It's déjà vu as Justin Trudeau holds town halls again when his support looks vulnerable

The last time the prime minister embarked on a cross-country listening tour, his party was losing support. Are the Liberals trying to pre-empt another slide?

Similar events in 2017 might have halted the decline in the Liberals' support

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a town hall in Hamilton on Wednesday. He will be in Quebec City on Jan. 18 and in Winnipeg and Edmonton later this month. (David Donnelly/CBC)

One might be forgiven for experiencing a little déjà vu. In the wake of controversy surrounding his vacation on the Aga Khan's private island, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embarks on a cross-country tour of town halls to hear the concerns of Canadians.

It happened in January 2017 when the news of his trip first appeared. And it is happening again in January 2018, just weeks after the ethics commissioner found Trudeau had violated the rules in accepting the invitation.

But 2017's airing of grievances with the prime minister came at a delicate moment for Trudeau, as support for his Liberal Party was dropping from its post-election honeymoon high. No similar drop has yet materialized this time — but Trudeau may be hoping his renewed tour will head off any decrease in public esteem, as his first experience might have.

This week, Trudeau took questions ranging from the personal to the national in scope and from the harshly critical to friendly in tone at town halls in Halifax, Hamilton and London, Ont., where he faced repeated interruptions and heckling as he tried to field questions from the crowd.  He will be in Quebec City on Jan. 18 and in Winnipeg and Edmonton later this month.

A year ago, Trudeau participated in 10 town halls across the country — not without incident. He took flak for answering the question of an anglophone Quebecer in French when he was in Sherbrooke, and he was heckled in Calgary.

It capped the end of the Liberals' honeymoon, as questions were raised about cash-for-access fundraisers, a contentious decision on the approval and disapproval of two pipelines in British Columbia was made, the Liberals abandoned their electoral reform campaign promise and the news of Trudeau's trip to the Bahamas emerged.

Honeymoon ended a year ago

The Liberals had been averaging between 44 and 49 per cent support each month in the first year after their victory in the October 2015 federal election, when the party captured 39.5 per cent of ballots cast. By December 2016, however, it fell to 43 per cent, with the steepest drop occurring in B.C.

The Liberals' average support in the polls slid again to 41 per cent in January 2017. But since then, the Liberals' monthly average has wobbled back and forth between 37 and 42 per cent. With the exception of a few fits and starts, Liberal support settled into its current level after Trudeau's town halls.

Trudeau held town halls in Halifax, Hamilton and London this week. His approval ratings have slid to below 50 per cent in a few recent polls. (David Donnelly/CBC)

His personal approval ratings followed a similar pattern. They reached a peak of around 60 per cent in mid-2016. But the confluence of difficulties pushed that down to 55 per cent by the end of the year, before it settled at around 50 per cent after the 2017 town halls.

Every poll conducted since early November has pegged Liberal support at between 38 and 42 per cent, suggesting that voting intentions have stabilized after a dip in October at the height of controversies surrounding Finance Minister Bill Morneau. But Trudeau's own approval ratings have slid to below 50 per cent in a few recent polls.

Preventing a drop in PM's approval?

The newest round of town halls may or may not be in response to this vulnerability. The announcement they would be held came just before publication of the report by outgoing ethics commissioner Mary Dawson that found Trudeau's trip to the Aga Khan's private island had violated several ethics laws.

Of course, the timing could simply be a coincidence, as there is always something for a sitting prime minister to atone for, and these town halls may turn out to be an annual tradition.

The town halls in 2017 could have staunched the bleeding for the Liberals. But last January was a busy month, with a cabinet shuffle, the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump and Trudeau's tweeted response to Trump's visa ban on a number of majority-Muslim nations.

It can't be known whether or not the stabilization of Liberal support was related to Trudeau's town halls, though one followed the other.

The exercises, however, might have more of an impact on how Canadians view the prime minister himself, rather than whether they would support his party over the alternatives — and a further decline in Trudeau's approval ratings could begin to drag the Liberals down.

So the Liberals have good reason to try to prevent such a decline. Coming on the heels of ethics violations that highlight how Trudeau has rich and powerful friends (or, at best, acquaintances), putting the prime minister in the midst of regular Canadians to listen to their concerns and answer their questions is one way to do that.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?