Economic worries, terror fears erode PM’s popularity
OTTAWA: One hundred days after Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government was sworn in, the still-popular Canadian prime minister faces mounting criticism, against the backdrop of a floundering economy and terror fears.
The 44-year-old Trudeau — a former schoolteacher and the son of a popular prime minister — immediately saw his international profile rise upon taking office on November 4, and he still enjoys strong support at home.
He has touted a multilateral foreign policy, and a more transparent governing style than his predecessor Stephen Harper, who was seen as prickly, awkward and more at home plowing through economic theory than glad-handing voters.
“Canada is back!” the youthful-looking prime minister with a broad smile, a twinkle in his eye and a thick mop of curls told world leaders at summits, looking to recast the image of the world’s fifth-largest oil producer from climate laggard to environmental champion.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon is expected to praise Canada’s shift in a visit to Ottawa on Thursday.
The economy, however, has cast a pall over Trudeau’s self-professed “sunny ways.”
Canada emerged from a mild recession in September in the middle of the election campaign, but consumer confidence soon faded as oil prices and the Canadian dollar sank to new recent lows, leading to thousands of job losses in the country’s oil and gas sector.
Attacks in Jakarta and in Burkina Faso in January that left seven Canadians dead, meanwhile, raised fresh security concerns.
The new government was forced to backpedal on its pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 and on its fiscal plans, while taking heat over its climate and counter-terrorism strategies.
In parliament, opposition leader Rona Ambrose accused the government of “stepping back from the fight (against the Islamic State group) when our allies are stepping up.”
“The reality is that when we talk about Canada’s new approach to fighting ISIS, Canada is not back, Canada is backing away,” she said.
The husband of a Quebec woman shot dead by Islamist gunmen last month in Burkina Faso hung up on Trudeau when he called to offer condolences, while criticizing the prime minister’s dovish world view in the local press.
“I hung up in his face, and it felt good,” Yves Richard told a local radio station.
The Liberals were able to push back their Syrian refugee intake without much controversy because of widespread calls to slow resettlement amid domestic and US security concerns in the aftermath of deadly attacks in Paris.
But ordering the pullout of fighter jets from Iraq and Syria without so far announcing a new strategy to combat the Islamic State group has left them vulnerable on security.
Still, polls show a majority of Canadians are satisfied with Trudeau’s performance in office. Nanos weekly surveys show a 15-percentage point bump in support since the election, to 50 percent.
“I don’t think voters blame the government for the economic situation,” commented University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business economist Werner Antweiler. “They realize much of it is due to outside influences.”
He noted, for example, “The government can’t fix the oil price.”
The Canadian energy sector accounts for 10 percent of nominal GDP and 300,000 jobs, according to Natural Resources Canada estimates based on 2014 Statistics Canada data.
Observers say the real test will be when the rookie government unveils its first budget in the coming months.
Trudeau pledged to run several “small” deficits in order to build new bridges, transit and other infrastructure before returning to balance at the end of his four-year mandate.
But a dimmer economic outlook since the October 19 legislative elections has raised the specter of ballooning deficits.
“The budget will be key,” Duff Conacher, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of Democracy Watch, told AFP.
“The Liberals have to signal in the budget that they’re addressing all the problems they promised to address.”
The Liberals have so far reduced taxes for middle income earners, assigned an ex-cop to draft rules for legal marijuana, announced an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women as part of a rapprochement with indigenous peoples, and signed a Pacific trade pact negotiated by the previous administration.
A further 200 pledges are either in progress or have not started yet.
Conacher noted the Liberals won the largest majority (54.5 percent of seats in the House of Commons) with the smallest number of votes (39.5 percent) in Canadian history.
“They’re going to have to walk the talk or they will be accused of selling false hope to people and Canadians will turn on them,” he said.