Justin Trudeau’s Dubious Legacy for Canadian Democracy

Justin Trudeau’s first two terms show how vulnerable even advanced democratic institutions can be to political power play.
Aaron Burnett, Justin Trudeau news, Canada news, Canada election news, Canada Liberal Party, Canada political crisis, Justin Trudeau Liberal Party, Canada snap election, Germany COVID-19 management, New Zealand COVID-19 management

Justin Trudeau, London, UK, October 2020 © Naresh777 / Shutterstock

With over 70% of the country having received at least one COVID-19 shot and with a clear lead in opinion polls, Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confidently took the microphone at a press conference on August 15. He announced that Parliament had been dissolved and Canadians were voting again on September 20, only about halfway through his second term in office.

Because the 2019 election occurred before the pandemic upended government plans, Trudeau claimed he needed a new mandate for an economic recovery agenda. But amid rising infections and back-to-school preparations, opposition parties and many media were skeptical. A controversial Conservative ad likened Trudeau to a spoiled child focused only on winning back the absolute parliamentary majority he lost during the 2019 election.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the center-left New Democratic Party, wrote to Trudeau just days before, asking him not to call a new election but instead to recall Parliament and pass the progressive legislation both parties campaigned on. “If the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, wants to work on something that’s going to help people, we’re ready to pass that legislation,” Singh told CBC News.


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With polls at the time showing an absolute parliamentary majority in reach, Trudeau opted not to negotiate further and dissolved Parliament to call an election instead. He thus left much of his stated progressive agenda to be implemented later, potentially without the consensus and the compromise minority parliaments require. Progressive bills, such as a proposed ban on gay “conversion therapy,” unceremoniously died at committee level as the House of Commons dissolved.

Kabul fell the same day. While French troops went through the Afghan capital to get their people out, Afghans who worked with Canadian organizations reportedly received texts telling them to go to the airport on their own, carrying the same papers Taliban soldiers could use to identify them and shout “Canada.”

The Liberals started tumbling in opinion polls almost right away. The party struggled to shake opposition claims that Trudeau called a “selfish” election in the midst of both a fourth COVID-19 wave and a mishandled Afghanistan evacuation, just two years on from the last election. The Conservatives briefly surged before polls tightened into an unexpected tie, leaving the winner to be decided by how vote distribution will translate into seats under the distortions of Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Power Grab

During Trudeau’s two terms in office, increasing amounts of his time and political capital became devoted to managing scandal fallouts and avoiding accountability. His pandemic leadership in particular demonstrated Trudeau’s tendency to prioritize political considerations and his government’s survival above both his legislative agenda and established norms of Canadian parliamentary democracy.

Although the Trudeau government was no stranger to scandal before the pandemic, March 25, 2020, marked a pivotal moment for Canadian parliamentary democracy that, perhaps alarmingly, has barely been discussed since.

At a time when much of the world was first locking down, the Canadian House of Commons was pulling an all-nighter to pass an economic relief package following a debate riddled with suspicion and acrimony. It was a bill that could have sailed through Parliament in a rare show of political unity, camaraderie and consensus. But at the last minute, Trudeau and his cabinet resorted to a power play. Tied up in the multibillion-dollar bill were provisions that, if passed, would have given the finance minister the authority to raise and lower taxes, as well as spend funds without parliamentary approval until the end of 2021.

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A Conservative statement referred to the amendment as a “power grab.” NDP leader Singh called on the Liberals to drop the provisions so MPs could pass economic relief measures and quickly get money flowing to people and businesses that needed it. “I remember scrambling, going through this and we were just like, ‘What is this?’ It was caught, but it was technical language,” says Conservative Shadow Health Minister Michelle Rempel.  

Trudeau’s 11th-hour attempt at taking powers from Parliament through a technical amendment risked delaying support for Canadians and plunging the country into a political crisis during a raging global pandemic. It served as the first major glimpse of his apparent instinct for using a crisis as an opportunity to further his political position or avoid accountability.

It didn’t have to be this way. Trudeau’s willingness to run roughshod over the Canadian Parliament during COVID-19 is almost unique among his fellow western leaders. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel, both often credited with handling the pandemic relatively well, didn’t resort to similar tactics. Their crisis response was arguably better for it. Indeed, at precisely the same time as Canadian opposition MPs lobbied to sink Trudeau’s amendment, very different scenes were taking shape half a world away.

Crisis Leadership

As MPs haggled in Ottawa, New Zealand’s Civil Defence system sent an alert to mobile phones across the country with loud alarms and vibrations: The entire nation would go into its highest level of lockdown at midnight. “This message is for all of New Zealand. We are depending on you,” it read. That same evening, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern smiled as she asked a live audience to excuse her casual sweater while taking questions via Facebook video; she had just put her toddler to bed and wanted to “check in” with everyone.

As Ardern spoke, members of the German Bundestag were up early and voting nearly unanimously with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to suspend the country’s constitutionally-enshrined debt brake. Doing so would give the necessary fiscal space for an emergency package of health spending and economic support measures. “We have never before taken measures involving so much money so quickly to provide security and stability,” Merkel said of the response in her podcast.

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In both cases, Merkel and Ardern’s crisis leadership yielded early successes without the need for power-grabbing tactics. Both leaders come from different political traditions — Ardern a progressive and Merkel a center-right conservative. Yet their leadership styles both focus on achieving consensus, something Trudeau arguably finds difficult at best.

Merkel’s instinct was to bring institutional interests together to make deals. Ardern’s was to use her empathy and communication skills to get New Zealanders to buy into a “COVID zero” strategy requiring a strict lockdown and border controls. “She has very high emotional intelligence,” says Auckland-based center-right commentator Ben Thomas. “She didn’t use the opportunity as a power grab.”

“Everyone did feel like a ‘team of five million,’” says Madeleine Chapman, author of “Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader,” referring to one of the prime minister’s key phrases during lockdown. “She built up that sense of responsibility in everyone through her communication.”

Opposition MPs with New Zealand’s National Party contend that Ardern’s crisis leadership record isn’t spotless, saying that she was tone-deaf toward certain groups, particularly small businesses. Yet her crisis leadership saw no break in parliamentary scrutiny. An opposition-chaired Epidemic Response Committee began meeting digitally three times a week as soon as in-person sittings stopped.

“I think that her administration as a whole was dismissive of other voices,” says National Party MP Chris Penk. “I don’t think she articulated, at any point, a view that I would have been really uncomfortable with around the fact that the opposition has no role.”

Ardern went on to win a landslide reelection in October 2020. As other countries battled their second and third waves, pictures of thousands of New Zealanders safely enjoying music festivals and nightclubs flooded social media. For much of the pandemic, life in Ardern’s New Zealand has been fairly normal — a result achieved without much political scandal.

Stark Contrast

The contrast with Canada is stark, not least because communication and messaging are particularly noteworthy strengths for both Trudeau and Ardern. At times, they’ve both been held up as international examples of charismatic, progressive politicians.

“To go out there and to convey some spirit of togetherness, some sense of how tough it was for people, how frustrating it was for people, maybe even how scary it was for people and to reach people on that level. I think he is just sort of, naturally suited to hit those notes,” says Aaron Wherry, author of “Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power.”

Trudeau’s daily press conferences in the pandemic’s early months — including those he gave after his own wife tested positive for COVID-19 — undoubtedly played a role in boosting his approval ratings early on. He would clash with his own finance minister over the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, a policy some observers called “an unintended experiment in basic income.” Yet the policy proved popular with Canadians.

Even after his original power play, the prime minister had an opportunity to follow his fellow progressive Ardern and unify the country by creating a “team of 37 million.” Instead, in Wherry’s words, “This government, even going back before this pandemic, has struggled at times to figure out how to approach Parliament.”

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But is that assessment too generous, particularly for a leader who originally came to power on a platform of reinvigorating Canadian democracy after 10 years under the Conservatives? “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” read the Liberal manifesto from that campaign. “Stephen Harper has used prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances. We will not.” Trudeau would go on to break both pledges.

In August 2020, five months after his attempted power grab, he prorogued Parliament. This effectively shut down parliamentarian committees investigating why the WE charity was selected to administer a $900-million pandemic support program for Canadian students. No other organizations had been invited to submit a proposal, as would normally be the case for projects that spend taxpayer money. Opposition MPs accused Trudeau of cronyism, given that the charity had paid his mother, Margaret Trudeau, around $250,000 in speaking fees to date.

Trudeau prorogued Parliament ostensibly to provide his government with more time to work on a throne speech to be delivered about a month later. In Canada, throne speeches are used to outline a government’s priorities for Parliament’s next sitting. Despite the extra time prorogation provided, the Trudeau government’s eventual throne speech in September 2020 was short on details as to how it planned to achieve its promises. His finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, would take until April 2021 to deliver a budget that would put a price tag on the pledges Trudeau suspended Parliament to work on.

If Parliament’s month-long break wasn’t instrumental in preparing the next phase of Canada’s pandemic response, why did Trudeau feel the need to prorogue at all other than to stop the investigation into WE?

Democracies Soldier On

Angela Merkel provides a noteworthy comparison to Trudeau precisely because she demonstrates how leaders don’t have to give up on democratic principles when managing crises. Unlike New Zealand, where the national government has comparatively centralized power, Germany’s federal chancellor shares authority with 16 state leaders. Just like Canada’s provincial premiers, they are largely responsible for decisions on when to lock down or reopen. Merkel’s pandemic-time responsibilities are thus broadly similar to Trudeau’s — communication from the top, economic stimulus packages, border controls and procurement of vaccines.

Both Canada and Germany, which pooled its vaccine purchasing with its European partners, were slow to roll out the jab before picking up speed a few months in. Yet Merkel’s economic stewardship has arguably gone much smoother while working with a parliament that kept its regular sittings throughout the pandemic.

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“It wasn’t ‘business as usual,’” says Oliver Wittke, an outgoing member of the Bundestag with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, emphasizing that parliamentarians of all political stripes knew they had to act quickly. “Normally Bundestag consultations are more extensive. But there was always participation of the German Bundestag.”

After shutting down in March 2020, over a month would pass before Canada’s House of Commons would even set up a digital COVID-19 committee to scrutinize the Trudeau government. Meanwhile, there’s little to suggest the Bundestag’s uninterrupted involvement slowed down German response. In March 2020, the Merkel government shepherded a domestic stimulus package worth over €1 trillion ($1.2 trillion) through parliament. Germany would also contribute the largest single share of money to an EU recovery plan.

“A pandemic must never be used to undermine democratic principles,” Merkel said before the European Parliament in July 2020. Although intended as a veiled criticism of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, it’s a statement Canadians should consider when assessing Trudeau’s record.

German politicos say that national history — as well as Merkel’s personal convictions — plays a big role in creating political balance. “Germany’s constitutional setup is designed to be anti-autocratic,” says Christian Wenning, whose career in political consulting includes a year-long stint as Merkel’s parliamentary assistant just before she became chancellor. “But it’s also in her genes … having been a citizen in a totalitarian state.”

Stefan Kornelius, author of “Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her World,” writes of a young woman who surreptitiously listened to Bundestag debates on the radio. “The first trip she did [after the Berlin Wall fell] was to London and the first thing she did was stand in front of Parliament because she was such a huge admirer of the Westminster system,” he says.

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The Westminster system that inspired Germany’s first chancellor from former East Germany is the same one Canada inherited from the UK. Yet Trudeau’s antagonism toward the country’s Parliament during the pandemic serves to spotlight the system’s many gaps for holding its executive branch to account. COVID-19 has now seen Trudeau’s Liberals join Harper Conservatives in a prorogation controversy. Longer term, this risks normalizing politically expedient prorogation and further neutering the country’s elected institutions.

Trudeau’s attempt to grab power from Parliament last March would also “normally” have been possible. Opposition MPs were able to prevent it because the Liberals don’t have an absolute majority and must work with other parties to pass laws. So-called minority Parliament isn’t common in Canada; overall, minority parliaments have governed the country for only 20 years since 1867. Usually, one party gets more than half the seats, even when it wins less than half the votes. By comparison, proportional voting that leads to coalition governments — and thus cross-party collaboration — are normal in both Germany and New Zealand.

From Reformer to Corrupt Politician

Ironically, Trudeau himself spotted this problem and promised to change the Canadian voting system to a proportional one like Germany’s or New Zealand’s in the 2015 Liberal manifesto. In 2017, however, he broke that pledge, suggesting to the newspaper Le Devoir that his government’s success in one election was somehow akin to a fundamental reform of Canadian voting that would last long after he left office: “With the current system, [Canadians] now have a government with which they’re happier. And the need to change the electoral system is less compelling.”

For Michelle Rempel, COVID-19 hasn’t given Canada a different Justin Trudeau but instead revealed instincts that were already there. “Trudeau has always seen Parliament as a nuisance, and that goes back to when he was first elected,” she says. “Our democratic institutions — the principles of them — should be immutable. And when somebody seeks to erode them, there should be a cross-partisan outcry from every Canadian.”

Yet the problem is bigger than either Justin Trudeau or his crisis leadership. Despite the attempted relief bill power grab, the WE controversy and prorogation, there has been no major protest from within Liberal ranks that their leader repeatedly overstepped democratic norms. Furthermore, whether it was Stephen Harper’s 2008 prorogation to avoid losing power or the sponsorship scandal that helped bring down the Liberal Party under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, Justin Trudeau is hardly the first prime minister to test Canadian democracy through an ethics scandal.

Trudeau’s tenure since 2015 has helped make the executive branch’s nonchalance toward Canadian parliamentary democracy more “normal.” Restoring Canadian democratic norms was a major part of both the 2006 and 2015 election campaigns that brought Harper and Trudeau to power, respectively. By contrast, the 2021 campaign saw far less discussion on the state of Canadian democracy — from either the party leaders or the national media.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in other Western democracies since 2016, both voters and the media can become gradually desensitized to democratic erosion. Canada under Trudeau, however, demonstrates how democratic backsliding isn’t exclusive to conservative politicians. Secondly, even a country that enjoys a relatively good reputation for democratic governance is still always vulnerable.

Two of Justin Trudeau’s fellow Western leaders have demonstrated that decisive crisis leadership is concomitant with upholding democratic principles. Canadians should be able to expect their leaders to set and follow that example. But getting there means asking some tough questions about the current health of Canadian democracy. That starts with demanding better accountability at the very top.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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