International Women’s Day came and went in Canada on Friday without much fanfare by Justin Trudeau, who normally uses the occasion to burnish his feminist brand.
That brand, like everything else around Trudeau this past month, has been tarnished by the ongoing SNC-Lavalin saga, which has cost the prime minister two strong women ministers and raised questions about whether he really walks the talk of new-style, female-friendly politics.
It’s not just the fact of losing Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott that has hurt Trudeau, but the manner in which they exited cabinet — the proclamations of their loss of confidence in the prime minister.
The unspoken but unmistakable impression these departures has left is one of disillusionment. As one veteran Liberal put it this week, the disillusion can be summed up in a telling photo comparison between 2015 and 2019.
The pictures of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott being sworn into office in 2015 show them looking at Trudeau with hope and promise; not unlike many voters who invested their hope and optimism in a self-proclaimed, “sunny-ways” government.
But in this chilly winter of 2019, that look is gone from the faces of Philpott and Wilson-Raybould as they curtly settle into lives as ex-ministers. Neither even offered the usual, perfunctory thanks to the PM as they issued their smouldering goodbyes to cabinet. As this veteran Liberal put it: “What happened between then and now?”
That is a very good question that goes far beyond this SNC-Lavalin controversy and to the worried heart of many Liberals right now. If the disillusion is confined to simply two ex-ministers, it can be managed with time and a bit of counselling to the Liberal family. If it is symbolic of a wider sense of lost promise and jaded experience over the past four years, a sense shared by former Liberal voters, it could be fatal to Trudeau’s hopes of winning a second term in office.
Up on a third-floor meeting space on the Sparks St. mall on Friday, International Women’s Day was being celebrated with a bit more buzz than at the Prime Minister’s Office a block away.
The Canada2020 organization, a progressive think tank in Ottawa, was launching an ambitious new project called “No Second Chances” — a deep look into a strange, disturbing reality about women who have attained the highest political offices in this country.
“Only 12 women have ever reached Canada’s most senior political role: as a first minister (prime minister or premier),” the project’s website explains. “Women tend to only rise to this role in challenging political circumstances, and they fall fast once they get there. Canadians have never re-elected a female first minister.”
The study is being led by Kate Graham, who ran as a Liberal candidate in London, Ont., during last year’s devastating campaign to re-elect Kathleen Wynne as premier.
Wynne and all the other 12 former first ministers are taking part in the No Second Chances project, which will unfold as a podcast beginning this month, a series of on-camera interviews and a big event in June.
Wynne was on hand for the launch on Friday, as were a lot of Liberals from around Parliament Hill. Though there was no discussion of the SNC-Lavalin affair when Wynne and former Alberta premier Alison Redford did an hour-long chat on stage, the controversy was definitely the elephant in the room for many of the Liberals present.
“No second chances,” seen in the context of Trudeau’s current travails, takes on a whole other meaning when Liberals try to look at how to get from here to the October election. Is this going to cost Trudeau his own second chance? Is this feminist prime minister going to suffer the same fate as female first ministers in Canada?
As I’ve observed before in this paper, going back all the way to before he was prime minister, Trudeau has often faced the kind of criticism that women face, with all the accompanying, spitting vitriol: the comments about his hair, his intellectual depth, the allegations about him needing to lean on smarter men (his father, his former principal secretary Gerald Butts) to get by in the world of politics.
But there are other raps against him, acquired through his years in power. His international celebrity, once seen as an asset, morphed into a dubious asset when his travels abroad and dealings with world leaders started to turn into stumbles. In 2018 alone, Trudeau’s government managed to incur the wrath of Donald Trump, China and Saudi Arabia — and the costume-laden trip to India has now become a punchline in any number of jokes.
At home, he’s the leader who is seen too much and says too little — he talks too often in platitudes or safe, committee-approved scripted lines that chip away at the authenticity voters once saw in him. His most vociferous critics mock him for constant apologies and shows of emotion. That brings us back to the feminist terrain.
In Ontario, the people who detested Wynne also really detest Trudeau and vice versa, of course. Now a mere MPP among just seven left standing in last June’s election, Wynne told me she has been watching events on SNC-Lavalin with some concern. Many of the people who worked in her government are dotted through senior offices in Trudeau’s government; she knows Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford well from their days at Queen’s Park.
In her panel chat at the No Second Chances launch, Wynne talked candidly of the hate, misogyny and homophobia she faced as premier and how she dealt with it (mostly by compartmentalizing it or simply not reading comments on social media.)
Yes, Wynne told me later in conversation, she hears the parallels between the current attacks on Trudeau and the ones she faced last year. “There are people who were waiting to pounce on me and there are people who are waiting to pounce upon the prime minister and they see this as an opportunity to paint him as entirely evil,” she said.
I asked Wynne whether she thought Trudeau was in danger of missing his own second chance at re-election. “Yes, that’s what worries me,” she replied.
It is difficult to tell, this far away from the October election, whether SNC-Lavalin is just a very bad episode in Trudeau’s rule, or a defining moment that may see his re-election chances slip away. It certainly won’t attract him votes among those who didn’t vote for the Liberals in 2015, but the concern is that the controversy is splitting Liberals, or driving them toward the disillusion that sent Wilson-Raybould and Philpott to the backbenches.
Wynne says she hears Liberals saying that they don’t want to have to choose between Trudeau and the disaffected ministers.
“I don’t want to choose, because I have a deep respect for the prime minister. I have a deep respect for all of the women who have been raising their voices and I don’t believe that the rift is irreconcilable,” Wynne said.
In his statement of non-contrition on Thursday, Trudeau actually did offer an apology of sorts for how his PMO has been cast at odds with the kind of non-macho leadership he’d hoped to foster in government.
“There is one theory that the most effective leaders are adversarial and almost tough to a fault; that’s not what I believe. I believe that real leadership is about listening, learning and compassion.”
This may have been as close as he would come this past harrowing week to marking International Women’s Day — with some reflection on how this controversy has shone a different light on a prime minister determined to be seen as open, authentic and female-friendly. It’s far from certain that the reflection will earn him any second chances with the departed ministers, but it’s bound to be a factor in whether he gets a second chance with voters come October.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt