If the RCMP comes in, ‘we’re cooked’ in the upcoming election, say some worried Liberal MPs

By Abbas Rana and Nina Russell

Some Liberal MPs say they are considering not using Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s name or image in their election campaign material.

An RCMP investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair would “kill” the Liberal party’s re-election chances in the upcoming campaign if it were to become known to the public, say some Liberals, speaking in the days after Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion issued a report that said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had broken the law spelled out in the Conflict of Interest Act.

Some Liberals said they are already considering dropping Mr. Trudeau’s name or image from their campaign material, because of a significant drop in the prime minister’s personal approval rating in public opinion polls.

“Perception is reality,” said one of the Liberal MPs in an interview with The Hill Times on a not-for-attribution basis.

“If the RCMP comes in, we’re cooked.”

Mr. Trudeau’s approval rating has sunk from 41 per cent in November to 33 per cent this month, while Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) rating has held at 29 per cent, according to polls by Campaign Research. CBC News’ poll aggregator put Mr. Trudeau’s approval rating at 33 per cent, slightly ahead of Mr. Scheer at 31.

According to a Nanos poll that came out on Aug. 13, 31.4 per cent of Canadians mentioned Mr. Trudeau as their preferred prime minister, compared to the 12-month high when 43.1 per cent indicated the Liberal leader was their preferred prime minister.

Liberal MPs said they’re not worried that Prime Minister Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) or any of his senior staff had done anything illegal, but instead are concerned about the potential perception and fallout from the scandal. They said the next election is only eight weeks away, and if the RCMP were to start an investigation, that on its own—regardless of the result—could give the impression to Canadians that the government did something wrong.

MPs referred to the 2006 election campaign as an example. That year an RCMP investigation into the “income trust affair” derailed the Liberal campaign and arguably helped Stephen Harper’s Conservatives win the election. At the time, the Mounties investigated the allegation that some senior Liberals had tipped off their Bay Street friends about then-prime minister Paul Martin cabinet’s decisions on tax policy changes on income trusts. The investigation started during the campaign and continued until after the election. It did not result in any charge against any cabinet minister or political staffer, but the damage was done during the campaign.

The RCMP usually never confirms or denies if it is undertaking any investigation unless they file charges. But, in 2005, on the direction of then-commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, the RCMP wrote a letter to then-NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis that said the federal police force had started an investigation. Ms. Wasylycial-Leis had earlier sent a letter to the Mounties requesting an investigation into the controversy.

Now, Liberals are worried about ethics watchdog Mario Dion’s scathing report from last week into the SNC-Lavalin affair, which found Mr. Trudeau in breach of conflict of interest laws. The report found that the prime minister and his senior staff inappropriately pressured then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver-Granville, B.C.) to grant a remediation agreement for the Montreal engineering giant. This is the second time in the government’s four-year mandate that Mr. Trudeau has been found guilty of breaking ethics laws. In 2017, the then-ethics commissioner determined that Mr. Trudeau broke ethics laws when he, his family, and close friends vacationed at the Aga Khan’s Bahamian island without paying their own way.

Mr. Dion began the SNC-Lavalin investigation in February. He focused on determining whether Mr. Trudeau had “sought to influence the decision of the [attorney general]” and whether Mr. Trudeau aimed to “improperly further the interests of SNC-Lavalin.” The report concluded that he was guilty of both, placing him in contravention of section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act.

The final report, which was released on Wednesday, concluded that “Mr. Trudeau used his position of authority over Ms. Wilson-Raybould to seek to influence, both directly and indirectly, her decision on whether she should overrule the Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision not to invite SNC-Lavalin to enter into negotiations towards a remediation agreement.”

After the report came out, Mr. Trudeau said he took responsibility for the way the controversy was handled, but added he did his job to protect Canadians’ jobs, and has nothing to apologize for.

“I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadians jobs. That’s my job,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould told CBC News last week that she had been contacted by the RCMP about the SNC-Lavalin affair last spring.

“The RCMP is examining this matter carefully with all available information and will take appropriate actions as required,” said RCMP media relations in an email to The Hill Times. “It would be inappropriate for us to provide anymore comments on this matter at this time.”

Mr. Scheer told reporters last week, after Mr. Dion issued his report, that he believed there was more than enough evidence for the RCMP to investigate the matter.

The SNC-Lavalin scandal is the most serious controversy that the Trudeau Liberals have faced in their mandate. The Globe and Mail broke the story first in February, and the governing party suffered a major drop in support nationally in subsequent months. Some polls had the Liberals behind the Conservatives by double digits at one point. In recent weeks, however, Liberal support had recovered, and both parties were running neck and neck in public opinion polls. It remains to be seen how much damage the ethics commissioner’s report causes in the coming days.

Some MPs won’t use Trudeau’s name, picture in campaign

Mr. Trudeau’s personal approval numbers have gone down since his 2015 election victory, likely at least in part due to a number of controversies broken promises from the 2015 election campaign. The damage done by the SNC-Lavalin affair has been the most significant. As a consequence, some Liberal MPs told The Hill Times they are considering not using Mr. Trudeau’s image or name on their campaign material. These MPs said when they go door knocking, some of their constituents tell them they don’t like the prime minister, but would vote for the local MP.

“Some are not going to use Trudeau’s name or picture in their campaign material,” said a second Liberal MP who also spoke on not-for-attribution basis.

Liberal MP Wayne Long (Saint John-Rothesay, N.B.), who made headlines in February after breaking from the rest of the party and calling for an independent inquiry into allegations surrounding the SNC-Lavalin affair, said he hopes that the report leads to “more openness and transparency in government” and that Ottawa can “make the proper corrections and put the proper safeguards or firewalls in where ministers don’t feel they’re under undue influence and we can move forward.”

Regarding the upcoming election, Mr. Long said it’s up to Canadians to look at the report and judge accordingly.

“I have great faith that Canadians will do the right thing and elect our government,” he said. “I stood up for my constituents, I know my constituents are satisfied that I did the right thing by calling for more openness and transparency. And now we’re to a point where, this report is critical of things that happened, and we need to respond.”

Meanwhile, pundits and political insiders agreed that a potential RCMP investigation would be politically dangerous for the Liberals in their re-election campaign, with the election only two months away.

Eli Yufest, CEO of Campaign Research, thinks that an RCMP investigation could “prolong the controversy well into the election and help reinforce the notion that the Liberals and Prime Minster Trudeau can’t be trusted and are not honest with Canadians.”

“It won’t help,” agreed Tim Powers, vice-chair of Summa Strategies, and a Conservative political insider. “Every time this story is in the news, it’s not helpful to the government. Every time you’re explaining bad behaviour or a mistake, you’re showing you’re flawed. While people will accept, to a certain degree, flaws, they’re not necessarily going to want to continue to hear about how sorry you are, but nothing changes.”

Pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research cited the fallout that the Liberals suffered in 2006 as a result of the criminal investigation, in an interview with The Hill Times.

“A possible RCMP investigation on the SNC-Lavalin controversy significantly escalates the risk to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals,” he said. “Back in 2006, the then-Liberal Martin government was fighting for its life. Nanos tracking during the 2006 election suggested that the announcement by the RCMP at that time had a materially negative impact on Liberal election fortunes.”

Mr. Nanos said that the release of the ethics commissioner’s report just two months before the election was a “body hit” to the Liberals, and like a “Christmas present” to the Conservatives, which are currently locked in a tight battle with the Grits in the polls.

Mr. Powers and Mr. Yufest agreed that the scandal is most likely to hurt the Liberals the most in Ontario, where the Liberals are finally beginning to bounce back in the polls after taking a hit in February when the scandal first became public.

“It’s where the election could be won or lost,” said Mr. Yufest. While Toronto and Ottawa remain reliably Liberal, he said that the “rest of the province is at play, especially the Greater Toronto Area. If the Ethics Commissioner’s story resonates with the [population] like the initial scandal resonated with them, that’s where the Liberals are most vulnerable.”

Mr. Nanos noted that winning back female voters—who he says “without a doubt, are going to make or break Justin Trudeau”—is key to another victory. After the scandal broke in February, he said that it was the women’s vote that shifted support towards Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, and women again who gravitated back to the Liberals over the subsequent months that saw Liberals rising in the polls.

That lines up with polling done by Campaign Research, which, Mr. Yufest said, suggests that women tend to value “integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness” more than men.

If Mr. Trudeau plays his cards right, however, the scandal might actually help him in neighbouring Quebec, where SNC-Lavalin employs several thousand people, according to Mr. Powers. During a press conference following the release of the report, Mr. Trudeau emphasized the importance of protecting jobs, though he admitted that this shouldn’t come at the cost of ethics.

It is also likely that the revelations in Mr. Dion’s report will shift the way Liberals and Conservatives spend the rest of the pre-election period campaigning. Based on polling by Campaign Research, “integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness” are the second most important attributes driving voter intent. This means, according to Mr. Yufest, that the Conservative strategy will most likely be to “make the narrative about how Justin Trudeau and the Liberals can’t be trusted.”

Campaign Research is headed by Mr. Yufest, the CEO, as well as Conservative strategists Richard Ciano and Nick Kouvalis, the latter of whom said earlier this year that he planned to work on the election campaigns of Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.) and other Conservative MPs.

Mr. Powers added that Conservatives will probably use the scandal to ramp up their current advertising strategy, which involves painting the Liberals’ term in power as “not as advertised.”

“That’s their tagline, so they’ve just got new material for all of that,” he said. “ I suspect the Conservatives will look to make sure they can continue to generate as much attention on this matter as possible in the lead-up to the election, and they’ll also look to focus on the old, long-standing Liberal vulnerability of entitlement and self-interest, and point to this as acting in the best interests of those nearest and dearest.”

For the Liberals’ part, Mr. Nanos said there “isn’t much they can do to defend themselves,” and that they just have to hope that the scandal doesn’t dominate too much media coverage over the next few months.

“To build their whole election campaign strategy around a prime minister who’s on the political ropes… would be misguided,” he said. “I think perhaps the best path for the Liberals is to basically accept that there’s been damage on the prime minister’s brand, and then as an alternative, to advance the Liberal team and also the Liberal plan for the future, in order to minimize the fallout.”

The Hill Times

Abbas Rana

Abbas Rana is the assistant deputy editor of The Hill Times.


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