Politics·Analysis

How last week, and the one coming, might shape Justin Trudeau's legacy

This week, Justin Trudeau bought us a pipeline and then found himself being dragged into a trade war with Canada's closest ally. Which seems like a lot for one week.

For the PM, what could have been a boring political season has turned into a make-or-break moment

We may end up looking back at the past week, and the one coming, as the period when everything changed for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau bought the country a pipeline and found himself in a trade war with Canada's closest ally.

Which seems like a lot for one week.

But next week, the people of Ontario might make Doug Ford their next premier. And then Trudeau will convene the leaders of the G7 for what could be a very fractious summit in Charlevoix, Quebec.

These are defining days for Trudeau, draped in the heavy consequences of profound questions about the future of the planet, the shape of the Canadian economy, the rise of populism and U.S. President Donald Trump's ongoing assault on the international order.

His case for re-election is being shaped here — and along with it, his chances of remaining a significant presence on the world stage.

The best-laid plans

Not all of this was pre-ordained, mind you. He was already committed to building a pipeline. But with different election results in British Columbia in 2017 and the United States in 2016 — and with Patrick Brown leading the Ontario Progressive Conservatives instead of Ford — this could have been a rather boring spring for Justin Trudeau.

Such is politics: the real fun happens when a leader's agenda runs up against circumstances.

Thursday's announcement by the United States of tariffs directed at Canada, Mexico and the European Union ensures that the gathering in Charlevoix will be at least a bit awkward — as long as Trump shows up. It will take some effort to remind people that the summit is supposed to be about gender equality.

By the time the summit begins next Friday, Trudeau should know who won Ontario's election.The odds are decent that it will be Ford — who, in addition to having certain commonalities with the American president, is loudly and proudly opposed to Trudeau's plan for a price on carbon.

In theory, Ford's opposition wouldn't necessarily be enough to block a federal price on carbon. Barring a court decision finding that the policy doesn't fall under federal jurisdiction, the Trudeau government would be free to proceed — technically. But a foe in Queen's Park would make going forward somewhat more difficult.

In theory, the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline is supposed to make it much easier to proceed with a price on carbon. Trudeau himself has linked the building of a pipeline with the implementation of a carbon price in Alberta, and the Trudeau government's purchase of the project might be viewed as part of that grand bargain.

Even so, Trudeau was harangued this week in the foreign press by Bill McKibben, the environmentalist who spearheaded the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. And while Canadians may own Trans Mountain, it will still be challenged, both in the courts and on the ground.

Getting it built could also cost the Liberal party seats in British Columbia. But Trudeau might hope that building the pipeline will both burnish his credentials and reinforce the national economy, thus aiding the government's re-election efforts everywhere east of B.C.

But now, there's this trade war.

A watershed moment

As amusing as it might be to think about an international dispute that involves gherkins, chocolate and hair lacquer, the potential for economic disruption should not be underestimated. Nor can Trudeau be unaware that he faces the political risk of being seen to have somehow mishandled the situation — as much as everyone might agree that the American president is hard to handle.

By the same token, Trudeau's case for re-election will be significantly reinforced if he can successfully steer the country through this moment. And, in the short term, Trudeau might receive a patriotic boost in support.

So the prime minister finds himself in an interesting place these days, particularly as he prepares to host the leaders of the world's leading democracies.

While attempting to parry the most polarized voices on climate change and resource development, Trudeau has emerged globally as a symbolic counterpoint to the rising tide of populism. In the person of Donald Trump, that tide keeps making Trudeau's life more difficult.

To the challenges of the moment — climate change and shared prosperity — Justin Trudeau seems to think he can make a useful contribution.

Of course, to do that, he also needs to get re-elected.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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