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Canada's Trudeau back under a cloud heading into tight election

Trudeau at at press conference on the SNC-Lavalin case. Photo: Dave Chan/Getty Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada got some bad news at a very bad time.

The big picture: Trudeau was already in danger of losing October's general election — polls show his Liberals in a dead heat with the Conservatives. Yesterday, the biggest scandal of his tenure burst back into the spotlight.

Flashback: The scandal began in February with a Globe and Mail report that Trudeau’s aides pressured Canada’s former attorney general to cut a deal with SNC-Lavalin. The engineering giant faced corruption charges over past dealings with the Gadhafi regime in Libya.

  • The minister in question, Jody Wilson-Raybould, had been demoted and later resigned. More resignations followed the news. The ensuing uproar was disastrous for Trudeau’s reputation, but slowly faded to the background.
  • That was until Canada’s ethics commissioner ruled yesterday that Trudeau violated ethics regulations by intervening in the case.
  • Trudeau insists that he was merely “standing up for Canadians jobs.” It's true that many were at stake; if convicted, SNC-Lavalin would have been banned from government contracts for 10 years.
  • But that argument didn’t convince voters back in February, when the Liberals “lost about 10–12 points almost overnight,” says Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Public Affairs.

Why it matters: Bricker says the SNC-Lavalin affair is now the dominant issue in a campaign that will ultimately be a referendum on Trudeau.

"The No. 1 asset that the Liberals have going for them is Justin Trudeau. He is their brand. It’s not a great place to be starting an election campaign from.”

The flipside: Trudeau’s main opponent, former parliamentary speaker Andrew Scheer, is hoping to capitalize. He called Trudeau's actions "unforgivable."

  • Scheer cuts a low profile. While his proposals so far have been relatively moderate, Bricker says, “there’s a lack of awareness about who he is or what he stands for.”
  • “The narrative the Liberals are pushing hard is that he becomes ‘Trump North,’ or more accurately Doug Ford at the federal level.” Ford is the populist, right-wing, and deeply controversial premier of Ontario.

What to watch: While Scheer’s political identity is still taking shape, Trudeau’s has been called into question.

  • “If there’s a word that describes the last 4 years and Justin Trudeau’s performance, I think generally that would be ‘disappointment,’” Bricker says.
  • The big question, Bricker continues, is whether the scandal is already "factored in" for voters. If so, Trudeau’s skills as a campaigner put him in a strong position to win. If not, "he’s in really big trouble.”

The bottom line: Bricker says the rock star image — magazine covers, viral videos — that Trudeau projects globally was embraced by Canadians 4 years ago. Now, many view him as out of touch or unserious.

"The picture is the same. He’s always done the same thing. What’s changed is how people look at him now."