August 15, 2019 / 6:04 PM / 2 months ago

Ethics breach plunges Canada's Trudeau back into image crisis ahead of vote

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s already tough re-election bid got tougher this week when the country’s ethics watchdog delivered a scathing rebuke less than 10 weeks before the October vote.

FILE PHOTO: Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waits to be introduced before speaking about a watchdog's report that he breached ethics rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case regarding SNC-Lavalin, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Andrej Ivanov

Independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion on Wednesday said Trudeau improperly pressured his former attorney general to spare engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group (SNC.TO) from a corruption trial.

The scandal, which first erupted in February, helped catapult Trudeau’s Conservative rival, Andrew Scheer, to the top in polls for several months. Recently, with no new developments or headlines, Liberal Party support was recovering.

But Wednesday’s 63-page report, chock full of new details about the saga, provides fresh ammunition to Scheer and further undermines Trudeau’s narrative, which is that he is a young and dynamic progressive on a mission to “do things differently” and more transparently in Ottawa.

“The big issue for the Liberal Party of Canada is that this undercuts their top asset - the prime minister’s brand,” said Darrell Bricker, head of polling company Ipsos Public Affairs. “It’s what won the last election. He IS their strategy.”

Konrad Yakabuski, a columnist for the Globe and Mail - the country’s most influential newspaper - was more blunt: “Mr. Trudeau may not get a second term.”

It’s too early for pollsters to measure the damage, but before the report most polls had Scheer slightly leading or tied with Trudeau, while the Liberals were gaining momentum in the provinces key to winning a parliamentary majority - Ontario and Quebec.

“It really comes down to a matter of timing,” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, another pollster. “Will Justin Trudeau have enough time to absorb this set back?”

The election is set for Oct. 21.

“(Trudeau) promised he would be different.¬†Instead, we now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Justin Trudeau is not as advertised,” Scheer said.

Trudeau has stuck to his guns, saying he was seeking to prevent potential job losses at SNC-Lavalin that could arise out of a costly trial.

“I won’t apologise for being there to defend Canadian jobs. It’s my job as prime minister to defend those jobs,” he repeated on Thursday in Fredricton, New Brunswick, where he announced an C$11.4 million investment in flood protection for the city.

For Trudeau, it was business as usual, which in the summer before an election means making almost daily federal funding announcements in districts the Liberals hope to pick up.

Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates polling company, said that it is possible that the effects of the ethics report will be limited because Canadians have already had time to digest the scandal, but polls will provide an accurate picture of the damage in a couple weeks.

“It will put some wind in the sails of the Conservative attack plan, and Trudeau will take a hit,” Graves said.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson; Editing by Sandra Maler

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