How Trudeau performs when tested

John Geddes revisits ‘the coronation route’


Peter Bregg for Maclean’s

The scoffing term for what’s about to happen to Justin Trudeau, in case you haven’t picked up on it, is “coronation.” The implication being that the dauphin strolled unimpeded through the Liberal leadership race, which wraps up with presentations today in Toronto from Trudeau and his five remaining—well, I guess they are still to be called—rivals. (The online and telephone balloting by some 127,000 Liberal party members and supporters who signed up to vote runs April 7 to April 14, when the winner will be announced in Ottawa.)

Yet if a crown is to be placed, so to speak, on the most ogled head of hair in Canadian politics—the wavy antithesis of Stephen Harper’s helmet—it’s not like those locks haven’t been mussed a bit along the way. Trudeau’s frontrunner status may never have been threatened, but all his key purported weaknesses—thin experience, a cosseted upbringing, a brittle stance on Quebec, aversion to left-of-centre cooperation—were pointedly highlighted along the way.

At those moments, Conservatives and New Democrats were watching  most closely, and so they are worth recapping for signs of whether these tests did more to expose Trudeau’s vulnerabilities or fortify his defences.

He hasn’t done or said much. This was the line of attack most aggressively pursued by Montréal MP Marc Garneau, the famous former astronaut who was widely seen as running a distant second until he dropped out on Feb. 13, declaring himself a man of science who accepted the data showing Trudeau to be unbeatable.

But before then, Garneau, who also successfully headed the Canadian Space Agency, repeatedly ripped Trudeau for having done nothing in his life to prepare himself for the job he was seeking. During his bluntest debate assault, Garneau demanded: “So please tell us what in your resume qualifies you to be the leader of the country.”

Trudeau, whose was a schoolteacher before entering politics, might have answered that he’d twice won a Montréal riding that is far from a safe Liberal seat. But his answer was more telling than that obvious rejoinder. “You can’t win over Canadians with a five-point plan,” he said. “You have to connect with them and we have to make room with Canadians in the debate that we have coming forward.”

So it’s not about platform or credentials for Trudeau and his crew. It’s about making an emotional connection with any voters who aren’t already emotionally committed to Harper. In other words, it’s about doing what the late Jack Layton did in 2011.

He’s a privileged guy with a famous name. No sane leadership contender would hint publicly at lack of regard for Pierre Trudeau, beloved Liberal icon, but Martha Hall Findlay took a rather reckless shot at the other aspect of Justin’s family background—wealth and privilege.

After all, Trudeau spent much of his campaign talking about the middle class, which he’s not. “I find it a little challenging,” Hall Findlay said in a memorable debate exchange in Mississauga, Ont., “to understand how you would understand the real challenges facing Canadians.”

Trudeau’s reply—”What is important for me is to put everything that I’ve received, like each of us wants to, in service of my community”—went over well with the Liberals in the room. But Harper, who has made much of his middle-income hockey-dad credentials, might well find a way to revive the theme. The danger for Trudeau is less being cast as a child of privilege than being accused of having not done much with it. That’s the link, when you think about it, between Garneau’s line of attack and Hall Findlay’s.

He doesn’t get contemporary Quebec.  As a former justice minister from Jean Chrétien’s government, Martin Cauchon arguably has the most solid political credentials of all the Liberal leadership contenders. Yet Cauchon would barely have figured in the contest, had he not sparred with Trudeau on the delicate matter of Quebec and the Constitution.

He urges Liberals to consider a long-term strategy for somehow coaxing a future Quebec provincial government into signing the Constitution, as repatriated and amended by Pierre Trudeau in 1982, over the objections of a separatist regime in Quebec City. Cauchon calls Justin Trudeau’s emphatic rejection of any opening at all on the Constitution “empty” and “old-fashioned.”

Trudeau used his closing remarks at the leadership debate in Montreal to lash back.”For far too long we’ve tried to buy Quebec, to buy them off rather than to get them involved,” he said. His campaign strategists argue that Quebec voters are turned off by any mention of the constitution, including NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s approach, and so Trudeau’s stand is a potential winner.

But there’s a quite different undercurrent to Trudeau’s Quebec appeal that is in danger of being missed in all the attention given to the friction between he and Cauchon. The dominant political narrative in Quebec—from 2004’s Gomery commission into the so-called sponsorship scandal, to the ongoing Charbonneau commission hearings into construction industry corruption—has been about debased political ethics. Trudeau may be relatively inexperienced, but he’s also entirely untainted.

He denies the need for progressive cooperation. In a race that has rarely focused on fully-formed policy ideas, the Vancouver MP Joyce Murray’s proposal for left-of-centre cooperation in the next federal election has stood out for its bracing, divisive clarity.  Murray calls for a temporary co-operation pact among Liberals, Greens and New Democrats—good for one election only—to beat Harper and then pass electoral reforms. (She urges moving toward away from Canada’s first-past-the-post voting system and toward proportional representation.)

Trudeau is having none of it. He criticizes Murray’s co-operation concept for its “single-minded focus, not on governing, but on winning, on taking away power from people we don’t like.” Recent polls giving Liberals hope they might win without resorting to alliances with the NDP and Greens must bolster his position.

But this debate is less about electoral calculations than about Trudeau’s assessment of congenital incompatibilities on the left of the Canadian political spectrum. In an interview last year with Maclean’s, he contrasted the unification of the right, as accomplished by Harper in 2003, and the notion of symmetrical coming together of Canadian progressives.

“The right didn’t unite so much as reunite,” Trudeau said. “I mean, Reform was very much a western movement breaking away from Brian Mulroney. But they broke away, then they came back together. The NDP and the Liberals come from very, very, very different traditions.”

For all his youth, his Twitter-era aura, his thin experience, it is when Trudeau evokes tradition that he might reveal the most about himself. He’s got some old-school qualities. They may never have really rattled him, but Garneau, Hall Findlay, Cauchon and Murray pressed hard enough to show that Trudeau could run a traditional, risk-averse front-runner’s race.

The next one, though, surely won’t be his to lose.


How Trudeau performs when tested

  1. This reads like a press release from Trudeau’s press secretary. In a broader context it legitimizes the characterization of a “Media Party” that not only fawns over Trudeau but actively promotes him and defends him from every criticism – literally, in this case.

    • Or maybe Trudeau impressed John Geddes, who is never anything but a fair and reasonable journalist with all parties. I am tired of reading accusations against media by partisans who disagree with what was written. And Trudeau’s campaign has been relentlessly positive and upbeat, which I tell you tastes really good after all the bitter bile in Canadian politics the past few years. I like feeling positive and it looks like other Canadians do too. Why blame media for writing what they observe just because you don’t agree?

      • Chantal Hebert was also impressed with Trudeau at the TStar editorial board, and I’ve never actually heard her say anything great about Liberals. So maybe, just maybe, he was impressive (whether or not you like the fact).

        • This is different though, a point by point rebuttal of any & every criticism made against Justin. That’s the job of a press secretary, not a columnist. This crosses the line, but who cares, this is Maclean’s, a Liberal house organ, as evidenced by the nearly unanimous Liberal commentariat here.

          • It is an opinion piece. It would be silly to forgo giving an opinion under the circumstances, wouldn’t it? You can accept it or reject it as you like. Geddes gave his view and backed it up; all I see you doing is saying the opinion is no good because it doesn’t match yours.

            Maybe if you can do a point by point rebuttal of his analysis, I might give your opinion a bit more weight…

      • Of course you’d say that, you’re part of the media party too. ;-)

        It’s simple really. If you criticize the CPC or say anything positive about another party then you are by definition a “Harper-Hater” and a member of the “MSM” and you support “the Shiny Pony” because you really like his hair.

        Nuance is for losers and eggheads, just memorize the above and bray it repeatedly at every opportunity.

        • His hair is really lovely.

          • Positively dreamy.

  2. This comment was deleted.

    • Barbot was a Strong incumbent and challenger… that was JG’s point.

    • I think it is hysterical that Trudeau apologists think Trudeau wining a seat in Montreal is somehow a stellar achievement that proves his popularity across Canada and that he’s ready for any attack from non-slavish Liberals.

      • Maybe it’s not an impressive thing to you, but it’s more than Haper has done with his easy riding. To win a Bloc riding after the sponsorship scandal is big deal.Papineau was Liberal back when almost all federal ridings in Quebec were Liberal held, the sponsorship scandal changed things in Quebec. So yes to get that seat back was without a doubt big for Liberals. You can down play it all you want, but it won’t change the facts.

  3. voltaire – C’est un poids bien pesant qu’un nom trop tôt fameux

  4. The question then becomes whether these battles were of any interest to anyone else but the few Liberals and maclean’s journalists.

  5. Again. The 2013 LPC leadership race has been rigged in Justin’s favor right from the very beginning. More press coverage, photo-ops, sound bites, pundits punting for him, and candidates dropping out because his “numbers” were so “overwhelming.” This rich kid’s been campaigning soley on the strength of his fathers reputation and very litle else. His supporters? A bunch of ‘trendy wendys’ all trying to get on the Trudeau political bandwagon. Let’s hope that its wheels don’t fall off along the way to 2015.

    • Or maybe the media is interested in the candidate that bring the most traffic and hits to their site? I would say you are proof of that. you clearly are not pro JT, but you still can’t resist reading and commenting on a story about him. Doubtful you would care to read about Deborah Coyne or Karen McCrimmon. Love him or not people are still interested.

      • Martha Hall Findlay had a much more reasoned, policy centered approach in her speech, than Justin’s sentimentalized, over the top, remake of the famous photo he received of him and his famous father. He’s a politically challenged centrist. A bore. And a poser. Someone who doesn’t mind charging any special interest group full freight for a two hour speech about nothing in particular.
        I don’t dislike him. He’s a product of an entitled upbring. The proper schooling. The right connections. It’s more of a healthy skepticism. He doesn’t believe in what he says. This bid for the leadeship is all about his rather large ego. And that Lander Justin about sums it all up.

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