Justin Trudeau: Liberal Saviour or Celebrity Dud?

By Angus Gillespie

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The sagging fortunes of the federal Liberal party have sunk so precipitously low during the past few years that they are no longer the official opposition in Parliament, relegated to a humiliating third position behind the NDP and in need of a giant leap upwards just to reach the top of the political roadside curb.

A number of staunch supporters of the once mighty big red machine admit the wheels fell off after two disastrous leadership reigns by Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, neither of whom seemed able to connect with the Canadian public on a level necessary to win trust. One came off as weak; the other arrogant and all-knowing. Such characterizations may not be fair or even true, but perception is a very powerful tool in the political arena and is most often difficult – if not impossible – to reverse after it’s gained any sort of momentum in the public realm.   

For quite some time the door has been wide open for a fresh face successor to take charge and lead the rudderless Grits back to respectability. Despite the leadership convention still being months away, it’s evident the Liberals already have their man in Justin Trudeau, the soon to be 41-year-old son of one of Canada’s most famous prime ministers, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau.  This could represent new beginnings for the Liberals, or wind up being just another nightmare, depending on whether he has any substance beneath that well-polished outer surface.  

Joining the Race

It was early last month when Trudeau made the official announcement that he would be seeking the leadership with the ultimate goal of going head-to-head against incumbent Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to head the country.  However, Trudeau’s decision was rather anti-climactic as many knew he would be making the run months earlier. It became plainly apparent when it was learned interim leader Bob Rae had contacted Trudeau about his intentions, knowing full well he couldn’t beat his much younger and more popular opponent.  If the NDP skeletons in his closet weren’t enough to convince him to bow out of the race, the Trudeau factor certainly provided the clincher. 

Trudeau has been in the political spotlight for less than five years.  He narrowly secured victory in his riding of Papineau, Que. defeating Bloc Quebecois incumbent Vivian Bardot in 2008 but widened his margin considerably in last year’s election, knocking off NDP candidate Marcos Radhames Tejada with Bardot relegated to third. 

The next generation Trudeau acknowledges he’ll face a tough task of rebuilding the once-powerful party if he wins the leadership contest and will be faced with many different obstacles than what stood in the way of his father when he first came to power as Liberal leader and prime minister in 1968, with Lester Pearson stepping down. 

Justin Trudeau has publicly stated it will be a single party battle, as opposed to a quick fix of reuniting the left in a merge with the NDP; that’s an idea that flies directly in opposition to his plans. The Canadian Business Journal was on hand as Trudeau made his way through the southern Ontario cities of Burlington and Hamilton and he touched on a number of topics, including the question of amalgamation with the NDP.

“I don’t think it’s an interesting idea,” Trudeau rejects outright. “I know I have chosen to run for the Liberal party of Canada because I plan on running 308 candidates across the country in the next general election – if I am granted the opportunity to lead this party. I want to be leader of the Liberal party, not some sort of hybrid, semi-ideological formation. The NDP is an ideological party of the left and the Conservatives are an ideological party of the right. We’re a pragmatic centrist party that is ready to take from the left or the right, depending on what actually works.”

Appealing to Supporters

There were several hundred people on hand when Trudeau made his way to the Sheraton Hotel Ballroom in downtown Hamilton in what was then just his second week on the campaign trail. Of note was that Trudeau focused most of his attention on the ruling Conservatives and Stephen Harper – a sure sign he, like many others, are already convinced there won’t be much of a leadership race for the Liberal party – it’s his to take.

“It’s going to be a mountain of work, but I think it is also a real opportunity,” Trudeau told a media scrum. “It is politics as usual that is making people incredibly cynical. They don’t trust politics in general. They don’t trust their politicians. If my candidacy has generated the kind of interest that it has, it’s not just about me. It’s very much about people saying ‘Wow, can we get someone who is unequivocal? Who speaks for all corners of the country?”’

Trudeau carries a strong air of confidence and charisma with each stride he makes and statement he utters, but there are a considerable number of Canadians who believe he short-tracked his way to success thanks to his father’s name. It’s a notion the son does not take kindly to. 

“All my life people have said ‘we love you because of your father’ or ‘we dislike you because of your father,’” Trudeau shoots back. “I’ve had to sort of shrug and say ‘thank you’ or ‘no thank you’ to each one, but not allow it to define me. I tried to define myself through my career with a lot of hard work.”

One of the biggest drawbacks for Trudeau in terms of entering a leadership race, with an ultimate goal of being prime minister, is the amount of time it will mean being away from his wife Sophie and two young children.

There’s no doubting Trudeau’s enthusiastic, energetic charisma and perhaps he needs more time to get acclimatized to the environment he’s now catapulting himself into. But at some point in the very near future people are going to what to hear more than the safe speeches and ‘we can do better’ statements and actually get down to policy and what makes him unique from other politicians including those within his own party. He believes the Liberals still have something to offer the average Canadian, but the party has lost its way.

Rah-Rah Rallies

It’s plain to see Trudeau’s intent is to engage the middle class, which is where he believes the Liberal party had its roots and needs to re-establish that bond which has been noticeably absent for some time now.

“It’s about what’s happening in the middle,” he says. “Hard working Canadians who are finding it harder to get by on salaries that just don’t seem to be increasing enough; debt load that’s increasing; costs that are rising and people wondering for the first time in generations if perhaps their kids aren’t automatically going to have it slightly better than we have it now.”

Trudeau also says a reversal of progress has a number of Canadians worried about what the future holds. We’ve all seen the erosion, but what has escaped us is how to effectively turn it around. How do we build a stronger Canada?

“The key to what makes Canada great is the middle class,” he says. But that’s a statement quite likely to be uttered by each party leader, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and on down the line. Regardless of whether you have $,1,000 or $10 million in your bank account, everyone gets a vote – and there are no doubt lots more Canadians who can more closely relate to the $1,000 bank account.

Talking about regaining the middle class is a common-sense rally cry because that’s where the numbers are. But in order to achieve that goal some ideas and policy need to be put on the table.

“Stephen Harper put a big X over Quebec and the Atlantic provinces,” Trudeau chortles. “He’s playing up to one industry and promising others that the wealth will trickle down. It doesn’t work. And the NDP has decided that being the flip side to Stephen Harper is their best path to power and they got someone who’s put an X over Alberta and has decided to run in Ontario and Quebec.”

“Who will speak for all of Canada and who will speak to all of Canada?” Trudeau asks. “Unfortunately we’ve gotten to a place where we’ve forgotten that, where the Liberal party is somehow waiting for Canadians to wake up and realize that Mr. Harper just isn’t a very nice person and therefore people should vote for the Liberal again. But I don’t want to engage with the politics of personality. I think attacking people individually is not the way to go in politics as much as I disagree with Stephen Harper. Someone recently looked at all the media coverage and said ‘Justin, Stephen Harper must be really afraid of you’. But Stephen Harper is not afraid of me – Stephen Harper is afraid of all of you.”

Putting on a brave face is indeed part of the process to launching a successful comeback for a party that once held a huge power base from coast to coast. But in the past decade it’s been eroded to the point some political analysts wondered whether it could even survive without some form of amalgamation.  Times have changed, and to Trudeau’s credit, he acknowledges that aspect and realizes what happened yesterday has very little to do with what will happen tomorrow. Getting back to the grass roots is necessary, along with some hard work. 

“The Liberal party from time to time still falls into the trap of saying ‘people will wake up and come back to us’ but what has that kind of thinking has gotten us? In 2000 we had 170 seats; the election after that we had about 130; the election after that 100; the election after that 77; the election after that – this past one – 34. I’m sorry, but that’s a straight line and it ends up in the next election – because I’m not losing Papineau. ” 

Refusing to be pinpointed with an obvious left of centre political dynamic, Trudeau takes a more diplomatic approach and says it’s about making the best decisions for Canadians.  

“As we move forward we need to make sure we’re drawing on whatever works,” he notes. “I don’t care whether it comes from the left or the right as long as it’s based in evidence and facts and actually works to help us live and achieve our values and help us thrive.”

Testing Trudeau’s Mettle

Trudeau says it’s going to take his leadership to prove that the Liberals are once again a party that is serious about governing and earning the trust of Canadians.

Up until now, the son of Pierre Trudeau and Margaret (nee Kemper) has been seen by many as being long on celebrity but short on substance. It’s a perception that is hard to argue because, to date, he’s not provided any real meaty dialogue with which to grab hold of and generate discussion.  Name recognition helps for a brief upward jolt, but it’s not sustaining. Recent polls indicate that Trudeau’s announcement of entering the leadership race immediately vaulted the Liberals ahead of the NDP. Unfortunately, that may say a lot more about the average voter than anything else.  

There had been scuttlebutt that Dalton McGuinty might be looking to challenge Trudeau for the national leadership, but those rumours were quashed when the outgoing Ontario premier stated outright he would not be seeking the nomination.  McGuinty has said remaining on as premier until the end of January will be a full time job and he wouldn’t be able to orchestrate a proper federal campaign, on the assumption he even wanted to do so. McGuinty would have been seen as a significant challenger to Justin Trudeau if for no other reason than to force discussion on policy and leadership. The Ontario leader will be replaced at the provincial Liberal party convention in Toronto on Jan. 25. Ironically, one of Trudeau’s campaign strategists is a man named Gerald Butts, who formerly worked as an adviser to McGuinty. Rae and Ignatieff were one-time college roommates. Trudeau also has a half sister, 21-year-old Sarah Elisabeth Coyne, who was born during a 1990s relationship between his father and Deborah Coyne, who is a candidate to run against Justin for the national leadership. That means young Sarah Elisabeth may get to watch her mother and half brother go at it in the political arena. You just can’t make this stuff up. 

Strategic Movements

The greater issue for the federal Liberals is not literally that McGuinty has bowed out; they want to ensure their next national leader has all the qualities necessary to bring them out of political purgatory. The resurrection must be strong but there is a relatively large faction of Liberals who are not so quietly questioning whether or not Trudeau is the man to be at the focal point after all the hype and hoopla dies down. There are also those who want to see Trudeau’s mettle tested by a tough opponent within the party to determine how he withstands aggressive competition, rather than finding out too late that he’d be no match for Stephen Harper. Just handing the Golden Spoon to the Chosen One could be a colossal mistake, and many Liberals strategists know it.  Three strikes and they may be out for good.

“I’d agree that there hasn’t been a whole lot of content,” states Peter Graefe, political science assistant professor at McMaster University. “There’s a large number of Canadians who don’t follow politics very closely and so they don’t have a very strong information base and often fall for celebrity.”

“It’s hard to say how the Liberals feel. Maybe they want candidates that don’t have too much policy out there so the Conservatives don’t have a chance to ramp up their ads on things that are said in a leadership race. One of the dangers for a party in a leadership race is that you play to the base of the party which isn’t necessarily the same group that you have to reach out to if you’re going to win an election.”

One of the key problems facing Trudeau will be distancing the Liberals from the NDP, because there are times when it’s quite frankly difficult to tell the difference.

“I think where the Liberal party is right now is probably not that far from the NDP in terms of the base of the party,” Graefe states. “So if you have a leadership race with a lot of content, the danger from a Liberal strategist point of view – where they want to run a bit closer to the ruling Harper Conservatives – is that they’re going to be saddled with a bunch of promises that play to the base.”

It would seem as if Trudeau wants to keep his powder dry until he knows who the other candidates are. If he comes out making strong statements he may paint himself into a corner. Other than Coyne, who’s intentions on running are not yet 100 per cent clear, there has been no other major name step up to formulate a challenge thus far. Former astronaut Marc Garneau is a possible candidate although he hasn’t really made much of an impression as a political on the national stage.  Getting back to McGuinty, Graefe isn’t surprised his name won’t be on the ballot.

“I really don’t think he was looking at the federal stage to be honest,” Graefe reveals. “Being the premier of the province of Ontario is probably a much more exciting proposition than going to become the leader of the third party in Parliament.  People sometimes ask the same questions about Roy Romanow. Saskatchewan seemed too small a pond for him; he wanted to be a national leader but never was willing to step up to run the NDP because he knew he was going to be the third, fourth of fifth party in Parliament.”

It’s definitely not clear at this point that the Liberal party is going to win the next federal election by any means, and so candidates must ask themselves do they really want to be out in the wild for a number of years waiting for a potential opportunity down the road.

Graefe brings up good reasons as to why the Liberals may want to see a solid challenger to Trudeau, other than to test his strength as a leader. 

“They want to sell memberships and build upon riding associations and if you have a chosen heir and no real race you don’t have candidates going out trying to sign people up and you don’t have the local organizations to get people to vote. If there’s a race, you’re in the media. If it’s a foregone conclusion, you quickly fall out of it.”

We’re in a tight economic and financial situation in this country and there’s real questions and concerns as to what the business and political strategy should be moving into 2013.

Part of the content in Trudeau’s launch speech included Dutch disease and whether natural resource development is creating problems for the manufacturing sector with the government saying one thing and the NDP saying another and Trudeau seemingly agreeing with neither side.

“Trudeau kind of spat on both the Conservatives and the NDP, but then we have to ask, ‘well what’s the answer Justin?’” Graefe notes. “Either there’s a problem there or there isn’t. You have to have some kind of vision on these debates.”

“He seems to me to be a bright person but someone who hasn’t been forced to actually deal much with the real world at least in terms of having to have a consequential view of how the world works. I don’t get the sense he’s ever been pushed to develop that.”

The Liberal leadership convention to replace Michael Ignatieff is slated for April 14, 2013 in Ottawa, although Bob Rae has been serving as interim leader since Ignatieff left the political stage following a crushing defeat at the hands of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.  It’s already clear who will win next April.

What happens afterwards will be the interesting part.