Opinion: SNC-Lavalin affair isn’t hurting PM in the polls

Even before the Liberals used their majority on a parliamentary committee on Wednesday to shut down future inquiries into the federal ethics commissioner’s scathing report about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file, there were signs that Mario Dion’s findings were not destined to become a turning point of the pre-election season.

By all indications, the SNC-Lavalin saga is playing to a shrinking audience, with the front-row seats mostly occupied by committed partisans on both sides of the controversy.

The report’s key conclusion – that Trudeau broke the ethics law by pressuring his former attorney general to offer SNC-Lavalin a remediation agreement in lieu of a potential criminal conviction – has not so far altered the pre-election dynamics.

Instead, the opposition parties may have entered a phase of diminishing returns from the scandal.

In the aftermath of the report’s release, the polling firms Ekos, Ipsos, Léger Marketing and Abacus all found the Liberals and Conservatives remain tied in voter intentions, with none of the third parties getting a significant boost from an erosion in government support.

That statistical tie nationally translates on a regional basis into a modest Liberal edge on the competition.

From Trudeau’s perspective, the timing of the ethics report – earlier than most expected – was almost certainly providential.

Canadians tend to focus more intensively on politics in general and election battles in particular after Labour Day and closer to the actual vote.

The Abacus poll found that only half of Canadians were aware of Dion’s report and only a small group – essentially dominated by engaged partisans – gave it a lot of scrutiny.

Prior to last week’s release, the story had already dominated the headlines for the best part of the first half of the year.

The take of its main protagonists was already documented.

Little in Dion’s conclusion could match the riveting political drama that attended the resignations of two senior ministers and the prime minister’s top aide earlier this year.

And while many questions do remain unanswered, anecdotal evidence suggests many voters feel they know enough to come to a determination as to how much blame if any to apportion to its leading protagonists.

On that basis, it should not come as a big surprise that 78 per cent of those who did pay attention to the report told Abacus its conclusion had not altered their opinion.

Perhaps more surprising is the Abacus finding that a majority (56 per cent) of those who make up the small group of respondents that have changed their minds since the report have crossed over to Trudeau’s side of the argument.

It’s clear, the prime minister’s defence that he was looking out for Canadian jobs seems to have been more effective than the latest offensive of the opposition parties, even when the latter were effectively loaded for bear courtesy of the ethics commissioner.

The post-report swings in public opinion are happening in the margin of the pre-election action. But stepping back from the immediate SNC-Lavalin front, the episode may offer some useful insights into the dynamics of the upcoming federal battle.

The first is that Trudeau still commands a large and loyal core audience, one still impervious to his failings in office or at least willing to give him a pass. That, for the record, is fairly typical of the following

of a prime minister who has only been in office for one term.

That a bombshell of the magnitude of the ethics report – one that was amplified almost unanimously by the media coverage – can land on the Liberals without doing them serious harm suggests that the voters who stuck with Trudeau over the worst of the SNC-Lavalin crisis last winter are not going anywhere between now and Oct. 21.

The second is that non-Conservative voters – Canadians who would never consider supporting Andrew Scheer, but who may be disillusioned as a result of Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file – are not by and large flocking to the other options on offer, be it the NDP, the Bloc Québécois, the Green party or the People’s Party.

With time running out, and even with Team Trudeau wounded, Scheer’s Conservatives are still underwhelming a critical mass of the swing voters whose support they need if they are to form the next government. That may be because they are asking voters outside their base to overlook too much on the way to helping them replace the Liberals in power.

This is a time when voters’ minds are increasingly turning to the larger picture and the agenda they want the next federal government to pursue over the next four years.

In that big picture, the fact that Scheer’s climate plan has been dismissed as little more than window-dressing by just about every independent expert who has reviewed it may, for instance, matter more to more voters than the SNC-Lavalin findings of the ethics commissioner.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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