictable.

In Alberta, there’s no election until 2019, but to beat Jason Kenney, the new leader of the (re-)United Conservative Party, NDP Premier Rachel Notley may find herself forced to behave more like him, picking fights with Ottawa over natural resources. So the PM will find himself running short of allies in a year when a lot of his big projects—legalizing cannabis, stitching together a nationwide carbon plan—will require some amount of civility in federal-provincial relations.

MORE: Justin Trudeau’s mid-life crisis

Complicating all of this is Trudeau’s increasingly obvious tin ear on questions of class and wealth. It’s worth remembering that the unending calvary of Finance Minister Bill Morneau began on territory the Liberals chose and believed they could work to their advantage: tax fairness. “We need to make sure that everyone’s pulling their weight and doing their fair share,” Trudeau told Maclean’s in a Canada Day interview only weeks before Morneau announced the small-business tax changes that erupted into months of crisis for the government.

Suddenly it’s not obvious why Trudeau thought a manicured plutocrat like Morneau would be a credible champion of the middle class. It’s not clear why he turned to Stephen Bronfman, scion of Canada’s most legendary rich family, to raise money for the Liberals. And it’s far from clear that he understands that every time he talks about “values” and the “middle class,” he comes closer to hurting his case than to helping it.

The Justin Trudeau of early 2017 could have warned him, if only the Justin Trudeau of mid-2017 had been in a mood to listen. In a February speech to a fancy dinner in Hamburg, Germany, he warned that governments risk voter wrath if they don’t take the preoccupations of ordinary voters seriously. “When governments serve special interests instead of the citizens’ interests who elected them, people lose faith,” Trudeau said. “And we’re watching that anxiety transform into anger on an almost daily basis.” Boy, I’ll say.

So 2018 for Trudeau looks like one endless headache—the NAFTA talks—and an existential question. Can Trudeau recover the image of vigour, decisiveness and empathy that won him a healthy majority in 2015? Or will he seem increasingly out of touch with the ordinary Canadians he claims to champion?



Why Trudeau will be his best advertisement—and worst enemy—in 2018

  1. Justin Trudeau will not have any problem winning the next election, who is going to run against him with i lame duck leader who wears religious symbols, or the other guy, who wears a Halo over his head, and has a racist campaign manager who previously ran a bullhorn organization with pro right racists groups. Canadians believe Trudeau is a sincere man with good intentions, they know the levers of government moves at a snails pace too, that’s why Canadians will give Trudeau a second term. Canadians also like the fact that we don’t have a racist as a PM in this country like they have in the US, or the previous PM(Harper Old Stock), a leader who promotes women’s rights on the world scene, and promotes a just society where everyone in Canada can live in the same country, share the same values, and promote everyone’s right to freedom of speech under our Charter of Rights, the Charter of Rights that the NDP and Conservatives would tear up in a heartbeat, given the opportunity to do so, though the NDP like to use the charter whenever they feel it’s valuable to them, and then disparage it when they feel like. It takes a government 2 terms before the bloom starts to shed from the rose. As i said, the next headline story the next day, after the next election will be, ‘Trudeau wins Election by a landslide, #2″! A little lesson in the CFL game last night for Patrick Brown, you are not the ‘Underdog’ going into the fall election, Wynn is, so never underestimate an ‘Underdog’, the same goes for the federal opposition, Trudeau is still an underdog for the next election.

  2. Carpet Bomber you sound just like the Orange Man down south. You know the one who makes up his own facts to fit his own narrative.. you know that guy named Trump. There are so many factual errors in what you just wrote that it isn’t worth pointing them out. Dream on.

  3. I’d rather vote for a bag of hammers than the liberals. If returned to power they will bankrupt this country, just like PET almost did.

    • How do you explain why the economy is better after 2 years of Liberals than it was after 10 years under the Reformers? Plus the Reformers had oil at around $100/barrel for much of their time in office and Harper has the distinction of accumulating one of the highest overall debts in the history of Canada. Reality can be cruel to the hugely partisans like you.

      • The housing and construction boom plus a low Canadian $ account for the GDP bubble-neither of which Trudeau had anything to do with. His ONLY economy booster in his kit is infrastructure spending and he hasn’t launched anything for that portfolio yet.

  4. Trudeau is a unique leader in that he remains personally popular even though leading a government with relatively unpopular policies. Ballooning deficits, removing small business tax breaks, increased immigration, opening immigration to the world’s elderly and ill, welcoming and attempted rehabilitation of ISIS returnees, obsession with the UN, unnecessarily entering a war in Africa, and leaky border controls mostly resonate with a dull thud with the general public. There is no denying the failure of many Liberal initiatives has been received with a sigh of relief.

    Now that Trudeau’s policies are on the table and he is a known entity, the next election will be a test of whether the public is more influenced by a popular media personality or by policies.

    • By the end of 2016, 40% of Canadians polled by Angus Reid didn’t like Trudeau and the more recent polls has that now at 50% and climbing. So, his charm is now increasingly being tarnished by those bad policies HIRD notes.

  5. ” That’s the sort of odd geometry that comes into play on vote after vote in the new Senate.”

    wiki – Bootleggers and Baptists is a concept put forth by regulatory economist Bruce Yandle, derived from the observation that regulations are supported both by groups that want the ostensible purpose of the regulation, and by groups that profit from undermining that purpose.

  6. I don’t know about the rest of provinces but Ontario is awful for business and foreign business people know it.

    High cost of electricity, numerous labour and environment regulations, long border crossing times and no free trade between provinces, Ontario is most likely place for foreign investment but it is deeply unlikely due to fed and prov regulations.

    This is not unique to Ontario tho, I would be willing to bet quite a lot of money that Amazon’s new headquarters will be in an American low tax, right to work state.

  7. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Trudeau’s personal popularity continues. I can understand why he is popular among so many people under 35 as they don’t always have the benefit of looking at things in perspective as do older folks. People do like beautifully wrapped presents but there comes a time when most of us look inside the gift box. In this case my own opinion is that there is nothing of substance inside. I feel bad saying that but if you listen to what Trudeau says in his speeches with your eyes closed you’ll know what I mean.

    • Well, from polling, i guess the rest of the country has seen what is in the other two gift boxes, and the result is, nothing of substance inside, and their won’t be anytime soon, just two empty vessels. Not one of the leaders of the opposition saw a bump in the polling when they were elected to their party, that can’t be good for a first impression, the only they of winning for the opposition is, if Trudeau stumbles or falls, and that will still be a challenge if it even happens. If that’s what the other two party leaders are waiting for, than that tells me, they have diddly squat to offer. These two unknowns(Sheer and Singh) will be tossed from their party before they win an election, especially if they don’t make the numbers move.

      • 50% of Canadians polled this month by Angus Reid don’t like Trudeau and that number is rising with each new poll. So more and more Canadians are opening the gift boxes and finding them empty.

    • You don’t like what i have to say, because its the truth. Your what i call a dreamer, only you will be having nightmares to come, with Trudeau’s popularity rising after the legalization of pot, and if thats what it takes for Trudeau to keep his numbers high, pardon the pun, than it because the other two leaders are to stupid and incompetent, along with out of touch, to know what the public mood is in this country. Canadians don’t want to live in chains listening to a puppet like Sheer tell us in this country how to live, we are a progressive country, not a regressive country. You have no idea of what the people in this country want, only dream of what they want.

      • No you’d like to listen to an arrogant, pot smoking narcissist.
        Gradually Canadians are recognizing that he’s leading us down the same costly, socialist path his old man did. Pierre’s legacy was massive debt and 19% mortgages and he was a lot smarter than the boy.

    • Just to add my friend, and don’t have a conniption when i say this, but read my lips. Kathleen Wynne, will get to serve a second tenure as Premier in Ont in the next election, and you can take that to the bank. Patrick Brown is going to loose, because the NDP in the province of Ontario are not going to let Brown win, they will come out in full force for the Grits and drop Horvath like a dirty shirt, just to shut down the conservatives like they did when they came out for Trudeau, the progressive vote moves around, the regressive vote stays status quo.

  8. Excellent article – Trudeau, like most of us, proves we can all be our own worst enemy. But does it matter?
    Aside from the gossipy stuff like helicopter rides and blind trusts, it’s impossible to discern whether and when the string of inevitable disappointments and “delayed” commitments will add up to enough by 2019 that Canadians decide to vote against Trudeau and team. The strategy seems to be to keep promising a shitload of stuff over a 10-year horizon, stuff that doesn’t even have to begin until after the next election. (Why, oh why, do we let our leaders get away with this? A generation ago, any leader who promised something that wouldn’t happen until the next Parliament, would have been ridiculed for assuming they’d still be around to carry it out.)

    Accepting that voters expectations are more flexible about when electoral promises need to be delivered, will the slow rollout over the next two years of the Canada Infrastructure Bank and the announcement of its first major projects be enough to keep these hopes alive with the voters? More than likely. Canadians want to believe their governments are there for them. As long as the economy continues to improve, it’s probable that enough ordinary Canadians will stay content with the allure that Trudeau will eventually deliver for them. For the Opposition leaders, this means they face years of getting Canadians to know them better, all the while keeping their party’s noses clean and maverick backbenchers away from the limelight.

    Of course, a major economic contraction, a housing “correction” of 20% in major markets like Toronto and Vancouver, or other similar shock, will put everything in doubt.

  9. Carpet Bomber the polls actually have The Tories and Liberals pretty close. At least the last ones I saw did with Liberals sliding a bit. BTW– I wish that I was dreamer. It would make life a lot easier. Nope I am just a regular grade 11 and 12 economics and history teacher who is taking night classes at university trying to upgrade. Boring stuff but had a day off today and just doing some reading.

    • Have a look at Nanos, Bev.

  10. I have a bias about men who wear plaid shirts.

    Not a whole lot to choose from.

  11. You can never predict what kind of mistakes the Opposition is going to make.
    The Ottawa media and the opposition think the amount of time and energy which has been spent this fall on the Morneau is corrupt and incompetent (both untrue) issue has been worth it. Not so sure. Boring.
    Can’t predict final impact of Conservative leaders Kellie Leitch style commercial. A lot of Ottawa media thought it was genius. Wow.
    Scheer brings in Rebel Media exec as Campaign Manager. Ottawa media merely touches it. But he brings ideas. Does he bring people too? Impact long term?
    Scheer reaction to Payette science comment shows he’s all in with evangelical thinking. How does Trumpism North play out over the next two years?
    Ottawa media love Scheer and Pollievre. Front line of the Party.
    Scheer’s a disaster. How long will it take to figure that out?

  12. OMG we are all so sick to death of seeing this ignoramous.
    If I must face his greedy and lying face 1/2 dozen times
    while surfing a news site, I X out of that site pretty fast.

    I tip my hat to the photographic genius, but overkill has lasted so
    long, we are past nausea and right into the toilet puking!
    We know who is paying for all of this, YOU and ME and our grandchildren!

    Why would anyone in the know, think that Canadians are
    stupid enough to vote for THE man who continues to overspend
    and bury us all deep deep in tax debt?!?
    Don’t you think this mornon and his family and entourage
    had the opportunity to speak to China on their extravigant
    Pacific trip just 10 days ago?!?
    Look at the billions they spent on the European trade, now
    none existant!
    We have no problems trading with China, the only problem
    Turdo has, is he can’t tax what we purchase online!

    Every other week Turdo is paying off someone!
    Why is Morneau going before the ethics commish
    YEARS before Turdo’s massive cheating and lying is addressed?
    Was she paid off too?
    When will this spoiled child show some maturity and restraint?

  13. In fact, Trudeau$ people in Montreal are so sick of seeing him,
    that our best wax artist could not study his face.

    Just a question: In the portrait of him beside the light shining
    through the blinds, is he picking his nose or sucking his thumb?

  14. One or two commentators have inserted the name of a nearby president without actually distracting the conversation away from the kindergarten dance teacher, but it should be useful to consider the affect of the new NAFTA policies on the next election.

  15. One of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers is, by all public accounts, illegally in the country. To the Canadian public’s knowledge, no steps have been taken to to begin a deportation process that would be well underway, were she NOT a member of the Liberal Party’s inner circle.
    A federal cabinet minister has spent a great deal of public energy pushing a process that will ensure that all wealthy Canadians except those named Bill Morneau OR those intimate with the power and fundraising structure of the Liberal Party will pay more taxes.
    Someone, and the federal finance minister refuses to claim that he is NOT the someone in question, sold some $10 MILLION dollars in Morneau Shepell shares approximately 1 week before legislation was tabled that had an adverse impact on that stock price, thus avoiding an approx. $500K hit to that share value.
    Trudeau and company love- LOVE- to talk about how they are champions of the “middle class”, yet they are bigger champions of polices that have adverse , sometimes devastatingly so, effects upon those middle class folks they claim to be so fond of, while expressly distancing themselves from those very same impacts and effects.

  16. Opposition bungling is going to help Trudeau in the next two years.
    Everybody knows Morneau is not incompetent, dishonest, corrupt, or anything but a decent, honourable person.
    So when he finally called the oppositions bluff and demanded Pollievre go outside the House and state the implication behind his questions, that Moreau had used his office for personal gain, and was involved in insider trading, Poilievre choked. The whole basis of the opposition personal destruction attack was patently false.
    Note, the Morneau story not to be found on the online pages of major media today, not even National Newswatch when I checked.
    Finally, Pollievre’s have you no decency moment.
    Several important national columnists have fueled this ill conceived lengthy waste of Commons time. The faux scandals are getting boring : Payette, Sajjan, the skating rink with perfectly normal public skating rules. I think we’re starting to small the phoniness out here in the hinterland.

  17. Canadians are increasingly seeing through his self-righteous platitudes posing as policy and sanctimonious value signalling at taxpayers’ expense.