An Italian friend who lives in Rome texted me to ask about the current political crisis in Canada that is threatening to topple the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. ‘I honestly can’t see what the “scandal” is,’ he said. ‘Is it all just because Justin forgot to say “please” when asking his attorney-general for a deferred prosecution agreement?’
No and yes — and that is also what makes this scandal so uniquely Canadian.
In Britain, good manners are often an act of passive aggression, while Canadians are pathologically earnest in their civility. We tend towards well-mannered moderation both in life and politics. Unlike in Westminster or Washington — where the rituals of government act as window dressing to a partisan fight — in Canada, our national identity is built on seemliness. The golden rule of Canadian politics (as described by Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells) is this: Canadian politics will tend toward the least exciting possible outcome.
This is why Justin Trudeau’s predicament is so startling both for Canadians and liberals around the world. To recap, the accusation made by his former attorney-general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is that Trudeau and his staff applied ‘inappropriate pressure’ to her office over whether to prosecute the engineering firm SNC Lavalin on charges of corruption. In a week that saw Michael Cohen’s explosive testimony before Congress as well as chapter 872 of the British parliament tenaciously cannibalising itself over Brexit, Trudeau’s alleged ethical breaches really do seem ludicrously ‘meh’ by contrast. But that’s what happens in a country where you set the ethical bar high and the entertainment bar low.
The story is being portrayed in Canada’s media as either a complete non-event (Liberals) or an earth-shattering moral catastrophe on par with Watergate (Tories). The truth, obviously, lies somewhere in between.
Wilson-Raybould said last week that Trudeau and his aides subjected her to ‘inappropriate pressure’ in an attempt to persuade her to stop corruption charges being levelled against SNL-Lavalin, a global engineering firm headquartered in Trudeau’s home city, Montreal. She says she was bombarded with an increasingly aggressive string of calls, texts, emails and in-person meetings. Nothing criminal about any of that — but at this point that hardly matters. She dug in her heels and Trudeau lost.
And that’s when the PM made his fatal mistake. Instead of holding his smarting enemy in a clinch, he demoted her to the post of Minister of Veterans Affairs. He’s still denying there was a row, which nobody is buying. One of his senior aides has quit, in an unsuccessful effort to take the flak. Then Raybould-Wilson resigned from the cabinet and has been followed by another key minister who declared she’d ‘lost confidence’ in the government’s handling of the affair. The result for Trudeau? Plummeting approval polls, anxious cabinet, apoplectic media and a gleeful opposition on the warpath. Just in time for an election later this year.
The problem for Trudeau isn’t that he has done anything horribly wrong; it’s that he set himself up to be so right. When he campaigned and won a majority in 2015, Justin (as he likes to be called) was a self--constructed paragon of political morality. The glare from his liberal halo was so blinding that most conservatives I know simultaneously gag and squint at the mention of his name. He is the sort of politician who once — true story — actually shushed his party membership for booing a snarky reporter’s question, then delivered an admonishing bromide about the importance of the fourth estate.
His government campaigned on a platform of nostalgic optimism, promising to reintroduce the ‘sunny ways’ of Sir Wilfrid Laurier — a slogan that’s being mercilessly used against them now. After three terms of his predecessor Stephen Harper, a leader who ruled by retribution, opacity and a deep-seated suspicion of the press, Trudeau promised to usher in a new era of transparency in Canadian politics, and people lapped it up. After being dismissed as little more than a haircut, he stunned his opponents by winning a landslide victory. But all this heady upbeat inspiration — the liberal bubble on which Trudeau has long floated — deflates with a prick if you believe the testimony of his former AG (and at this point there’s no obvious reason why we shouldn’t). Wilson-Raybould didn’t accuse Trudeau of acting illegally, let alone like a con, a cheat or a racist, as Cohen did Trump. She merely accused him of acting like a regular politician — and that’s a big problem for Trudeau, especially when he’s up for re-election.
Trudeau’s ethical conundrum highlights the vulnerability of leaders who win on platforms of inspiration, positivity and change. The high road is a smooth path to the top, but once you arrive there’s an inherent problem: how to get stuff done? (Answer: hire hard-nosed staff and keep smiling for the cameras.) Few affable centrists have succeeded at this double act in the long run. You’d better be as coolly aloof as Obama or you will end up soiled by your compromises like the Clintons, Blair and Cameron. Strongmen candidates like Trump or robots like May have it easy. They don’t have far to fall. Voters just shrug when they hear about their failures.
Justin Trudeau, by contrast, does yoga and cries in public. He once cuddled a pair of panda bears. For millennial voters, that’s nothing to sneer at. But, as it turns out, his staff are capable of banging heads and applying pressure after being lobbied hard. And like most politicians, it seems Trudeau is prone to confusing his desire to stay in power with the so-called ‘national interest’. That Canadians are genuinely shocked by all this is both heartening and heartbreakingly quaint.
Before Trudeau went into politics at 35, he spent much of his working life floundering. He tried and quit acting, engineering, teaching and being a ski bum before coming to public attention delivering the eulogy at the funeral for his father, the former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. But for all the lip service paid to Justin’s good looks and oratorical abilities, there was, and is, nothing inherently suave about him. He’s not magnetic like Clinton, silver-tongued like Blair or unflappable like Obama. Nor is he a ferocious intellect like his father, a man who was so unapologetically arch that he once, just to amuse himself and the press, turned a naughty pirouette behind the back of the Queen.
Justin is his mother’s son — an earnest and endearingly vulnerable person whose idealism can, at times, come across as slightly loopy. Margaret Trudeau, you might recall, ran off to party with the Rolling Stones in 1977 when Justin and his two brothers were tiny, leaving her decades-older husband an abandoned single father. Much later she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and then became an advocate for mental health.
Her son has proven to be a surprisingly effective leader until recently, despite the supreme unlikelihood of Justin’s candidacy. The one true natural strength Trudeau did bring to his office was his political decency. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a quality that matters to Canadians. That a failure of manners may ultimately be what brings him down is a painful irony, but it’s one that Trudeau and his government may have to accept. You don’t get to have it both ways, Justin. Not in the age of authenticity.