Justin Trudeau. File
Theophilos Argitis and Shelly Hagan, Tribune News Service
Justin Trudeau’s remarkable ability to overcome scandal may yet endure the most serious challenge of his political career.
The shocking photos and video of the Canadian prime minister wearing blackface make-up as a younger man — released last week, a month before the Oct. 21 federal election — don’t yet appear to be torpedoing his Liberal Party’s fortunes. Of six major opinion polls taken since the revelations, three put the Liberals in a statistical tie with the Conservatives. Three surveys give the opposition party a small lead.
Given the circumstances, it’s a positive development for Trudeau that reflects — at least among his leftist supporters — a recurring willingness to overlook transgressions of a leader many see as an evangelist for progressive values, even as others question his seriousness and authenticity. Tolerance and diversity, after all, have been his hallmark after sweeping into power in 2015 as a pro-immigrant feminist.
“If Trudeau had not been so strong on diversity issues, if he had not included so many people of colour in his Cabinet, and if there was a suspicion he was a closet racist, it may have affected him more than it did,” said Paul Adams, a professor at Carleton University’s school of journalism and communications in Ottawa.
A tie or even a small deficit in the popular vote favors the Liberals, who still are projected to win the most districts because their support is more widespread across regions. The Conservatives have large leads in western Canada, where there are fewer districts to be won.
Trudeau is also winning kudos for his textbook management of the scandal from a communications standpoint. He came out almost immediately with an apology, and showed contrition for his actions. That was followed by Liberal candidates of color rolling out statements of support for the prime minister, as did some ethnic communities.
Then Trudeau went hard at turning the attention to his policy agenda, releasing key populist-style platform items at breakneck speed — including a major tax break, pledges to ban assault weapons, more spending on health care and a promise to force cellphone companies to drop prices. He also sent his environment minister out Tuesday to commit Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, if the Liberals are re-elected.
“The photos and video released late last week was a shock that changed the focus and conversation of the election campaign,” David Coletto, chief executive at Abacus Data, said in a blog post Monday after releasing a poll that showed the Conservatives with a lead of 34% to 32%. “But so far, evidence that they have fundamentally changed people’s impressions or intended voting behaviour is quite limited.”
The past year has seen Trudeau dogged by accusations he sought to intervene in a judicial matter on behalf of well-connected Montreal construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., leading to another reprimand from the ethics watchdog weeks before the campaign began.
To be sure, these past controversies had already damaged Trudeau’s personal approval ratings, with the blackface scandal bringing them down to fresh lows of 31% in the Abacus poll. “What we’re seeing right now is that there is a hit to Trudeau’s personal numbers and vote choice is often a lagging indicator rather than a leading indicator,” according to Adams.
And three polls — by Ipsos Global Public Affairs, the Angus Reid Institute and Ekos Politics — have seen a more significant move in voting intentions in favour of the Conservatives. Yet, a more ominous trend in Canadian politics may prevent any major shifts, analysts say. Supporters of the two main parties are becoming increasingly polarized, hardening voting intentions similar to what has occurred in the US.
“People have fixed opinions of Justin Trudeau, he’s a polarizing figure,” said Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research Group, which is polling the Liberals with a 35% to 34% lead over the Conservatives. “There aren’t a lot of people who are mushy on him. They like him or they hate him.”
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