PM Justin Trudeau starts a challenging six-week re-election campaign and immediately faces new questions about a nagging ethics scandal that could cut support for his Liberal Party.

Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference at Rideau Hall after asking Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve parliament, and mark the start of a federal election campaign, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September 11, 2019.
Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference at Rideau Hall after asking Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve parliament, and mark the start of a federal election campaign, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September 11, 2019. (Reuters)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday kicked off the campaign for next month's Canadian general election, gunning to hold onto his liberal majority in a tight race against newcomers on both flanks.

The parties have already been wooing voters with pre-election ads, announcements and whistle stops in key battlegrounds across the country.

But Governor General Julie Payette's dissolution of parliament, at Trudeau's behest, marked the official start of the race to the October 21 ballot.

Trudeau is admired abroad for his progressive policies but damaged by scandals at home, and opinion polls suggest his hold on power will be weakened.

Trudeau, whose Liberals swept to office in November 2015 promising "sunny ways" and stressing the importance of gender equality and the environment, faces an electorate more focused on the economy and affordability when it votes.

"We have a huge amount of work still to do ... under a Liberal government, Canada will continue to move forward," Trudeau told reporters after visiting the Ottawa residence of Payette, the acting head of state, to formally launch the race.

Weakened Liberal Party

The 47-year-old married father of three, whose colourful socks and classic good looks are often splashed across the international media, may have history on his side. Not since 1935 has a Canadian prime minister who won a parliamentary majority in his first term been booted from office in the next election.

But Trudeau may not win enough seats to govern by himself after a series of missteps that called into question his leadership while cutting into his once sky-high popularity. That would leave him and his Liberal Party weakened, relying on opposition members of parliament to push through legislation.

A Nanos Research poll released on Tuesday showed the Liberals at 34.6 percent and the main opposition Conservatives, led by Andrew Scheer, at 30.7 percent. That margin would not be enough to guarantee a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

'Punish the bums'

Liberals say they are quietly confident of victory and predict Trudeau will campaign much more effectively than Scheer, 40, who is fighting his first election as Conservative leader.

But Canadian campaigns can produce major surprises. The Liberals trailed in third place when the 2015 election was called but steadily improved to pull off an outright victory.

"This is not a 'Throw the bums out' election. This is a 'Punish the bums' election," said Nik Nanos, head of Nanos Research.

Trudeau's challenge is that he is running on his record rather than the uplifting message of hope and change that helped the Liberals attract record numbers of green, youth and aboriginal voters in 2015.

Since then, Trudeau, the son of former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, has broken major campaign promises by scrapping plans to introduce voter reform and allowing budget deficits to mushroom. He also angered environmentalists by buying an oil pipeline to ensure crude exports could increase.

"For average Canadians, the key takeaway ... is that Justin Trudeau is not an exception, he's like other politicians," said Nanos.

Liberals, however, cite near-record low jobless numbers, booming growth and lower levels of poverty as grounds for re-election.

World is watching

Although rivals may dismiss Trudeau's achievements, diplomats in allied countries say his focus on feminism, the environment and the need for multilateral organisations is important at a time when populism is on the rise and the United States seems intent on shrinking its global ambitions.

"We are paying very close attention. What will it mean if one of the few remaining progressive leaders is defeated?" said an official at one major Western embassy in Ottawa.

Major planks of the Liberal platform will include measures to address cellphone and internet bills and a limited expansion to the universal healthcare system to cover part of the cost of prescription drugs, say party insiders.

Source: Reuters