‘The other guys suck’ is not a campaign platform

The SNC-Lavalin affair has reduced the Liberals to a risky strategem: betting their opponents are a bigger turn-off than they are

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Prime Minister Trudeau participates in an armchair discussion at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention in Toronto on Tuesday (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Monday afternoon’s cabinet resignation by Jane Philpott plunged Justin Trudeau deeper into the most rapidly festering crisis of his government’s term. On Monday evening, Trudeau sought refuge by time-travelling back to the fall of 2015, when he was pluckily racing from third place to first, and when SNC-Lavalin was still a bribery-marred infrastructure giant that at least didn’t help create existential problems for his political career.

Here was slightly retro Trudeau, now Prime Minister but still with red tie loosened under an open collar button, white sleeves rolled up just so. He offered platitudes about hard work in a voice that was home-stretch hoarse. He even ended his rally speech the same was as in days of yore: “Let’s go knock doors because we know better is always possible!”

Sure, Trudeau touched the fresh departure of a second cabinet minister, and even laid hints at a strategic change of tone in his scattershot defence of this messy affair. But he quickly dispensed with those lines in favour of a nascent stump speech. “At the same time, my friends, we need to keep in mind the bigger picture behind this fantastic movement we have built, and continue to build.” At this event, his focus was mainly on the Liberal climate change plan as a point of sharp contrast with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whose approach to climate change remains unknown. “The first thing he’d do as Prime Minister is make pollution free again,” Trudeau said, cuing up the partisans’ boo-hiss-shame.

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From almost every Liberal’s rhetoric in their last nerve-fraying few weeks, it’s been apparent that they’d try to leg out this scandal and, from here to October’s election, lean in hard on what helped bring victory four years ago: Trudeau’s campaign charisma and the comparative shoddiness of his rivals. They’ve all but embraced the default campaign credo of many an incumbent—“don’t compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative.”

That adage has taken a funny, meandering path to 2019. Earlier this decade, Barack Obama wielded it ahead of his 2012 re-election bid. He’d borrowed it from his vice-president, Joe Biden, who’d borrowed it from Kevin White a 1970s Boston mayor. White imported the phrase from—wait for it—1972 Canada. The Liberals were pushing for a second term, straining to offset disappointment in the first incarnation of Trudeaumania. Pierre Trudeau’s majority government was reduced to a minority that year, with only two seats more than the Conservatives.

At present, voters seem inclined to support the alternative, because the ethical lapses and the behind-the-scenes pressure applied to former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould register too many notches below Almighty-level behaviour. The Liberals have plunged several points in the polls, giving the Conservatives their largest lead since Trudeau’s embarrassing trip to India, according to CBC poll-tracker Éric Grenier.  On one level, this could remind the Grits that political fortunes can rebound from a controversy’s headline-producing nadir—October is a long time from now, Liberals comfort each other by saying lately—but the SNC-Lavalin affair has produced two cabinet resignations (and counting) more than what now seems a comparatively innocuous overseas misadventure.

They may try to wave off this political quagmire and transport back to a time when Trudeau lacked such grim ethical baggage. They may prefer a straight head-to-head with Scheer on policy (and dismiss Jagmeet Singh’s NDP entirely, in part to depict 2019’s election as a binary choice).The Liberals did, after all, survive the first election after the sponsorship scandal with a minority (2004) and were leading in the polls through much of the second one (2006) before losing to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. But that was only after Paul Martin had replaced Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister who presided over that ugly bout of grift-and-graft. In today’s scandal, barring future developments, the person at the top of the Liberal ticket has been personally fingered as responsible.

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Trudeau is clearly aiming to make this election heavily about the planet’s future and climate change. But on its face, this strategem also seems fraught. First, because the Conservatives seem content to make this fall’s vote a referendum on the carbon tax. Second, because voters who will think first and foremost about the climate might also gulp anxiously about a political party that bought an oil pipeline project. Third, because the most slogan-like line from last night’s speech—“It’s 2019, and if you don’t have a plan for climate change, then you don’t have a plan for the economy and you certainly don’t have a plan for Canada’s future”—may last only until Scheer actually brings forth some sort of plan. And then, Trudeau might be reduced to debating details, not putting his own imperfect plan up against a void.

Trudeau’s team also seems to want to shrug off ethical choices on their leader’s part yet hammer Scheer on his. His speech at last month’s multi-purpose rally of western truckers who want pipelines and, toxically, don’t want certain immigrants seems to now be at the centre of that argument. “There are a number of people who are incredibly worried that we are going to lose the progress that we have made and we are going to see a government that is led by an individual who has coddled Yellow Vesters,” Toronto MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told CBC on Tuesday.

Certainly, problematic links to xenophobes and problematic trampling over prosecutorial independence are separate, hard-to-compare concerns. But these are, it seems, the alternatives voters will have to reckon with.