Justin Trudeau is facing the biggest crisis of his political career as pressure mounts on the Canadian prime minister over allegations that he interfered improperly in a corruption case involving a Montreal engineering company.
News of a slowing Canadian economy compounded Mr Trudeau’s challenges on Friday as he reshuffled his cabinet, less than eight months before federal elections in which polls show the opposition Conservatives as an increasing threat to his re-election.
Statistics Canada reported on Friday that growth in real GDP slowed to just 0.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2018, well below forecasts of a 1 per cent advance and down from annualised 2 per cent growth in the third quarter.
Mr Trudeau’s reshuffle, which installed new ministers of agriculture, veterans affairs and international development, followed the resignation in February of former justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Ms Wilson-Raybould, one of 15 women and two indigenous people to join Mr Trudeau’s first cabinet in 2015, told a House of Commons committee this week that she had faced “consistent and sustained” efforts by several people in Mr Trudeau’s government to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin, a Montreal-based company embroiled in allegations that its executives bribed foreign officials.
Mr Trudeau, 47, was part of the “inappropriate” intervention, Ms Wilson-Raybould told the justice committee. She said he asked her to “find a solution” that would avoid SNC-Lavalin having to cut jobs or move from Montreal. Mr Trudeau has challenged her account and has denied any improper attempt to help the company avoid criminal prosecution.
Roland Paris, professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former adviser to Mr Trudeau, said he was sure the prime minister understood the gravity of the situation.
“It comes at a terrible time, just months before the election, it involves the highest officials in government including the prime minister and it’s done real damage to his brand,” he told the Financial Times. Mr Trudeau campaigned in 2015 on restoring transparency and “sunny ways” to Canadian politics but has seen his electoral support weaken.
Canada faces “yet another chapter” in the SNC-Lavalin case next week when some of the prime minister’s allies are expected to give their account of the affair to parliament, Mr Paris noted.
“It will be up to Canadians to determine which account they find more credible,” he said. “The line dividing appropriate discussion and inappropriate influence is not clear and the facts of the case are in dispute.”
Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party, risked overstretching by calling for Mr Trudeau’s resignation and asking the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to launch a criminal investigation into the affair, Mr Paris said, but Canada’s parliamentary ethics commissioner has already begun to look into the allegations.
Friday’s economic statistics pointed to another concern for Mr Trudeau, showing that falling investment spending had dragged GDP growth down to its weakest level since the second quarter of 2016.
Canada’s central bank has already signalled that interest rates — already at a 10-year high — may need to rise further this year.