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When a progressive star falls

The scandals plaguing two formerly untouchable progressive heroes has them crashing back down to earth, where they must wade through the same political muck as everyone else

When Justin Trudeau became Canada’s prime minister, he was the perfect progressive. A breath of fresh air after nearly a decade of conservative government, he was unabashedly feminist, committed to indigenous rights and ambitious about tackling climate change. His central campaign promise was a return to “sunny ways” - a different way of doing politics.

Upon being elected in 2015, he began transforming Canada. He had a gender-balanced cabinet, introduced a national carbon tax, legalised recreational marijuana use and brought more than 40,000 Syrian refugees into the country. He made Canada famous as a liberal paradise. He could do no wrong.

Until he did.

Trudeau is now struggling with two major scandals. First, over pressuring his attorney-general (and then firing her) to go easy in the Canadian government’s prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a company that bribed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Second, over recently-revealed photographs that shows him in brownface, including one as a 29-year old teacher. Trudeau has seen his popularity plummet from his once-untouchable heights. With federal Canadian elections less than two months away, he is locked in a ferocious struggle for political survival.

At any other time, the state of Canadian politics would be essentially irrelevant to New Zealand. Now, it could be a fascinating predictor of our political future.

Until recently, despite the challenges of Labour’s time in government, Jacinda Ardern’s unique appeal and intoxicating promise of relentless positivity” - a new way of doing politics - had remained relatively unscathed.

But Ardern is now dealing with the fallout of the Labour Party’s latest sexual assault and harassment scandal. The revelation that an alleged sexual predator worked in the Labour Leader’s Office for a year after his alleged behaviour was first reported - while seven survivors were at turns ignored and dismissed by an incompetent internal inquiry - dropped on the Government like a bombshell and implicated multiple senior Labour aides and politicians.

There are some differences between the two sets of scandals. Trudeau was directly and personally involved in the scandals he is now dealing with. While he has expressed sadness about how the SNC-Lavalin scandal turned out, he has refused to apologise. By contrast, Ardern was allegedly not aware of the sexual assault allegations. Her fault was more indirect: losing control of her party’s actions and failing to reform a party culture where sexual assault and harassment has long thrived.

Nevertheless, the scandals pose a similar threat to Ardern and Trudeau. Both centred their political brands around a vision of principled politics, focusing on inclusion and empowerment. The at-times “flagrant” campaign of political harassment, which Trudeau and his disproportionately male aides waged against his indigenous female attorney-general, fundamentally undermines the progressive vision. Similarly, the conduct of Ardern’s (again, predominantly male) aides and advisors in ignoring and obscuring the sexual assault allegations is eating away at the moral foundation upon which Ardern’s political brand rests: empathy, kindness, empowerment.

Fairly or unfairly, these scandals paint an image of double-speaking politicians pretending for the public while playing the same old game elsewhere. It’s exactly the opposite of the “sunny ways” and “relentless positivity” they promised.

Importantly, Ardern has only recently been in the spotlight over the latest Labour sexual assault allegations. By contrast, Trudeau has been fighting the SNC-Lavalin scandal since the beginning of this year (the photo of him in brownface only emerged recently). As a result, Trudeau’s position now tells us a lot about how the sexual assault allegations might change the Ardern Government going forward.

Despite the scandals hanging over it, Trudeau’s government truly has had some major successes, most prominently on the economy and environment. He has kept unemployment low, maintained a relatively small national debt, introduced higher taxes on the super wealthy, and reduced the tax burden on low- and middle-income Canadians. He even managed to withstand Trumpian anger and keep the terms of a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement favourable to Canada.

And in spite of Canada’s economic reliance on the extraction of resources like oil and shale gas, Trudeau’s government has introduced a nationwide carbon tax and championed environmental action on the world stage. It puts Trudeau in stark contrast with his main opponent, Andrew Scheer of the Conservative Party, who dismissed Trudeau’s carbon tax as an election gimmick.

Trudeau has already begun to brutally savage Scheer’s policies as lukewarm rehashes of Stephen Harper’s, Canada’s previous prime minister. He is doing so to highlight Scheer’s own unpopular positions and tarnish him through association with the unpopular Harper.

Trudeau’s plan is simple: reassure centrist voters on bread-and-butter issues like the economy, energise progressives on the environment, and remind everyone how much they hated Harper. It’s a viable strategy for an incumbent government running for reelection. And crucially, it allows Trudeau to shift the focus away from himself, towards voters’ own material circumstances and the least popular aspects of his Conservative opposition.

It’s a remarkable change for someone who became prime minister by leaning into his status as Canada’s golden boy. Similarly, it presages a remarkably negative election campaign from someone who became popular by promising a return to “sunny ways”. If Ardern cannot satisfactorily resolve the sexual assault crisis, or if other scandals hit her government, that is what we should expect for the 2020 election.

Despite the apocalyptic predictions of conservative commentators, these types of scandals do not doom political stars like Trudeau and Ardern. Instead, they bring them crashing back down to earth and force them to wade through the same political muck as everyone else.

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