March 29, 2024 - 1:00pm

After a year of declining poll numbers, failed resets and embarrassing scandals, Justin Trudeau’s government is now experiencing a slow-motion collapse, a kind of political “slow heat death”. 

Usually, leaders who have stayed in power for nearly a decade, as Trudeau has, can look forward to leaving behind a legacy in the form of a signature policy that will endure beyond their own political lives. But the Canadian PM may not even have that, because on 1 April Canada’s federal carbon tax is set to increase, and what had been a relatively uncontroversial measure when it was introduced nearly five years ago has become nothing short of a political firestorm. 

The centrepiece of Trudeau’s climate change plan has aroused a broad array of opposition, not only from Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives, who are pushing back against what they call the “April Fools’ tax hike”,  but even among fellow Liberals and other progressives at provincial level. 

The last remaining Liberal provincial premier in Canada, Andrew Furey of Newfoundland and Labrador, has described the carbon tax as “net negative” and “a punishment for residents at a time of soaring prices and stagnant wages”, while the leader of the Ontario Liberals, Bonnie Crombie, announced that a carbon tax would not be part of her platform. Something similar is also happening with the Left-wing opposition in the oil-rich province of Alberta. On Tuesday, Trudeau issued a challenge to all anti-carbon tax provinces to produce their own alternatives to Ottawa’s carbon levy, something they are unlikely to do. Clearly, these politicians are feeling the need to distance themselves from the increasingly toxic Trudeau brand.

The idea of putting a price on carbon was once heralded by economists as an efficient, market-based method to spur decarbonisation, and had been endorsed by right-of-centre policymakers in Canada. When Trudeau implemented carbon pricing in 2019, amid broad levels of public support, it seemed like an easy policy and political victory. But subsequent bouts of inflation and a worsening cost-of-living crisis made an anodyne measure feel like an unnecessary burden for many. 

For a prime minister who supposedly came to power on the back of exceptional political communication skills, Trudeau appears to have dropped the ball in failing to register the deep dissatisfaction his policies have aroused in the Canadian public. Indeed, the carbon tax is just the latest example of his long list of failures in governance. Under his watch, a severe housing shortage has made a middle-class standard of living unattainable for many Canadians; a dysfunctional immigration system has made competition for jobs and resources more extreme; and a botched government travel app has laid bare Ottawa’s tendencies toward wasteful spending and administrative incompetence. 

Trudeau’s remaining time in office will likely be characterised by rearguard battles where the Prime Minister tries to save face and salvage a legacy as he confronts the inevitability of a landslide defeat at the next election. In his first campaign in 2015, his first great achievement had been to save the faltering Liberals from the brink by bringing them from third to first place. In 2024, by holding on to an unpopular tax and refusing to step down, his final political act may be to lead his party back into electoral oblivion. 

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.