Back in the mists of time, a half-century ago, there was a majority Liberal government that went though the same sort of mid-term pain that Justin Trudeau’s government is experiencing today, as its poll numbers slide, ministers stumble, key policies unravel and the opposition, smelling blood, circles impatiently.
Coincidentally, that earlier government was headed by another Trudeau. Pierre, by name. The year was 1970. Two years before that, in 1968, his Liberals had won a majority government in a campaign that for the first time in decades had truly engaged young Canadians in the political process.
It was the age of love beads and mini-skirts, of Woodstock and anti-Vietnam War protests, when chants of “Love Not War” echoed across Canada, the United States and Europe. In Canada, it was also a brief age of euphoria inspired by Expo ’67and the country’s Centennial. A new generation believed the country was on the threshold of greatness, and they believed Pierre Trudeau would lead them there.
By 1970, however, the bloom had gone from the Trudeau rose, as the hard reality and daily drudgery of governing set in. The Liberals had managed to get their cornerstone Official Languages Act through Parliament with all-party support – no mean achievement – but that success had come at a price.
Unhappy English Canadians feared that their children would be forced to learn French. Some provincial governments were threatening to go to court over the language law. And support for separation was on the rise in Quebec; the fledgling Parti Québécois took 23 per cent of the vote in the 1970 provincial election; six years after that the PQ would win it all and the charismatic René Lévesque would be premier.
Although Justin Trudeau’s mid-term challenges are different, they are no less real. They come from two directions. From Washington comes the challenge of dealing with the unreality of Donald Trump, where one misstep could blow up the North America Free Trade Agreement; the chances of its survival are already looking increasingly bleak.
From Parliament Hill comes the challenge of two opposition parties, both invigorated by the election of new leaders, both delighting in picking apart Trudeau’s cornerstone tax reform package, and both determined to bring down the government’s second most important figure, embattled Minister of Finance Bill Morneau.
Morneau is fighting for his political life, a fight in which support from the prime minister seems to have become something less than enthusiastic and whole-hearted. He cannot be held solely to blame for the defects in the tax reform legislation. The presumed experts in the Department of Finance who crafted the package , flaws and all, and the strategists in the Prime Minister’s Office, who rolled it out without anticipating its unintended consequences, can share that blame.
But Morneau has only himself to blame for the conflict-of-interest mess he finds himself in. Although he was a political novice when he entered the cabinet, he is a smart man, smart enough to know that the finance minister, above all others, must be above reproach, cleaner than a hound’s tooth, as they say in the U.S. South.
He had the option and opportunity to place his sizeable financial assets in a blind trust. He chose instead to hide them behind a screen of numbered companies. The screen was easily penetrated and Morneau’s misjudgment may cost him his job and political career. It is a blow that Trudeau can ill afford and, in fact, may have to administer himself.
To go back to 1970, Pierre’s Liberals were bailed out that fall when the FLQ kidnapped James Cross and murdered Pierre Laporte. In his “Just Watch Me” moment, the elder Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, and the public responded to the steel fist by sending Liberal popularity soaring.
But the relief was temporary. The Liberals barely managed to cling to a wafer-thin minority government in the next election in 1972.
Politics is a tough racket. It takes strength, judgment and luck to survive