Jacinda Ardern’s surprise resignation last week has prompted fresh questions over the future of Justin Trudeau, another liberal prime minister with celebrity-like status whose popularity has waned in recent months.
Ardern has won praise – and criticism – for her decision to step down ahead of an October election as the Labor party readies to fight for a third term amid dwindling electoral prospects.
Her decision has prompted speculation whether Ardern’s blunt assessment, that she didn’t have “enough gas in the tank” to fight another election, could influence how Canada’s Trudeau views his own legacy.
“[He’s] getting awfully close to his Ardern moment, that run-away-or-run-again point at which he can still bow out and leave his voters, his cabinet and his caucus clapping for more,” wrote a columnist with CTV News on the “ eerily familiar” parallels with the New Zealand leader’s rise and fall.
Under a deal with the leftwing New Democratic party, known as a confidence and supply agreement, Trudeau is expected to stay in power until 2025. And the prime minister, who has led his Liberal party for the last decade, has explicitly said he fully intends to contest his fourth federal election in the coming years.
But after Trudeau eked out a victory in 2021, support for his government has sagged. The Liberals trail rival Conservatives and polling suggests they would lose their majority of seats in parliament if an election was held soon. And a new book by former finance minister Bill Morneau, who left after a public feud with the prime minister, has sharply criticized Trudeau’s management style and questioned his competency on key policy issues.
But experts warn the biggest issue for the prime minister is himself.
“Trudeau has wonderful charm and warmth and the ability to emote and connect with others. He’s great at reading a room and taking the pulse about other things. That’s kind of his superpower. But he has a blind spot: himself. Especially when it comes to being a good judge of his own behavior,” said Lori Turnbull, a director of Dalhousie University’s school of public administration.
The prime minister has been at the center of a growing list of controversies while in power – a miscalculated trip to India, a number of ethics violations and an ill-advised trip to a beach resort during the country’s first-ever national holiday to recognize past abuses against Indigenous peoples.
“What he needs is for someone to speak honestly with him and say, ‘Prime minister, this is a terrible idea. You can’t do it.’ He has to trust someone else to be his eyes because of his blind spot,” said Turnbull, pointing out that Trudeau’s advisers remain friends from university. “And I’m not sure if he has that.”
After taking control of a battered party in 2013, Trudeau has remained a dominant figure among Liberals and no clear successor has emerged. Chrystia Freeland, his deputy prime minister and finance minister, once floated as a possible replacement, is rumored to be more interested in a senior role at Nato.
But pollster Éric Grenier at the Writer says Trudeau has come back from similar popularity deficits, pointing out that most of the prime minister’s most embarrassing public fumbles have come when the party is most popular, not when it’s struggling in the polls.
“He’s still competitive and he tends to poll pretty well compared to his own party. The Liberals are identified so much with him now and so a generic replacement candidate might not actually do any better than Trudeau,” he said.
Previous resignations in Canadian political history – including that of Trudeau’s father, prime minister Pierre Trudeau – came as the party faced steep losses or infighting.
“If the next election is about putting the tired old Liberal government out of its misery, then he’s going to be not a good candidate to fight. But if it’s about where the Conservatives would take the country? Then he’s in a much better position,” said Grenier, pointing out that Trudeau has a “competitive streak” and has taken a more pugilistic stance towards rival Pierre Poilievre in recent weeks.
Unlike his predecessor Stephen Harper, Trudeau is widely seen as a political leader who most enjoys spending his time on the campaign trail and meeting with voters where he can often excites large crowds.
“Trudeau derives a lot of energy from the people and it feels like if he was on the campaign trail, and sensing that energy wasn’t there, he would see it, and know his time was up,” Grenier said. “But by then, it would be too late.”