Trudeau dissolves Parliament, launches Canada election campaign

VIDEO: REUTERS
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's popularity has declined over the past two years, and since February, his Liberal Party has lost its lead in the polls.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's popularity has declined over the past two years, and since February, his Liberal Party has lost its lead in the polls.PHOTO: REUTERS

OTTAWA (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday (Sept 11) kicked off the campaign for next month’s Canadian general election, gunning to hold onto his liberal majority in a tight race against newcomers on both flanks. 

The parties have already been wooing voters with pre-election ads, announcements and whistle stops in key battlegrounds across the country. 

But Governor General Julie Payette’s dissolution of Parliament, at Mr Trudeau’s behest, marked the official start of the race to the October 21 ballot.

Neither of the two main parties is currently polling high enough - both are just north of 30 per cent - to win a majority of the 338 seats up for grabs, meaning the next Parliament could be more fragmented than the current one.

The Liberals enter the election with 177 seats, compared with 95 for the Conservatives. A majority requires winning at least 170 seats.

The result will determine whether Mr Trudeau, 47, can cement one of the most left-leaning agendas the country has seen in at least a generation - progressive on social issues, willing to run deficits to tackle income disparities, assertive on climate change and fervently internationalist in an era of populism.

It's a record that prompted former US vice-president Joe Biden to hail Mr Trudeau as one of the last main standard-bearers of liberalism.

 
 
 

Yet despite Mr Trudeau's focus on income distribution, the country has struggled to create wealth during his tenure. Labour productivity and real wage gains continue to hover around historically weak levels, leaving the economy increasingly reliant on immigration to generate growth.

In the eyes of the business community, Mr Trudeau hasn't devoted serious attention to fixing Canada's longstanding competitiveness challenges.

Still, polls suggest his leftist tilt is popular and Mr Trudeau has forged a comfortable lead over Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, 40, on the crucial question of economic stewardship, giving him a critical advantage in his bid for re-election.

LEFTWARD SHIFT

"Trudeau has been unapologetic in shifting what is traditionally Canada's centrist party to the left," said Mr Andre Albinati, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and former adviser to Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.

Although the polls show the two main parties are neck and neck, campaigns matter. The 2015 race that brought the Liberals to power also started off tight, with observers speculating the most likely outcome was a minority government, before Mr Trudeau pulled ahead.

While key differences exist between Canada's two main political parties, they are largely in line on key macroeconomic policy and default when the chips are down to an "economy first" pragmatism.

That said, one issue where there are stark differences is on how to develop the nation's vast oil reserves.

The Conservative Party portrays itself as a champion of the oil sector and pledges to remove the stricter environmental regulation brought in by Mr Trudeau.

The Liberals, meanwhile, are trying to forge a grand bargain on resources - be more pro-environment and supportive of indigenous concerns in order to win the "social licence" for development.

That approach has met with little success so far.

A minority Liberal government that is propped up by other left-leaning parties is a concerning prospect for many business leaders because it would be hostile to the country's energy sector.

CAKEWALK

This election was supposed to be a cakewalk for Mr Trudeau. Canadians almost never remove a majority government from power after only one term.

Mr Scheer is largely unknown, a stark contrast to the Prime Minister's celebrity. And on some key economic metrics - particularly employment - the economy has been doing very well.

But Mr Trudeau's popularity has declined over the past two years, and since February, his party has lost its lead in the polls.

His waning fortunes reflect missteps on the world stage - including an embarrassing state visit to India - and a domestic scandal involving SNC-Lavalin Group Inc, a construction company headquartered in his home town of Montreal.

The SNC controversy has been the biggest thorn in Mr Trudeau's side.

He and his staff are accused of pressuring the former attorney-general into ordering prosecutors to settle a corruption case that dates back to the engineering firm's work in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya.

Mr Trudeau says he did nothing wrong and was only attempting to protect jobs, but the scandal cost him two high-profile Cabinet ministers - both women.

Canada's ethics commissioner ruled last month that Mr Trudeau broke conflict of interest laws by interfering in the case.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, meanwhile, have been looking into a potential obstruction of justice in the matter, though their efforts have been stymied by the government's refusal to lift Cabinet confidentiality for witnesses, the Globe and Mail reported on Wednesday.

The story has reignited criticism of his Liberal Party as overly cosy with big business, and the case has taken a toll on Mr Trudeau's progressive credentials.

That is a major hurdle for someone whose key to success will be whether he can rally left-leaning voters, like he did in 2015.