Martin Patriquin: Justin Trudeau's renaissance begins in Quebec
According to the conventional wisdom in the rest of Canada, the SNC-Lavalin affair is Justin Trudeau’s Waterloo. In pressuring its own attorney-general to use her power to override the autonomy of the country’s public prosecutor’s office for the sake of the scandal-plagued Montreal-based engineering behemoth, the Liberal government is seen as having become exactly what it once decried: opaque, top-down and all too prone to bouts of corporate favouritism, particularly when it involves Quebec.
The Liberal government is probably all of these things. A government attempting to help a company avoid prosecution, by way of a law for which that very company lobbied, looks like the stuff of banana republics, and the affair has rightfully spawned acres upon acres of bad headlines for Trudeau and the Liberals. And yet it doesn’t matter. In fact, Trudeau is in a very good position going into the next election — and his renaissance begins in Quebec.
First, the national picture. Despite the relentless SNC-related news, the Liberals are within margin-of-error distance from the Conservatives, according to a recent Nanos poll. Others still, while demonstrating a bigger gap, nonetheless suggest the slide in Liberal support has stopped. Political amnesia seems to be setting in, and the SNC-Lavalin business has gone from scandal to debacle to something close to afterthought to be chewed on only by the most blinkered of partisans. And without the benefit of oxygen, summer is where political scandals go to die.
This is doubly true here in Quebec, in large part because Trudeau’s political brinkmanship on the part of SNC has seemingly worked. In the rest of Canada, the Trudeau government’s SNC intervention was seen as practically grounds for impeachment, if Canada had such a thing. In Quebec, where SNC benefits from being both a large employer and a crown jewel in the province’s proud nationalist crown, Quebecers looked at the government’s attempt to intervene on behalf of the company and wondered that the fuss was.
This is hardly anodyne. Quebec, home to 78 federal seats, was a key part of Trudeau’s election in 2015. Given Liberal troubles in the rest of the country, particularly in the oil patch, the province will be an important backstop to compensate for expected loses elsewhere. On this front, the Liberals are in decent shape, at the very least. The polls, predictably contradictory some four months before the election, nevertheless have Trudeau as the favoured leader over Scheer.
And beyond the mug’s game of polling, there is concrete evidence that the Liberals are alive and well in Quebec. Consider how the supposedly hurting Trudeau was able to recruit brand-name environmentalist (and noted anti-pipeline activist) Steven Guilbeault, of Greenpeace and Equiterre fame, into the Liberal fold. To this coup you can add a heaping pile of chutzpah: The Liberal Party announced Guilbeault’s candidacy a mere three days after the Liberal government approved the Trans Mountain project, the biggest oil pipeline expansion in this country’s recent history.
Trudeau’s pipeline-and-environment stance may strain credulity, but it works for Quebecers, whose relationship with oil is equally contradictory. In short, Quebecers love the stuff only a little bit less than do most North Americans — but certainly don’t want it pumped under their very feet. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion may be an environmental calamity, but it is happening several thousands of kilometres to the west. In contrast, Conservative Andrew Scheer wants to create an “energy corridor” across the country, which would necessarily drive pipe through a province whose entire political class is against such a thing. Scheer can’t even bring himself to say the words “oil and gas” in French. Bonne chance, as they say.
Five months ago, SNC-Lavalin was a confluence of political nightmares for the Liberals. Today it is little more than a fierce headache. In October, as Quebec demonstrates, it might even have helped them get re-elected.