TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fired the starting gun on Canada’s federal election Wednesday, hoping to win a second term in the face of an ethics scandal that has turned what was once expected to be a cakewalk for the telegenic Liberal leader into a tougher-than-expected slog.
Trudeau, 47, asked Governor General Julie Payette, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada, to dissolve the country’s Parliament on Wednesday — the step that launches the formal campaign.
After sailing through much of Trudeau’s first term, the Liberals this year have fallen back into a close race with Andrew Scheer’s opposition Conservative Party and face an uphill battle to hold on to their parliamentary majority. In Canada, minority governments rarely last longer than 18 months.
Kicking off a campaign likely to be dominated by concerns over affordability, health care, climate change and ethics, Trudeau said his government has “spent the last four years making things better” and has “the record to prove it.”
“We’ve all got a choice to make: Keep moving forward and build on the progress we’ve made or go back to the politics of the Harper years,” he said. “Conservatives like to say they’re for the people, but then they cut taxes for the wealthy and cut services for everybody else.”
Scheer, launching his campaign in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, said the election would come down to which party could be trusted to help Canadian households get ahead.
“The answer is certainly not Justin Trudeau, who will only raise your taxes and take more money from your pockets,” he said.
The election is scheduled for Oct. 21. Candidates have spent the summer stumping informally but now will have to follow different rules on spending and advertising.
Trudeau, whose father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was one of Canada’s longest-serving prime ministers, overcame charges of inexperience four years ago to orchestrate a come-from-behind victory over Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and become an international sensation.
He promised “sunny ways,” transparency, growth for the middle class, more women in positions of authority and reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous groups. His government legalized recreational cannabis and medically assisted dying, imposed a nationwide price on carbon and expanded parental benefits.
Canada’s unemployment rate this year reached a 40-year low; gross domestic product growth in the most recent quarter was announced at a better-than-expected 3.7 percent.
But Trudeau also suffered several wounds — many of them self-inflicted. He was ridiculed for a diplomatically awkward trip to India and was rebuked by Canada’s ethics watchdog for a family vacation that broke conflict-of-interest laws. His government has weathered a turbulent relationship with President Trump and has found itself embroiled in diplomatic disputes with Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and China.
In February, allegations surfaced that Trudeau and senior government officials had inappropriately pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, the country’s attorney general, to reach an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin, an engineering firm in Trudeau’s home province of Quebec charged with bribery and corruption.
In nationally televised parliamentary hearings, Wilson-Raybould accused government officials of making “veiled threats” and demoting her when she refused to succumb to the pressure.
The allegations set off a political firestorm and triggered several high-profile resignations from government. Having sold Canadians on running a government beyond reproach that would be open to diverse views, Trudeau stood accused of shady backroom dealings and judicial interference, of being a fake feminist, and of bullying Wilson-Raybould, an indigenous woman.
Trudeau has not apologized. He has said he was trying to protect Canadian jobs. A conviction would lead to a decade-long ban on federal contracts for SNC-Lavalin.
Support for the Liberals cratered. The party had only recently begun to recover in the polls when the ethics watchdog ruled last month that Trudeau again broke conflict-of-interest laws in the affair and used his authority “to circumvent, undermine and ultimately attempt to discredit” Wilson-Raybould.
The Globe and Mail of Toronto reported late Tuesday that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been looking into potential obstruction of justice in the handling of the SNC-Lavalin file, but its efforts were hindered because the government would not waive cabinet confidentiality for all witnesses.
Asked Wednesday about the Globe and Mail story, Trudeau said his government “gave out the largest and most expansive waiver of cabinet confidence in Canadian history.”
It’s unusual for the race to be so tight, because Canadians have a long history of giving prime ministers who enjoy ruling majorities a second mandate.
“Justin Trudeau is a defined quality now, and his greatest strength is his greatest weakness,” said pollster Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute. “He’s got to change the channel and turn up the volume and talk about the issues, because talking about his brand is a liability.”
The Conservatives, led by Scheer, a 40-year-old pro-Brexit former insurance broker, pose the main threat to Trudeau. At a campaign event in Ottawa Wednesday morning, Scheer raised the SNC-Lavalin scandal and accused Trudeau of being “incapable of being honest with Canadians.”
“What today shows is that you just can’t trust Justin Trudeau,” he said. “He will do anything to cover up his scandals and Canadians just can’t believe anything he says.”
Scheer, who edged out Conservative rivals to win the party leadership in 2017, remains little known outside politics.
Scheer has cast himself as a moderate. He has pledged to balance the federal budget within five years, scrap Trudeau’s federal carbon tax for a cap on carbon for large emitters, and increase federal transfers to the provinces for health care and social programs.
Canada’s two left-of-Liberal parties, Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats and Elizabeth May’s Green Party, trail the Liberals and the Conservatives. But they could play kingmaker if the election produces a minority government, as several polls predict.
Singh said last month that he would not prop up a Conservative government, after the Liberals resurfaced a video from 2005 in which Scheer argued in the House of Commons against the bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. Scheer maintains he won’t change the law, but he has not marched in a Pride parade as his political rivals have or indicated whether his views on the issue have changed.
With a volatile electorate, analysts say, the answers to two questions will shape the election’s outcome: Will the progressive vote eventually coalesce around one leader as it did for Trudeau in 2015? Who will turn out to vote?
“Canadian politics now is one in which there is a bigger progressive vote than there is a conservative vote,” said Darrell Bricker, chief executive of the polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs. “But the difference between the progressive vote and the conservative vote is that the conservative vote is not divided. On the progressive side, the vote is fragmenting.”
Kurl said that the Conservatives benefit from a “very committed and motivated” base that “would vote three times for Andrew Scheer if it was allowed,” while progressive voters appear less energized.
Much will depend on who will win the ethnically diverse middle-class suburban constituencies outside Toronto and Vancouver — critical districts where elections are won and lost. In Ontario, a key battleground, the Conservatives trail the Liberals, in part because of the unpopularity of Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford.
Quebec will be another battleground. Trudeau fielded questions Wednesday about Bill 21, a new provincial law there that prohibits teachers, police officers and other public sector employees from wearing religious symbols while on the job.
Trudeau has opposed the legislation, and civil liberties and religious groups are challenging it in court. But opinion polls show widespread support for the law outside Montreal and Quebec City.
Trudeau said he is “deeply opposed” to the legislation and is pleased to see it being challenged in court — but it would be “counterproductive” for the federal government to get involved “at this time.”
Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency said this year it was “very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference” ahead of and during the federal election. The Communications Signals Establishment added that it was “improbable” the interference would reach the scale of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The government said it was establishing a panel of impartial senior bureaucrats to monitor attempts at interference. The panel may decide whether an incident is serious enough to warrant informing political parties and the public. It will not need the approval of lawmakers before sounding the alarm.