Hébert: Trudeau’s decline in popularity is self-inflicted

As Justin Trudeau’s government approaches mid-mandate, he remains the most popular government leader in the country. But that says as much if not more about the lacklustre standing of the current set of premiers as about the staying power of the popularity of the prime minister.

In three of the four larger provinces for instance, the incumbents face uncertain re-election prospects. And in British Columbia, voters recently failed to make a definitive choice between the wannabe premiers on offer.

Even as he leads a largely unloved first ministers’ pack, Trudeau’s approval rating has steadily declined over his second year in office.

Yet, in contrast with premiers such as Kathleen Wynne, Philippe Couillard and Rachel Notley, the prime minister has not until very recently had opposition rivals to be compared with.

Most Canadians do not yet know what to make of incoming Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and none of the five NDP leadership contenders has so far made a big impression on the electorate.

All of which is to say that the hits Trudeau and his party have taken over the past year have essentially been self-inflicted.

Take the prime minister’s broken promise of a new voting system. Most Canadians do not wake up at night to fret about the first-past-the-post voting formula, but they do care about whether their political leaders can be trusted to say what they mean and mean what they say.

On that score, the episode was a defining moment for Trudeau. Going forward there will be a check-on-delivery asterisk attached to his commitments.

On Tuesday, the prime minister again tried to dress up his decision to abandon the centrepiece of his electoral-reform agenda as something other than a breach of his word – suggesting among other arguments that he was actually sticking to the fine print of his campaign promise.

According to Trudeau, the opposition parties – had they paid more attention – would apparently have divined that he was only going through the motions of consulting Canadians on the way forward as his mind was already made up that a ranked ballot was the only acceptable destination.

Watching the prime minister over the course of his end-of-sitting news conference dig himself a little bit deeper in a hole of his own making, one could not help but be struck by the singular political bipolarity of his government.

On the one hand, Trudeau leads a team that deserves full credits for hitting the ground running in the wake of the American presidential election. Faced with the biggest shift in the tectonic plates of the Canada/U.S. relationship in decades, he and his government orchestrated a multi-faceted strategy that makes intelligent use of the talent pool at the country’s disposal.

It is testimony to the professionalism that has so far gone into the federal approach to the Trump White House that six months in, Canada’s political leadership – provincial and federal – is mostly still singing from the same hymn book.

False notes so far have been the exception rather than the rule.

On the other hand, the same government cannot seem to acquit itself of some of its most basic duties. Filling vacancies on agencies, boards, tribunals and courts to ensure that the machinery of government functions on all cylinders is the governance equivalent of tying one’s shoelaces. Yet, so far the Liberal government has mostly managed to trip over its shoelaces with crippling results for many of the institutions it oversees.

That has been compounded – as in most notably but not exclusively the case of electoral reform – by talking points that insult the intelligence of anyone keeping track of the narrative.

On too many policy issues, an unbridgeable gap between rhetoric and actual delivery is on the way to becoming a defining feature of Trudeau’s governance pattern.

A word in closing on the shifting opposition landscape and the impact of recent leadership developments on the dynamics of the next campaign: Lost in the search for a significant post-leadership bump in Conservative fortunes in the wake of Andrew Scheer’s victory is the fact that he may be the least polarizing flag-bearer to come out of the Canadian right in two decades.

That is a strategic loss for Trudeau and a gift of sorts for the next NDP leader. It could be a lot harder in 2019 for the Liberals to spook New Democrat sympathizers into jumping ship to keep the Scheer-led Conservatives at bay than it was against the likes of Preston Manning, Stockwell Day and, of course, Stephen Harper.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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