Justin Trudeau: A pugilist comes to fight

Amid obvious boxing imagery, score #macdebate as a decision for Justin Trudeau—if only because it wasn’t a decisive loss.


This time last summer, as Justin Trudeau rode a crest of public approval, you could imagine the Liberal leader living up to the hype—spreading energy and optimism across a political landscape scorched by negativity. He’d won some credibility as a riding-level campaigner. He’d pressed down the instinctive whimsy that made him look frivolous. He was a leader around whom his humbled party might coalesce.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? The idea still required a certain suspension of disbelief. The inevitable barrage of Conservative attack ads would form an acid test of his leadership. (Would the Liberals fight fire with fire?) An even greater challenge lay ahead in Trudeau’s first campaign debate. His capacity to stand face-to-appraising-face with the battle-hardened Stephen Harper—to withstand and counter the PM’s cool dissections of Grit policy and Trudeau’s own public remarks—could determine whether the Tories’ just-not-ready branding would stick. Would he break out of the frame? Or would he play the part written for him, quailing before Harper’s intellectual might?

On Thursday, Trudeau came ready to fight. If you had doubts, he knocked them aside with a clangingly obvious morning photo-op, strapping on the gloves at a boxing gym and throwing a few combos at his trainer’s punch pads. More than a nod to his last great upset, a TKO win in a charity boxing match against Sen. Patrick Brazeau, it reflected the do-or-die nature of Trudeau’s challenge. If he landed even a few punches, he could compete with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair for status as the presumptive alternative to the incumbent. If he confirmed the worst misgivings planted by the ads, he’d create a rut well nigh impossible to escape for the rest of the campaign. And, in this election, the Liberals’ share of the centre-left vote will be pivotal, possibly determining which party forms a government, and whether it wins a majority.

Score it, then, as a decision for Trudeau—if only because it wasn’t a decisive loss.

Kory Teneycke, the Conservative campaign spokesman, boasted before the Maclean’s debate that the Liberal leader would exceed expectations, “if he comes on stage with his pants on,” neatly summing up how deeply the Tories have distorted public perceptions of Trudeau with their ads. The trouble with that strategy is the damage to the messenger’s credibility when the story proves wrong, and Trudeau simply refused to play to type. Through all but a couple of exchanges, he maintained his poise, and although his handle on policy wasn’t as steady as Harper’s or Mulcair’s, it wasn’t glaringly weak. For two solid hours, he went toe-to-toe with three seasoned leaders. At no point did he seem out of place.

Trudeau’s best moments emerged from tilts at Harper. During an early exchange about economy and jobs, he took the PM to task over income-splitting and child-tax policies that benefit the wealthy, demanding that Harper “stop sending cheques to millionaires.” Trudeau then deftly turned a segment on international security and terrorism into a righteous oration on the Harper government’s “nickel-and-diming” of veterans, adding: “This government, which likes to wrap itself in the flag, is actually not caring for those people who have fought, injured themselves and, in many cases, died.”

Most surprising was the 43-year-old’s recovery from attacks—not least NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s attempts to pin him down on the threshold for Quebec separation. Trudeau had walked into the snare, pivoting from a question on electoral reform to criticize the New Democrat promise to respect a referendum vote to separate of 50 per cent plus one ballot. Wearing a Cheshire-cat smile, Mulcair turned to his Liberal opponent, and repeatedly demanded: “What is your number, Mr. Trudeau?”

Evidently, Trudeau saw the move coming. “My number is nine,” he countered. “Nine Supreme Court justices said one vote is not enough to break up this country. And yet that is Mr. Mulcair’s position.”

That parry, referring to the Supreme Court of Canada opinion on the Clarity Act, was one of several in which Trudeau spun away from imminent harm, including an effective shading of the Liberals’ support for anti-terror legislation widely criticized as a threat to civil liberties and constitutional rights. Instead of defending Bill C-51, he claimed credit for improving it through much-needed amendments at the committee stage, noting that the Liberals are committed to repealing elements of the bill that experts have identified as constitutionally problematic.

It was by no means a perfect performance. Trudeau struggled to insert himself into some exchanges, and he served up a couple of awkward verbal constructions, (Harper, he complained, has failed to convince Canadians “of the rightness of his pipelines.”) But his confidence combined effectively with his warmth on camera to create a sense of competence, compassion and sincerity. Of all four leaders, including the Green party’s Elizabeth May, he seemed the most human.

For his opponents, that’s a problem, undoing their best-case scenarios and changing the game from this point forward. A Trudeau implosion would have set Mulcair up as the only alternative to Harper, lifting him from the mid-30s in popular vote to majority territory. The Conservatives, meanwhile, hoped for a Trudeau who performed only well enough to split the anti-Conservative vote, sending Harper on a path to a second majority. If Thursday’s glimpse is anything to go by, neither is a certainty.


Justin Trudeau: A pugilist comes to fight

  1. Again with the bad photos! Not very professional.

  2. Quote; “… before Harper’s intellectual might?” Really?!

    • I almost chocked when I read that one.

  3. The dippers are weak on a few major progressive policies, first of all the MSM have to stop putting bumper stickers on policies in their report, and start to report news and not create it. Thom and the dippers want to give child care benefits to millionaires just like the cons(maybe Thom should start handing some out to his MPs, they look eligible for sure) with taxable child benefits, $15 minimum wage to federal government workers across the country and not the Tim’s and Mickey D’s crowd is a total disaster of nothing but pure pandering with snake oil, and the biggest hit the dippers will take besides the separation of our country, is the legalization of pot, while Trudeau wants to put drug pushers out of business, the dippers want to give a social license to drug pushers and criminals to stay in business, just like Steve harper and the cons. Meet tweedle dee, and tweedle dum(Thom&Steve).

  4. Trudeau’s argument on energy and the economy was the best of all the leaders. The Liberal tax plan is head and shoulders above the rest.

    I am surprised that May went after Mulcair on the pipelines and not Trudeau.

    • My guess is the NDP is her main opponent in BC.

  5. The Media Party once again picking their Shiny Pony to win. They hate Harper and do their best at picking……who? A candidate who’s only claim is to be an offspring of a past socialist PM.
    Try journalism 101 and report the news instead of attempting to make the news.

    • You are probably right. I think what probably happened in the debate is that it was taped earlier and then heavily edited to make Trudeau look good. Like they probably let Harper say something and then stopped filming so the “media party” could run up and tell Trudeau what to say, and then rolled tape again so he could say it for the camera.

      What surprises me is that the other leaders just went along with this? They must be part of the media party too!

      Or, you know, your comment is utterly ridiculous. I can’t decide…

      • lmao

    • “report the news instead of attempting to make the news.”

      Everyone knows that real journalists make up buzzwords like ‘media party’ and ‘shiny pony’ for their credulous consumers to regurgitate.

  6. Trudeau spoke for many Canadians when he said: “Mr. Harper, nobody believes you”. Harper’s “lies” and half truths were also pointed out by Mulcair, May and the moderator Paul Wells.

  7. you know what would be great? if maclean’s not only reported how well some did, but also reported on how many times these politicians (mainly harper) lied through their teeth in an attempt to maintain and/or gain votes from those too lazy to do any research. that is supposed to be where you as journalists come in. you look at the facts be it economic and social policy and their historical efficacy and/or their official policies in comparison to their actual voting ways and the bills they introduce, analyze the comparisons and show each of the party leaders for who they truly are good or bad. these fluff pieces telling us who we should like based on their oratorical skills or their demeanor serve no purpose. it is a persons ability to pass laws that help the majority canadians and stop those that don’t, regardless of popularity, that makes them an effective and desirable leader. enough of this schoolyard popularity game bull**** and give the people what they need to make the best choice. do this now, and i promise you that the more you do, the less these representatives will concentrate on how they look while they scratch and paw at each other, and the more they will talk about what matters, making things better. less of mulclair’s weird “eye smiling” and harper’s devil-grin, more sticking to the types of policies that will secure the future greatness of this nation before this US-style politics consumes us and our democracy is lost forever to the highest bidder and least moral political representative.

  8. Once again Macleans proves they are as Lie-beral leaning as Toronto Star and CBC. Your hero is a punch drunk brat