Trudeau Tries to Sell New Plan for Canada, Hoping to Leave Crisis Behind
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was selling, but it wasn’t clear that anyone was buying.
At a housing development in Ottawa on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Trudeau pitched the wonders of his proposal to make home-buying easier, among a vast array of promises in a spending plan his government released this week.
Rod Allen, a retired resident of the development, said he liked some of Mr. Trudeau’s proposals. Still, he wants to hear more from Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former justice minister who has accused Mr. Trudeau and his top aides of improperly pressuring her on handling a criminal case against the Canadian multinational corporation SNC-Lavalin.
Among other things, he would like to know why she resigned from Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet.
Mr. Trudeau’s stop at the Cardinal Creek development on Ottawa’s eastern fringes was the first on what will be a cross-Canada trip to sell his spending plan, and to make his case for re-election this fall.
He is also trying to talk about something other than SNC-Lavalin. But shifting the national political discussion won’t be easy.
“The government isn’t pretending to change the channel,” said John Duffy, a former adviser to the Liberal Party. “But we have to talk about other things.”
“His image, brand, whatever you want to call it,” Mr. Duffy added, “that’s where this has taken its toll.”
By Mr. Duffy’s analysis, a major factor in Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 victory was support from first-time voters. Now, he said, those people may be among the most disappointed and may not vote again.
[Want more Canadian coverage in your inbox? Sign up for the Canada Letter newsletter.]
Until early February there were widespread expectations that this year’s campaign would be relatively painless for Mr. Trudeau and that his party would be re-elected in October.
Then came the SNC-Lavalin affair.
For almost two months, Mr. Trudeau has been dogged by Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s accusations that he and his aides tried to get her to settle a criminal corruption case against SNC-Lavalin with a hefty fine rather than a criminal conviction, which would bar the company from government contracts for a decade.
The company has been charged with bribing Libyan officials during the dictatorship of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and defrauding the Libyan government.
Mr. Trudeau strongly denies that anything inappropriate took place, saying he pushed for a monetary penalty because the loss of government work due to a criminal conviction would jeopardize thousands of Canadian jobs. He has not apologized.
Since the accusations erupted, a stream of officials have left the government, keeping the controversy a subject of public discussion.
First to go was Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who was also the former attorney general but had been shifted to the post of veterans affairs before she resigned. Then came Gerald Butts, Mr. Trudeau’s top political adviser and close friend from college, and Jane Philpott, a widely respected cabinet minister who has said there were more revelations to come.
This week there was yet another resignation, of the top public servant, one of the Trudeau aides that Ms. Wilson-Raybould said had pressured her.
And on Wednesday, a Liberal lawmaker, Celina Caesar-Chavannesan, resigned from her party’s caucus. Ms. Caesar-Chavannesan, an open supporter of Ms. Wilson-Raybould, accused Mr. Trudeau of “yelling” at her when she decided not to run again this fall.
Several polls suggest that the turmoil has hurt Mr. Trudeau.
The charismatic leader who used to boast about his feminism and who promised open and consensus based politics has come to be viewed as the leader of a mostly male, back-room gang who worked over a female minister on behalf of a powerful corporation that has acknowledged its involvement in corruption.
And after years of leading the polls, his Liberal Party has narrowly dropped behind the Conservatives in some polls.
This week, Mr. Trudeau signaled that his plan for dealing with the SNC-Lavalin affair was to declare it over. The Liberal majority on the House of Commons committee where Ms. Wilson-Raybould and others have testified shut down its investigation on Tuesday.
Later that day came the spending plan, known as the budget. It seemingly offered a little something for nearly everyone.
In addition to the home-buying measures, it offers cash to cities; help for newspapers to hire journalists; the first inklings of a publicly funded drug plan; expands high-speed internet in rural areas as well as billions of dollars for Indigenous communities; and makes it easier for older people to keep working without losing old age benefits.
Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative opposition called it a “cover-up.”
His party is demanding that Ms. Wilson-Raybould be allowed to again testify at the committee, a request that was denied last week.
With chants of “let her speak,” Conservative members of Parliament pounded on their desks and drowned out the speech in the House of Commons by Bill Morneau, the finance minister, to introduce the budget.
Now Mr. Scheer is trying to paralyze Parliament through procedural measures.
Karl Bélanger, a former adviser to the opposition New Democratic Party, which is to the left of the Liberals, said Mr. Trudeau’s setback may have provided a useful shake-up.
“It may have shed some of the arrogance that was emanating from the prime minister’s office,” he said. “They now know that they can’t take anything for granted so they may be in better fighting form.”
At Cardinal Creek, Mr. Trudeau’s remarks were all about housing and the budget.
But the questions from reporters that followed were all about SNC-Lavalin.
Speaking with reporters, Mr. Trudeau dismissed the need to hear more testimony from Ms. Wilson-Raybould or anyone else.
“People can be reassured that there was a full airing of everything associated with the issue at hand and we now continue to move forward on responding to the other concerns that people have,” he told reporters.
As the prime minister strolled back to his motorcade down the street, Mr. Allen, the resident of the development, said he was unimpressed by Mr. Trudeau’s suggestion that the SNC-Lavalin affair was over.
“Everybody should be allowed to speak,” he said, referring to Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
But he held little hope that all of his lingering questions will be answered.
“They’re doing a good job of shutting it down,” he said, adding, “It’s going to die.”