Trudeau's past ethics transgressions hurt the Liberals. Will it happen again?

Twice before, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been found to be in violation of government ethics rules. If the WE Charity contract controversy has the same impact, the Liberals could find their hold on their minority government in danger.

Liberals did not recover all the support they lost over the prime minister's two previous ethics violations

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under fire for his government's decision to award a contract to WE Charity, an organization with ties to himself and his family. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The controversy over the federal government's decision to grant a $912 million contract to a charity with links to the prime minister's family opens Prime Minister Justin Trudeau up to the conclusion that he violated federal ethics rules a third time.

What impact could it have on public opinion?

Twice already, Canada's conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, has found the prime minister violated ethics rules. The first occasion was in 2017, when former commissioner Mary Dawson ruled on Trudeau and his family accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan's private island in the Bahamas.

The second occasion was just last year, when the current commissioner, Mario Dion, found that Trudeau had tried to influence then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to overrule a decision not to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin.

Dion already had announced he would be looking into the decision to grant the WE Charity a sole-sourced contract to administer the Canada Student Service Grant when the charity revealed it and its affiliates had paid the prime minister's mother and brother about $300,000 for speaking engagements over the last four years.

It takes time for the commissioner to complete an investigation. His office tweeted Friday that it usually takes about seven months. But if this scandal does any political damage to the prime minister and his party, it's likely to inflict it now — and not when the commissioner finally releases a report.

That's what happened the last two times, at least.

The vacation on the Aga Khan's island in 2017 effectively ended Trudeau's post-election honeymoon. His party had racked up huge leads in the polls after its 2015 victory, surging to between 45 and 50 per cent support. According to the CBC's Poll Tracker, the Liberals had about 43.2 per cent support before the story about the vacation was first reported.

There was an immediate impact on Liberal support, with the party falling to 37.3 per cent over the subsequent six weeks. Those 5.9 percentage points were never entirely recovered — to this day, the Liberals have never hit 43.2 per cent in the Poll Tracker again.

But with a solid majority government, the Liberals had time on their side. By the beginning of February 2019, the party was still polling at 37.5 per cent support and in a decent position heading into an election year.

The SNC-Lavalin affair was a bombshell. Support for the Liberals plummeted, hitting a low of 29.6 per cent by the beginning of May. That loss of 7.9 points was not recovered in time for the October election, which saw the Liberals take 33.1 per cent of the vote.

Rebounds can take months — if they happen

Both of these ethics violations contributed to a segment of the Liberal Party's support base peeling off — some of it temporarily, some of it for good.

It was easier for the Liberals to bounce back from the public opinion hit caused by the Bahamas trip. After just over four months, the Liberals were back up to 42.3 per cent support in the Poll Tracker — a recovery of all but 0.9 percentage points of the initial 5.9-point loss. The Liberals were able to retain their lead over the Conservatives for another year — until the prime minister's trip to India.

Making up the party's SNC-Lavalin loss was more difficult. After the story initially broke, the Liberals' polling peak came only eight months later, when the party hit 34.3 per cent support with just two weeks to go before voting day in October. By then, the Liberals had recovered just 3.2 points of their 7.9-point loss.

It took a global pandemic to push the Liberals above their pre-SNC-Lavalin level of support.

What kind of controversy will this turn out to be?

It wasn't until the beginning of April 2020 — over a year after the Globe and Mail broke the SNC-Lavalin story — that the Liberals surged past the 37.5 per cent support they had at the beginning of 2019.

The latest polling estimate gives the Liberals 40.4 per cent support and a 12.5-point lead over the Conservatives. With those kinds of numbers (drawn from polls conducted before the latest ethics controversy), the Liberals would be nearly assured of winning the majority government they failed to secure last year.

The question is what kind of impact this week's news will have on Liberal support — an especially delicate question in a minority Parliament.

If the Liberals experience the same six-to-eight point slide, by the late summer or fall the party would find itself roughly back where it was last election night. All of the political capital the Liberals have gained over their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak would be gone. The odds of the Liberals calling an election on their own would be slim to none, and it would be up to the opposition parties to decide whether to take advantage of it by forcing another election themselves.

Not all controversies have the same impacts, however.

When photos were published in the midst of the last campaign showing that Trudeau had worn blackface on multiple occasions before entering politics, there was enormous potential for a career-ending blow to the prime minister.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for wearing blackface before he entered politics. The scandal did not significantly dent his party's support during the 2019 federal election.

Instead, the Liberals saw their support hold steady. The party was polling at 34.2 per cent when the story broke. It only dropped by less than a percentage point a week later — a loss the party made good two weeks after that.

The dynamics of the election campaign played an important role in the resilience of Liberal Party support, but polls and the party's own research suggested that Canadians didn't believe Trudeau was racist and felt he had made a sincere apology.

It's too early to plot the political ramifications of Trudeau's WE controversy. Canadians might not be paying attention to the same degree as they would if it weren't summer — or if there wasn't a global pandemic to worry about. Nevertheless, the Bloc Québécois is calling for the prime minister to step aside and the Conservatives want the police to investigate.

But in the court of public opinion, the decisive factor might prove to be whether — after blackface and two prior ethics violations — Canadians are still willing to give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt.


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion has ruled against Justin Trudeau on two previous occasions. In fact, the first of those, in 2017, was investigated by then-commissioner Mary Dawson.
    Jul 12, 2020 3:12 PM ET


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.

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