It was a very Justin Trudeau year.
From the moment he became Liberal Leader in 2013, Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister has been both an asset and liability to his party, and 2019 was no different.
He led his party to a second straight election win – an accomplishment for any leader but especially for one whose opponents like to portray him as “just not up to the job.” Mr. Trudeau has now twice defeated the best the Conservatives have been able to throw at him, and he didn’t make it look particularly difficult either time.
On the other hand, he could have made it a lot easier this year. Mr. Trudeau only managed to win a minority government and it’s fair to pin much of the blame for that on his performance in 2019.
His handling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal was disastrous. Faced with an allegation of attempting to influence a federal prosecution for political gain, Mr. Trudeau should have done the wise thing by acknowledging the error and apologizing for it. He should have admitted his officials went too far, shielding him from direct blame, and reconfirmed that he believed in the rule of law and prosecutorial independence.
Instead, Mr. Trudeau denied that he and his officials had done anything wrong and he refused to apologize. He insisted that efforts to persuade his former attorney-general to drop bribery charges against SNC-Lavalin, and offer the company a deferred prosecution agreement, were in the best interests of the country.
No one bought it. In the end, Mr. Trudeau lost two senior cabinet ministers and his closest adviser. He lost credibility, too. Worst of all, he weakened bedrock principles of Canadian law and democracy. He stumbled into a scandal of his creation and overestimated his ability to weather it.
We saw the same tendency early in his first mandate, when he blithely accepted a free family vacation on the private island of the Aga Khan. Rather than admit error, he refused to answer questions from the Opposition about the holiday and only demonstrated rote remorse when the ethics commissioner ruled that he had violated not one but four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act.
Tellingly, the only time the Prime Minister has ever owned up to his own error came during the other great Trudeau scandal of 2019: The revelation that he has appeared in blackface at least three times in his life.
In that case, Mr. Trudeau demonstrated that the capacity to be contrite, to accept responsibility and to take his lumps is not completely dormant inside him. He apologized immediately when the first instance came to light and acknowledged there might be others, which there were.
But the damage was done. Canada’s first “woke” prime minister looked like a poseur. People who, similar to him, lay claim to progressive values are supposed to know that blackface has been viewed as racially insensitive for decades, and yet there he was doing it in 2001.
The blackface revelations hurt the Liberals in the October election, especially with voters wavering between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party, or other left-wing parties.
But Mr. Trudeau was also an asset. When pollsters asked voters who they thought was best suited to lead the country, he held a consistent and significant edge over Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
And Mr. Trudeau tailored his party’s agenda to meet the priorities of the parts of Canada that are richest in voters – central Canada in general and big cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, in particular.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the handful of ridings the Liberals lost in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Far more significant were the scores of seats they held on to, often by increased margins, in Ontario and Quebec.
Mr. Trudeau may have revealed himself to be a flawed embodiment of urban Canadian values this year, but he was still more palatable in that regard than anything the rudderless Conservatives had to offer and the Liberals are still more electable than the NDP.
Then again, it was only a matter of weeks after the October election that Mr. Trudeau’s impulse for hubris was back on display. Freshly re-elected, he traveled to a NATO summit in London and managed to get himself videotaped laughing about the behaviour of U.S. President Donald Trump. A displeased Mr. Trump called him “two-faced.”
That’s one way of putting it.