It may now be game over for Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau

The latest polls in Canada have the country’s Conservative Party in a very comfortable position. If an election were held now, it’s predicted that the Tories would take 179 seats, against the governing Liberals with 103, and the socialist New Democratic Party 21. The Greens and Quebec separatists would split the rest. There are 338 MP in Ottawa’s House of Commons, so even with the country being as regional as it is, that Conservative victory would be sufficient for a working government.

It’s music to the ears of the party faithful who held their three-day convention in Quebec City earlier this month. Other polls, of course, show slightly different numbers but all agree on three central issues. The Conservatives are in or are close to majority territory; relatively new party leader Pierre Poilievre (he won on the first ballot a year ago) has managed to boost his appeal, especially among women and young people; and Justin Trudeau, very much the embodiment of the Liberal Party, is haemorrhaging support.

The next election will take place on or before October 20, 2025; at this rate Prime Minister Trudeau will leave it as long as possible. His problem is that what was once seen by the Canadian people as invincible charm, political common sense, and an ability to speak to people across the political divide, is now derided and dismissed. He’s not actually doing an especially bad job, but the river of political and personal attraction has run very dry indeed.

He and his party managed to survive in the past because the Conservatives had the most extraordinary ability to select leaders who were bland and outclassed. Then came Pierre Poilievre, a professional politician who served as shadow finance minister between 2017 and 2022 and built a reputation as an aggressive, quick-witted, and often merciless political operative. He’s relatively young at 44, and while he lacks Trudeau’s obvious good looks and charisma, he’s reworked his previously somewhat nerdy image, wears t-shirts a lot, and is often seen campaigning with his wife – from a working-class immigrant family, multi-lingual, glamorous, and feisty.

It works. As has his taking his party to the Right, at least in certain aspects. The attempt by truckers and their allies to occupy Ottawa, the nation’s capital, in early 2022 had various causes. The ostensible reasons were the various COVID restrictions and lockdowns, but there was something deeper going on. Canada is a rapidly changing country, and there are enough people – some of them extreme but by no means all – who simply feel left behind, forgotten, and not part of the new conversation. True or not, perception is almost everything in politics and these voters see Poilievre as their man.

He plays that role skilfully, if not always with full enthusiasm. He’s known, for example, to be supportive of the LGBTQ community, has appointed gay MPs as his closest advisors, and made it clear that social conservatism wouldn’t be central to his government. But at the Quebec City convention, 69 per cent of delegates voted that any Conservative government should prohibit “medicinal or surgical interventions” for gender-diverse and transgender children. That vote outraged many progressive and mainstream commentators, but Poilievre has remained quiet on the subject and others like it.

It’s clever politics, in that while he and his inner-circle may not be on-side with all of the views of the grassroots, he knows that Canadian voters and Canadian columnists aren’t the same thing at all. Frankly, he likely assumes that the optics will not do his electoral chances any harm at all, and while Christian conservatives in the party would prefer him to be outspoken on “parental rights” and what they refer to as “traditional values”, silence is preferable to opposition, and anyone preferable to Justin Trudeau.

He’s a pragmatic conservative, a populist who promises to provide jobs and homes without convincingly explaining how, and he’s certainly benefitting from a partial Americanisation of Canadian politics, the instability and fear resulting from the pandemic, and an increasing and regrettable divide between western Canada and Ontario, and urban and rural. He’s also worked hard at his French, and his base in Quebec, while still in need of expansion, is beginning to develop.

A great deal can happen in two years, and the Liberal Party is one of the most experienced and wily political machines in the democratic world. But their main weapon, Justin Trudeau, has become a hinderance. To underestimate him would be foolish, he’s surprised people in the past, but in Pierre Poilievre he may have encountered an opponent, and a set of circumstances, that slam the door on his political career.

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