Opinion

SNC-Lavalin has helped smother an issue far scarier to Trudeau — the carbon tax: Neil Macdonald

Liberal election strategists expect their conservative opponents to blame every price hike on the carbon tax, and know they will find a receptive audience in, say, Toronto's densely populated 905 belt, where people are stretched tight and everyone drives.

Climate change is just not a winner. The government's new climate change report made moderate news for a day

Liberal election strategists expect their conservative opponents to blame every price hike on the carbon tax, and know they will find a receptive audience in, say, Toronto's densely populated 905 belt, where people are stretched tight and everyone drives. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

So word among Liberals in Ottawa is that Katie Telford is counselling steady on, please remain continent, everyone, no need for big drastic action, this too shall pass, onward.

To a lot of them, that's not reassuring coming from the prime minister's chief of staff. Justin Trudeau has been hammered constantly since early February; he is weakened, and his responses have been insipid. People who once found him inspiring – something I've never understood – don't seem terribly inspired anymore.

Otherwise loyal party operatives shake their heads in fatalistic puzzlement, and some of his caucus members — the vast majority of whom were elected as rookies in 2015 pretty much solely because of Trudeau — are understandably concerned about losing their seats, any hope of ever being in cabinet, and the lovely pension that re-election guarantees.

Some of that is their fault.

Most of them, once in Ottawa, seemed content to remain in the hive, merging around Trudeau like an erst of honeybees smoked into a daze by his burning fame. Few distinguished themselves. Rather, they obediently adopted his centralized, hopey-changey talking points, maybe even believing they were changing the way politics is done.

Unlike back in 2015, even Liberal partisans — never mind the urban elite — are now casting sidelong, doubtful glances at one another. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Don't think so? Quick: name four cabinet ministers. Yes, yes, fine, Chrystia Freeland. But the rest of them, never mind the backbenchers, are subsumed in the Liberal gestalt of glassy smiles and gauzy virtue-signaling of which Justin Trudeau remains the avatar.

And now, suddenly, they're feeling sort of on their own. Trudeau isn't impressing anyone anymore, he seems unable to counterpunch (or even give a straight answer), and even Liberal partisans, never mind the urban elite, are casting sidelong, doubtful glances at one another. As one of them put it to me with a grimace, can we please get back to the way politics used to be done?

Trudeau's response to Jody Wilson-Raybould's remarkably effective campaign to take him down was best exemplified by that painful appearance in Montreal the night of her public testimony, when Trudeau spent the first ten minutes or so pretending nothing was wrong, reciting the usual flabby homilies, surrounded by human props, congratulating everyone for being a Liberal, rather than addressing Wilson-Raybould's accusations headlong in a substantive manner.

Watch: Trudeau gives a statement on Jody-Wilson Raybould's testimony

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters in Montreal after Wilson-Raybould's testimony 0:57

Whoever dreamed up the staging and script that night should be fired. In fact, based on his performance since the scandal broke in early February, even setting aside the merits of the SNC-Lavalin issue, Trudeau deserves to lose in the fall. His story has changed, he has misdirected rather than led, and he dithered, hoping to charm Wilson-Raybould and Former Treasury Board President Jane Philpott back into the tent, rather than cutting them loose quickly, the way prime ministers Jean Chrétien or Stephen Harper or Brian Mulroney would have done.

Katie Telford, though, might have a point. (To be clear, I don't know her. I have had exactly one conversation with Telford, at a social event. She was angry about something I'd written, and I told her she was on the record, and that was that).

If she has made the calculation that Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin is not a ballot box issue, she's probably right.

In Quebec, voters aren't going to turn against Trudeau for trying to keep a pillar of of Quebec Inc. out of the prisoner's dock in a criminal court. Elsewhere, the affair has for sure deepened the hatred so many conservatives feel for Trudeau (and for journalists they believe are somehow in Trudeau's thrall), but they weren't going to vote for him anyway.

Wilson-Raybould keeps giving interviews, but she's talking to smaller media outlets every day. At this rate, she'll be doing late-night hits on cable news shows. And she's repeating herself a lot.

Are Trudeau's feminist credentials tarnished? Perhaps, but he has undeniably done a lot for the feminist cause, and while Conservative leader Andrew Scheer might like yelling "fake feminist" at him in the Commons, I'd love to hear Scheer explain what sort of feminist he is.

Has Trudeau lost the support of Indigenous voters? Certainly, to some degree. Do they decide elections? No.

In fact, a Liberal deeply involved in the re-election effort tells me the JWR/SNC affair, while painful, has helped smother another issue the party considers far scarier: the carbon tax.

Last Monday, the federal government imposed a new tax in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick, the four provinces that had refused to implement a "carbon price" of their own. Immediately, it increased the price of gas by about four cents a litre.

Climate change is just not a winner. A lot of Conservatives think it's all bunk, and most other voters tend to regard it with fatalism. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

But the public shrugged. Four cents a litre is well within the overnight price fluctuation of gas. In Ottawa, as I write, the price of a litre of regular fuel ranges from a low of 1.12 to a high of 1.26. Meaning some people are willing to pay much more than four cents a litre for the convenience of a shorter drive.

Summer is coming, though. The switch from winter to summer gasoline is expected to push up prices by another five cents a litre. And summer means heavier demand, which pushes prices even higher. Some analysts say 2019 will be a record year for gas prices. This week you can pay as much as $1.65 for a litre of regular in Vancouver. 

The Liberal election strategists expect their conservative opponents to blame every price hike on the carbon tax, and know they will find a receptive audience in, say, Toronto's densely populated 905 belt, where people are stretched tight and everyone drives.

The election planner I spoke to said Liberal voters are concerned about climate change, and that they want action, and that Scheer's Conservatives have no plan. But something in his voice sounded less than persuaded. It's impossible to argue the carbon tax, where it's set at the moment, is changing habits. So for now, it's just another tax. The planner acknowledges he's requested up-to-date data on gas prices every day from now on.

Climate change is just not a winner. A lot of Conservatives think it's all bunk, and most other voters tend to regard it with fatalism — if America doesn't impose the same standards, if the rest of the world doesn't join in, the damage is probably already done, it's impossible to reduce emissions enough to matter, etc.

The government's new climate change report, which states that temperatures are rising twice as fast in Canada as the rest of the world, and up to three times faster in the North, made moderate news for about a day last week, and immediately disappeared from news agendas.

The fact is, Justin Trudeau himself remains the best hope of Liberals for re-election. He'll need to run an aggressive campaign, though – to develop a more direct, more commanding presence, and abandon the platitudes and moral dictation. He may not have that in him.


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About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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