Written by Ian Austen
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was buoyed into office by a wave of new and young voters. He will need those votes again if he is to win a second term in the upcoming national elections.
But that became more challenging Wednesday after a scathing report by Canadas ethics commissioner, who found that Trudeau broke the law by pressing his justice minister on how to handle a criminal case involving a multinational engineering company.
The report is the first nonpartisan determination about Trudeaus actions in the case, and was unequivocal in finding an ethics violation. It may end up influencing voters, political analysts said, if only by eroding enthusiasm for the prime minister among those who supported him in 2015, when he promised a fresh approach to politics.
The Liberals face a challenge of getting these people who voted last time to come out and vote again, said Andrew Steele, a former Liberal campaign strategist for Trudeaus party, the Liberals.
The path to power for Trudeau is with those less committed voters, Steele said. Motivating these people to vote is going to be critical, he said.
Trudeau began having serious political trouble this year when his then-justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, accused him and members of his government of trying to strong-arm her into accepting a civil settlement in a criminal case against SNC-Lavalin, which is based in Montreal.
The company was charged with bribing officials in Libya and defrauding the Libyan government when Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator, was in power.
Trudeau has argued that his only interest was in saving thousands of Canadian jobs. If SNC-Lavalin is criminally convicted the case against the company is continuing it will be shut out of government contracts, a potentially crippling blow. And he has repeatedly cast the affair as a clash of opinions between himself and Wilson-Raybould.
But the ethics commissioners report severely undermined that explanation by flatly finding that Trudeaus efforts were illegal.
Before Wilson-Rayboulds accusations, polls suggested that Trudeau and the Liberals were well ahead of their main opponents, the Conservatives, led by Andrew Scheer. That swiftly reversed as the scandal unfolded throughout the winter and spring, and the Liberals fell below the Conservatives.
Wilson-Rayboulds testimony before a Parliamentary committee was a particularly bad blow. To many Canadians, it seemed as if Trudeau and his mostly male aides had ganged up to bully her, shattering the prime ministers previously well-cultivated image as a feminist who took a collaborative and open approach to politics.
Also, after her conversations with Trudeau and his aides about the case, Wilson-Raybould, who is a prominent indigneous leader, was moved from the high-profile justice minister position to the Cabinet backwater of veterans affairs.
Wilson-Raybould quit Trudeaus Cabinet in protest, and Jane Philpott, another respected female minister, quit in solidarity. The prime minister expelled both from the Liberal Party.
Hes gone from new and fresh to looking callow and like an old-time politician, said Peter Loewen, professor of political science at the University of Toronto. People know now that hes a boss who wants to get his way and hell push people around to do it.
Over the summer, when attention to politics in Canada fades, the Liberals have returned to roughly the same level of popularity as the Conservatives in several polls.
But Richard Johnston, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia who specializes in polling, said the comeback wasnt particularly robust.
In his province of British Columbia, for example, Johnston said that even a relatively small loss of votes from Liberals to the New Democratic Party, which is to the Liberals left, or to the Green Party could lead to as many as 20 seats turning Conservative.
Its not like they are back where they were a year ago, he said.
Loewen calculates that if one out of every 10 people who voted for the Liberals in 2015 casts their ballots for any other party on Election Day, Oct. 21, Scheer will become prime minister although perhaps not with a majority of seats on the House of Commons.
Like many analysts, Steele, who is now the vice president of StrategyCorp, a lobbying and public relations firm, said he did not believe that committed Liberals would abandon Trudeau over the SNC-Lavalin controversy. And, he added, it has not led to a surge in support for the Conservatives.
With young people his concern shouldnt be that they turn out to vote for him, its making sure they dont vote for someone else, Loewen said.
But Trudeau still must retain the young voters he won last time.
While the campaign period will not officially begin until September, Trudeaus early strategy seems to be talking about anything but SNC-Lavalin and to particularly stress his efforts to mitigate climate change.
Its an approach Steele recommends.
I dont think the election turns on this report, he said. It hinges on things like the environment, the economy, health care, U.S.-Canada relations in the world, Canadas position in the world.
All the opposition parties, though, will keep up the drumbeat on the controversy, as they have all year.
He ran last time as someone who was above this, said Jason Lietaer, a former adviser to Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister whom Trudeau deposed. Now most people who voted for him arent angry but they are very disappointed: women, indigenous people and the young. Their expectations were high and he didnt fulfill them.
Still, Lietaer, who is now president of Enterprise Canada, a public relations firm, said most voters were probably suffering some fatigue when it comes to hearing about SNC-Lavalin. And he predicted that it wont be the only thing putting them off.
People are going to get tired of this election really quickly, he said. It is going to be historically negative.