The abrupt resignation this week of Justin Trudeau’s treasury board president, Jane Philpott, has produced no shortage of frenzied speculation that the prime minister is on his last legs. Her resignation letter, however, contains clues as to why his reelection in October remains the outcome worth betting on.
Trudeau certainly looks lonelier by the day. Canadian headlines remain dominated by the “Lavscam” scandal — in which Trudeau is accused of improperly pressuring his attorney general in order to help Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin escape prosecution on fraud and bribery charges. Even ordinarily sympathetic journalists now shake their heads disappointed. For all his pretenses as a figure of national unity, Trudeau has been exposed as the champion of only a narrow faction of the country: moneyed interests in Quebec.
I’m deeply partial to this perspective. But in Trudeau’s defense, it’s also naive to believe that winning and running a Canadian government are ever anything but a game of favoring certain interests over others.
A quick glance at Canada’s 2015 electoral map reminds us that Trudeau was hardly elected on a unanimous wave of support. One in five of his 184 parliamentary seats is located in Quebec, and according to the testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould, the fired attorney general, Trudeau’s “inappropriate” intervention on behalf of Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin was primarily motivated by a desire to protect jobs in the province he solidly carried.
Quebec pundits have called for a more sympathetic understanding of Trudeau’s actions, and a recent Angus Reid poll suggests Trudeau may have accurately read the local temperature. Asked whether the company should be “fully prosecuted under the criminal code,” or merely “allowed to negotiate a remediation agreement” (Trudeau’s favored outcome), 51 percent of Quebeckers endorsed the Trudeau position.
In every other region of Canada, ample majorities backed the “fully prosecute” statement. But in Atlantic Canada results almost mirrored Quebec’s: 53 percent of Atlantic Canadians supported prosecution, while 47 percent backed remediation. Such cautiousness likely reflects Atlantic Canada’s traditional expectation that its own beleaguered industries should be reliably rescued by government. Trudeau won all 32 Atlantic Canadian seats in 2015.
The remainder of Trudeau’s parliamentary majority is mostly pulled from urban areas in Ontario. It’s here where Philpott’s letter of resignation offers some reason for skepticism about just how much damage Trudeau should expect this scandal to inflict.
Philpott is a doctor who represents a riding in greater Toronto. In that sense, she embodies many stereotypes of the typical Liberal voter — educated, female and found in urban Ontario. Canadians like her tend to vote reliably Liberal for the same reason Quebec does: They have faith that Trudeau’s political priorities mirror their own.
After several paragraphs explaining her “lost confidence” in Trudeau’s administration over its treatment of Wilson-Raybould, Philpott closes with a statement of continued loyalty to Trudeau’s Liberal Party. “I am firmly committed to our crucial platform priorities,” she writes, “especially: justice for Indigenous peoples; and implementing a plan to tackle the existential threat of climate change.”
Climate change, which Trudeau has sought to curtail through a mix of carbon taxes and regulation of the energy sector, remains an issue of enormous significance to urban progressives in Ontario, many of whom are unlikely to have personal or professional ties to Canada’s oil industry and are reassured by city life’s ample abundance of public transportation and green-friendly consumer options. Many regard policies like Trudeau’s as sensibly painless efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
The material comfort enjoyed by many members of Ontario’s educated middle class similarly affords an opportunity to address social justice concerns that might not affect their lives directly, but are nevertheless troubling in the abstract. In recent years, the need to right historical wrongs perpetuated against Canada’s aboriginal minority has become a leading signifier of those whose political priorities are heavily informed by modern progressive ethics. “Justice for Indigenous peoples” is hardly the only social issue animating voters of this sort, but it remains good shorthand for a broader disposition.
This core Trudeau coalition — Quebec, the Maritimes and urban Ontario, particularly the progressive female subset — is a powerful one, and even amid scandal it will not be easily torn apart. Even if cracks emerge, the opposition Conservatives will be ill-placed to catch the pieces.
Quebeckers have deep aversion to the ideological tradition of Anglo-American conservatism, and their uniquely parochial culture makes it difficult for a candidate from outside the province, such as Tory leader Andrew Scheer, to make inroads there. Atlantic Canadians similarly tend to see conservatism as a you’re-on-your-own philosophy indifferent to their economy’s relationship with government. Broad, unflattering stereotypes of Conservatives as intolerant and ignorant — particularly on climate change and social justice issues — are conventional wisdom among urban Ontarians.
Many editorials have been written over the past few weeks suggesting that Trudeau’s cheerful “brand” has taken a mortal blow from Lavscam. Progressive disillusion might be enough to hurt the prime minister on the margins, say, by reducing his popularity among the low-turnout constituency of young voters, or in a few superfluous, clearly unsustainable Liberal ridings in western Canada. Yet leaders do not survive on brands as much as trust.
Come October, a jaded but intact coalition of Trudeau voters might be perfectly satisfied voting for a man who, while not progressivism’s saint, is at least the devil they know.