Parliament is back after March Break, but it feels more like Groundhog Day.
Monday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled his cabinet for the third time in as many months, to replace Jane Philpott at Treasury Board after she quit in solidarity with her colleague, former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould. On the same morning, the Hill Times reported that Trudeau will be consulting MPs, former Parliamentarians and academics about changes to his caucus and cabinet management style.
And the Conservatives are howling about the government cancellation of their Opposition Day motion, which called on Trudeau to waive all privilege and cabinet confidences and let Wilson-Raybould speak her full truth.
In other words, the SNC-Lavalin scandal is still in full swing. And it’s not clear what, if anything, will make it go away.
Well, maybe there is one thing: the federal budget. Finance Minister Bill Morneau will present it Tuesday afternoon, and the Liberals are hoping for a channel-changer. It’s the last budget before the October election and the last chance for the government to bribe voters with their own money.
And a lot of money that will be. The government has been hinting at help for every demographic: housing affordability measures for millenials, skills training for older workers, financial support for seniors, and pharmacare for all. There’s even a rumoured broadband investment proposal to connect rural voters — traditionally the Conservatives’ target market — to the internet. All that’s missing are measures for canine care — if only Fido could vote! (Wait, Fido’s owner does. But that might pit dog owners against cat lovers, a rift no sane government would want to open.)
Naturally, the Opposition is accusing the government of using the budget as a weapon of mass distraction, falling on the same day that the Justice Committee meets behind closed doors to debate whether to invite Wilson-Raybould back for a second appearance. According to Conservative committee member Pierre Polievre, “We’re concerned that because (Trudeau) is trying to drown out the SNC-Lavalin scandal, he will spray money in all directions in the hopes that Canadians will be distracted by the sights of their own money flying at them.”
Will another spending spree blind Canadians to the muck of the SNC-Lavalin affair? And will that goodwill last until October? Possibly, but not likely. These Liberals have already opened the coffers so often, voters almost expect a torrent of cash. Last year’s deficit clocked in at $18 billion; between 2016 and 2023, the government forecasts an accumulated deficit of $133 billion. That’s compared to the “modest” $25-billion figure Trudeau touted at the last election. Ironically, all this spending has added up to a softening economy — a reason the Liberals now say they need to splash out more cash on stimulus.
Voters have seen this movie before. In the lead-up to last year’s Ontario election, the provincial Liberals tried the same spend-happy tactics, dropping money on everything from students to seniors. But when voters weighed this against sky-high hydro bills and the pervasive stench of scandal, they set the government packing.
Unlike the Ontario Liberals, who had 15 years of government under their belts, Trudeau has only been in office four years. That’s usually not enough time for voter discontent to set in. It was enough time, however, for voters to demote Trudeau’s late father Pierre to a minority government in 1972 following an election widely seen as a backlash against both the state of the economy and Trudeau Sr.’s leadership style. The combination of his heavy-handed response to the October crisis, his battle with organized labour over inflation, and perceived arrogance disillusioned many voters who expected something different from their sandal-shod PM.
Similarly, the high expectations Trudeau Jr. brought to his office in 2015 to “do politics differently” could prove his undoing in 2019, if voters conclude that “same old, same old” rules the day. The SNC-Lavalin scandal is thus the toughest test of Trudeau’s popularity. Polls today show an erosion of support for the PM personally, predominantly in English Canada. An aggregate of polls in early March showed an average drop in Trudeau’s status as preferred prime minister of six points, while Liberal numbers overall have fallen by two points.
Even in Quebec, where SNC-Lavalin has its headquarters, support for the PM has softened. In a recent Leger poll, 68 per cent of respondents disapproved of the way Trudeau has handled the affair.
Will buckets of cash be enough to douse the crisis? We won’t get the answer Tuesday, but in the days and weeks that follow, as the budget and the SNC-Lavalin scandal fight for space on the nation’s front pages. Much will depend on the actors involved: will Wilson-Raybould speak further? Will the prime minister have more to say? What of the ethics commissioner or the RCMP? The budget may be big news, but when it comes to channel changing, cash isn’t always king.
Tasha Kheiriddin is a Toronto-based writer and a contributor to Global News.
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