Two months before Canadians vote in federal elections, the government scandal that hit Justin Trudeau’s poll ratings earlier this year is once again putting his Liberal party’s re-election bid at risk.
A federal ethics watchdog found this month that Canada’s prime minister violated federal conflict-of-interest rules by trying to pressure former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to help SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec-based engineering company, avoid criminal prosecution on bribery and corruption charges.
“The evidence showed there were many ways in which Mr Trudeau, either directly or through the actions of those under his direction, sought to influence the attorney-general,” Mario Dion, ethics commissioner, wrote in a report last week, the first independent conclusion of wrongdoing in the affair.
Mr Trudeau’s main political rival, Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer, has seized the moment to again call on Brenda Lucki, the head of Canada’s national police force, to investigate whether Mr Trudeau obstructed justice, urging her in a letter sent on Monday to “use all the resources” at the force’s disposal.
However, many legal observers have noted that while Mr Trudeau contravened parliamentary law, it is not clear he or anyone in his office broke any criminal laws.
The ethics watchdog’s report comes as Mr Trudeau’s Liberals had started to recover some of the ground lost when the controversy emerged in February.
“It’s not helpful for this to return now because they had disposed of the issue more or less,” said Sanjay Jeram, a political science lecturer at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
“The Liberals just want to turn the page and talk about something else, whether it’s the strong economy, jobs or the environment, which is a wedge issue the Conservatives are weak on.”
Mr Trudeau’s SNC-Lavalin troubles began with reports that Ms Wilson-Raybould, his former justice minister and a high-profile indigenous politician who also served as attorney-general, claimed she felt “veiled threats” from Mr Trudeau’s office to help the engineering group secure an out-of-court settlement on charges of corruption and fraud.
While Mr Trudeau initially called the allegations “false”, the ethics report concluded that he and those in his office used their influence to “circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” Ms Wilson-Raybould’s authority.
Mr Trudeau has sent conflicting signals about the findings. He has said he accepts Mr Dion’s report and that “the buck stops” with him. But he has disagreed with the conclusion that “any contact” with Ms Wilson-Raybould on the SNC-Lavalin file “was improper”.
After Ms Wilson-Raybould and another high-ranking cabinet minister resigned their positions this year, Mr Trudeau ejected them from the Liberal caucus. Their departures, along with the resignation of the country’s top civil servant and Mr Trudeau’s top adviser over the matter, severely tarnished Mr Trudeau’s image, particularly among young voters drawn to his promise during the 2015 election to do politics “differently”.
Polls last autumn suggested the Liberals were on track for another parliamentary majority. That had been overturned by May, when the party was shown to be falling well behind the Conservatives. Since that time, however, the gap between the two parties has vanished.
So far the confirmation of Mr Trudeau’s ethics breach has not had a direct impact on Liberal support. A survey released on Wednesday by Abacus Data found the Liberals and Conservatives in a dead heat at 32 per cent each.
“The SNC controversy seems to already be baked into peoples’ perceptions of the prime minister,” said David Coletto, chief executive of Abacus.
The question has become whether the issue affects turnout on election day. The controversy has riled Mr Scheer’s base, which is older and more inclined to vote. What is unclear is whether younger Liberal supporters discouraged by Mr Trudeau’s behaviour will turn out in the same high numbers as they did in 2015.
“In a low turnout scenario it is easier for the Conservatives to win because their voters are more reliable,” said Mr Coletto.
For that reason Mr Trudeau has sought to whip up fear of Mr Scheer to motivate progressive voters, prompting attacks on Doug Ford, Ontario premier, the right-leaning populist who swept to power in Canada’s most populous province last year with angry rhetoric about “elites” and refugees.
The Liberal strategy is to link Mr Scheer to Mr Ford, whose popularity has collapsed in recent months following the release of a provincial budget that imposed cuts to education, health and social services, as well as a cronyism scandal in which his former chief of staff filled government positions with family members, friends and acquaintances.
While Mr Ford once pledged to “get rid of Justin Trudeau” in order to kill the national carbon tax, Mr Scheer has been trying hard lately to distance himself from the Ontario premier.
“Doug Ford is a liability for Andrew Scheer,” said Mr Coletto, who said Mr Scheer’s inability so far to “differentiate” himself from Mr Ford had helped the Liberals recover somewhat from the initial SNC controversy.
Mr Coletto said that with the SNC saga now back in the news, the Liberals are hoping that even if “some people may not like what Justin Trudeau did” they will begrudgingly still vote Liberal, “because there is not a better alternative in their mind” to stop Mr Scheer.
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