Justin Trudeau, Liberal leader: Two years in - Macleans.ca

Justin Trudeau, Liberal leader: Two years in

Justin Trudeau took over the Liberals two years ago. Now, he has six months to reverse slipping numbers. Paul Wells on Trudeau’s slide.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks with the media following caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday March 11, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks with the media following caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 11 (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Listen to Paul Wells read his column, or subscribe to Maclean’s Voices on iTunes or Stitcher for on-the-go listening:

Happy anniversary, Justin Trudeau, elected leader of the Liberal Party of Canada two years ago on Tuesday! Welcome to your Carlsberg years. We brought you a new Ipsos poll: You’re down 12 points since September on “best prime minister.” Since February 2014, you’re down seven points on each of these value measures: “someone you can trust,” “someone who will get things done,” “someone who wants to be prime minister for the right reasons,” and “someone who will best lead and represent Canada on the world stage.”

On every one of those measures, Trudeau used to lead the three main party leaders. On every one, Prime Minister Stephen Harper now does. And on each of them, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has also gained ground while Trudeau slid.

On the bright side, Ipsos did find one measure where Trudeau is up. He’s risen a point on “someone who has a hidden agenda.”

In some ways, it’s not surprising that the burdens of leadership are starting to weigh on Trudeau. For two years, Trudeau has borne all the expectations of a frontrunner, with almost no control over events. In six months, at least he’ll know how it ends.

The powerlessness of these two years has had its uses, for it has saved him from at least one headache that tormented his immediate predecessors. Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion knew that if they voted against Harper’s minority governments on important business, they might bring him down. The country would be in an election, and it would be up to the voters to decide what they thought of such sport. Trudeau couldn’t bring this majority government down if he wanted to, so he has been free to send any message he likes with his caucus’s votes.

A chastened Liberal party has its uses, too. Jean Chrétien was a lousy Opposition leader who spent every day in that purgatory, from 1990 to 1993, standing with his back to a caucus of Nervous Nellies who felt free to hold their loyalty to him in abeyance, much as Chrétien and his valets had done to John Turner. Trudeau inherited the smallest parliamentary caucus of any Liberal leader in the party’s history. He has astonished everyone by culling it aggressively, ejecting every Liberal senator, then the disgraced MPs Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews. The pedagogical value of equipping the tiny Liberal frigate with a well-trodden cedar plank to mid-air is considerable. After the decade they’ve been through, Liberal incumbents probably thought they had nothing left to lose. Trudeau has corrected that impression. They could lose their seats in caucus from one day to the next. As a result, today’s Liberal naysayers are less likely than their forebears to start the day by speed-dialling the Globe and Mail to dictate their latest analysis of the leader’s shortcomings.

If they dared, they might have much to discuss. Since the beginning of 2015, the poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight has projected the Liberals winning fewer seats than the Conservatives, based on a rolling average of polls. The NDP under Mulcair has begun to show a little life. To believe Trudeau could take the Liberals back to power in a single step this October, you have had to believe he could at least triple his party’s seat count. That was always a long shot. Now it feels more like one.

You could chalk some of this up to worn-off novelty. But there is something deeper in Trudeau’s decline. He is running out of benefit of the doubt in precincts where he might have assumed the supply was unlimited. Take Michael Harris, the journalist whose book Party of One consolidates his place as one of Harper’s most tireless critics. In a recent column, Harris served notice that Mulcair may be a more serviceable leader for Canada’s anti-Harper forces than Trudeau.

Trudeau has been “skipping time in the House of Commons,” Harris wrote, and on energy issues especially, Trudeau “has been criticized for being Harper Light.” But his “Big Blunder,” Harris wrote, with upper-case Bs, was Trudeau’s decision to support Bill C-51, the Conservatives’ anti-terrorism bill. (Trudeau wants it amended, and hopes to lead the government that will do it, but, in the meantime, he’s not opposing the bill in principle.)

“Canadians are longing for authentic leadership,” Harris wrote. “Only two politicians in Canada are providing it: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Mulcair.”

Harris isn’t alone. Mulcair’s “best prime minister” score on the Ipsos poll was 18 points behind Trudeau’s last fall. Now he’s a point ahead. (Harper is back ahead of them both.)

Normally, around now, my Big Book of Columnists’ Clichés tells me, I should chide Trudeau for his “lack of policy” and urge him to “fill in the blanks.” But there are fewer and fewer blanks. He’s for incurring new debt to build infrastructure, a move recommended by former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge. He’s for legalizing marijuana. He has told people who oppose abortion not to bother running for his party. He was against sending Canadian jets to fight Islamic State, twice, and for C-51, with an ostentatious asterisk. He likes the Keystone pipeline but not Northern Gateway. He lauded floor-crossing ex-Conservative MP Eve Adams for her “strength and ability at a tremendous level in the Conservative government” and her “deep commitment to public service.” His keynote speech at last year’s Liberal convention was about an imaginary woman, “Nathalie,” he’s never mentioned again.

Maybe the more he fills in the blanks, the less room there is to imagine there’s more to him.

I keep coming back to his Petroleum Club speech in Calgary, where he promised a federal-provincial conference to set a “national standard” for reductions in carbon emissions. Provinces would design their own programs. A Trudeau government would provide “targeted federal funding to help the provinces and territories achieve their goals.”

This works fine, until the moment you apply any thought at all to it. If the provinces design the programs, they keep the revenues. Where does the federal funding go? If it’s to provinces that achieve huge reductions, that doesn’t help the ones making less progress. If it’s to provinces that don’t achieve reductions, it’s an explicit federal reward for lacklustre effort. Let us call our two provinces “Quebec” and “Alberta.” Where does Trudeau’s targeted funding go? Why? With what effect on opinion in the other province?

The closer Canadians get to a choice, the more questions like this matter. Charles Péguy wrote that everything begins as mystique and ends as politics. “If we work hard and stay optimistic,” Trudeau said a week before he won the Liberal leadership, “we will put forward an irresistible alternative to the Conservatives 30 months from now.” He has six months left.


Justin Trudeau, Liberal leader: Two years in

  1. Overall this was a very poorly written article; quite disappointed as one expects a little more substance than the normal hack journalism we get out of so many mainstream newspapers today. I feel that there is a lot of manufactured bias against Trudeau cropping up in various newspapers across Canada and the US due to his refusal to cow tow to the march to the middle east crusade….the hidden bias in that game should be explored in much more detail.

    • You’re correct that Wells is a centre-right columnist (he has admitted in previous pieces that he voted for Tim Hudak and that he supports Harper’s War in Iraq. However, Wells is able to write objective commentary sometimes and he can make some valid points. What’s misleading about this column is that it largely repeats the pro-Conservative rhetoric of the Ipsos poll, without a disclaimer to the reader of the bad track record of Ipsos (eg. history of inflating Conservative support & its polls last year predicting Tim Hudak would win a big majority over Kathleen Wynne). The new Nanos & EKOS polls actually show Harper’s numbers sliding, not Trudeau’s.

      • I am surprised that you view Wells as a “centre-right” columnist. I view him as left-left!! And I suspect it was hard for him to write the negative but true tale of Justin Trudeau’s demise. Never has there been a more speech bungling, policy short leader of the Liberal Party. His ONLY attribute is his father’s name.

        • If you view Paul Wells as left-left, there’s no help for you.

          • He writes for McLean’s doesn’t he!?! Harper could do Mother Theresa acts and not get any postive recognition from Wells. You Fed. Libbies are suffering from the same disease the Ontario Conservatives have-you keep picking idiots to lead your party and Trudeau is far worse than the previous two. Looks like The Conservatives in Ontario will fix that with Elliot. I hope you stick with your loser to allow Harper to continue to lead Canada to a better place as he has been doing.

          • I heard Wells is a card-carrying member of Dollar Shave Club.

          • Jerome, while he isn’t slavishly devoted to Harper, he is generally pro rather than anti. He even wrote a book about the guy.

            If Well is your idea of “left-left” then you must be somewhere right of Attila.

        • You must be a newbie.

      • Very good and balanced and reasonable analysis of the situation.

      • Funny, there was a day when Inkless was the fly on the wall in liberal governments!

    • Seriously, Justin is getting a pass from the media? You are dreaming in technicolour.

    • If you don’t want journalism you consider “manufactured”…then perhaps you can get on the phone to Justin and tell him to “manufacture” some actually policy.

    • Actually, I thought it was a well-written article simply because in Justin T he hasn’t much to work with. The Libs have to get away from, the idea that The Leader is The Party. That is the big mistake they made with Dion, Ignatieff and now this guy! And to suggest the progeny of PET! It looks like the Liberal Party is as bereft of meaning as is Mulcair thinking he is going to keep that big wad of Quebec seats that has a reputation of moving here and there as the Spirit of Quebec moves them.

  2. C-51 the Big Blunder? You bet! I was slowly becoming disenchanted with JT before that (wasn’t my first choice for leader to begin with), but that one has sent me looking at Mulcair and the NDP as the most likely place to park my vote. Which will be a first.

    • C-51 is a fight for principles. JT needed to take a stand, this wasn’t a time for political expediency. Voting ‘yes’ alienated a lot of Canadians.
      The future of Canada is at stake in this election. Another Harper majority & Canada loses whatever is left of its sovereignty.

      • A populist without principles becomes a poll chasing cipher.
        I am deeply disturbed by the thought of another 4 years of Harper and was readying to vote Liberal, but JT’s C-51 decision has left me bitterly disappointed. I will likely look at who has the best chance of beating the Conservative in my riding and if they’re Liberal, I will hold my nose and vote.
        I had always hoped that JT had a strong team of advisers that would collectively form good decisions but the C-51 vote has been a supreme letdown.
        JT has been screwing the pooch and he better get his “A-Game” together NOW.
        My octogenarian Mother is a lifelong Conservative and has told me she can no longer support Harper, but she does not like the NDP and is not impressed by JT. I suggested she vote “green” simply because she will fulfill her civic duty without helping to elect a party she does not like (the greens do not stand a chance in her riding) This is just sad as she would have voted Liberal if JT had brought substance/principles to the table.

        • I agree. Strategic voting time is here – its anybody but Harper.

          • ABC is stupid and will definitely give Harper the 4th crown, coalition is a copout and a sign of defeatism, Tom ain’t going to be PM, take that to the bank. I don’t read MH column much these day because he writes the same thing over and over, the only thing changes in his blog is, the words are always changed around, but still ends with the same outcome, a Harper diatribe, just like this blogger(PWs), who constantly loves to take potshots at Trudeau. I don’t mind reading some diatribes by the these bloggers, but it becomes mundane and ad nauseam. Actually, I would prefer to read the comments.

    • Answer me, what did the dippers and MH gain from 5 weeks of ranting about C-51? The bill is still going through, what did it accomplish? If Tom was that sure about the bills inequality, he should’ve made it an election promise instead of giving Harper 5 weeks of talking points about his favorite subject, TERROR, and then Trudeau’s numbers go up, according to Nanos. Angus Reid polls are so skewed to favor the conservatives, that they even use the dippers to help them. Tom Mulcair doesn’t have the voting pool to make it as PM, he isn’t going to get center votes, only left, center votes will go blue or red. Tom may also have his problems with Miss May, because Trudeau has more in common with May than Mulcair. And if the dippers do end up back in third, Tom gets his walking ticket, that’s a definite, he is on very thin grounds with the rank-in-file, they now have him on a leash. Maybe then it will be more favorable conditions for the dippers to talk coalition with the grits, especially if Harper falls short of a majority.

      • …what did the dippers… gain from 5 weeks of ranting about C-51?

        Well, my vote, for one. Barring a change between now and the election.

        I’ll never vote CPC as long as Harper is in charge, and JT’s stance on C-51 was a poorly planned attempt at policy-by-polling, where I wanted a principled stand. And from other comments on here, I’m far from alone.

    • No Keith -m a little over the top maybe but only a problem to those who hide their real selves (and I don’t men in the closet). It’s clearly time our security people had the tools to stop these idiots before they do more damage. This magazine had a very interesting interview with someone who realply knows what the potential threat is. Since last week I downloaded and read her book. I think that those who object to Bill 51 might do the same and educate themselves a bit as to wuhat the real threat is.

  3. Come on, paul wells, most of us want a CANADIAN Prime Minister, not some US-Israeli lackey who seems to hate his fellow countrymen. Enough of the incessant lies and manipulations. Canadians deserve much, much better than these current grifters and charlatans.

  4. “This works fine, until the moment you apply any thought at all to it.”

    Perfect summation of many, many of Justin’s pronouncements.

    This election will be a fun house mirror image of 2000. Replace Stockwell Day with Justin Trudeau and there you go. What are the chances we get another jet ski press conference?

    • It’s a good summation of many CPC policies as well.

  5. Kept hoping that the Liberals would select a real heavy weight to counter Harper but what did we get this space cadet.
    We have not had any real choice for decades and it looks like the Liberal power elite have messed things up again.

    • The Space Cadet would have been a better choice – Marc Garneau- but he wasn’t the fundraising machine Trudeau has been.

      • Garneau was my pick as well.

        • Garneau was also my pick, with MHF coming second.

      • Like it or not, without Trudeau the Liberals were done. His first job was always to bring the party back from the brink. And he did.

        Did anyone think, after election day 2011, that 6 months before the coming election Wells would be writing columns on how the liberals are sliding so much they may not win the next election?

    • What do you call a heavyweight, someone overweight like Tom and Harper?

  6. I have not given up on Trudeau and the Liberals, however, where have they been for the past 2 years?! The little the public has seen has been, in large part, negative. The Liberals knew the public’s number one issue with them was their closed and entitled buddies attitude. Well, it hasn’t helped to state they will be open then push their, chosen on the inside, people. Cozying up with Eve Adams who the public does not seem too cool with, harms them too. She seems dubious AND is happy to jump parties thereby supposedly changing her colours. Another big plus the Liberals are supposed to have is being inclusive and, at the least, tolerant. However, declaring that people should not run or, in effect even join, the Liberal party if they oppose abortion, heads down the path of the extreme Harperites. Surely, with the little the public has seen, it could be an assumption or concern that Trudeau would be extreme about other subjects. A third concern is, for many years, the Liberals have appeared less than competent. It’s been 2+ years now to get it together and they seemingly haven’t done much.

    • The acceptance of Adams has been a disaster. The only saving grace would be if Dimitri Soudas provided some political gunpowder to bring Harper down – but that would only be helpful if the Liberals run negative ads against Harper and JT has vowed not to.
      Quite frankly I feel that unless the Libs run negative ads, they haven’t a hope in hell. JT shows principles in this matter, but not on C-51?
      The wave of negative ads about to come Trudeau’s way will be unprecedented, harsh and overwhelming. Sunshine and rainbows will not counter it (as Obama found out). As much as I hate them, the new reality is that negative ads elicit a greater response and are effective.
      JT and the Libs need to pull their collective heads out of their ass; this is going to be a bare knuckle brawl.

  7. I saw explosions on TV from bombs being dropped from our F18’s. They look like they’d take out a city block. How many innocent women and children are we killing with collateral damage? Yet we experience blow back by having 2 Canadian soldiers killed at home. Now Harper wants to rewrite the constitution so Canadians can have Patriot Act. We were one of the most well liked nations on earth. Now they throw eggs at us.

    • Canada as an effective “peacekeeper” is a myth. All those who have been know that the “peacekeepers” were only there by permission of the problem countries e.g Egypt at El Arish. As soon as Nasser wanted to move he told the UN to get lost. Only in Bosnia was it apparent that what was needed was “peace makers” and the rules of engagement changed – necessarily because the Serbs were not going to listen to the UN “peacekeepers”. Remember the Canadian UN officer handcuffed to a potential target?? It was a good try but never really worked – was a Liberal pipe dream of Lester’s and since he got a Nobel for it the lefties in Canada thinks it was great. Just in case you haven’t noticed it is the other sides who have most often killed mothers and babies – and fathers and sons – and just about everyone whop gets in their path. The present ISIS is the worst of the bunch.

  8. In boxing parlance Trudeau is consciously using what they call a “rope a dope” strategy.
    Obviously he is holding back not responding to obvious attack opportunities. The cliche “peak too soon” has taken a bit too much credence within the Trudeau team.
    Playing it safe went far too far on the disastrous C51 decision which has driven thousands of left leaning liberals who likely supported Ignatieff and Dion over to the NDP camp.
    But what Wells fails to acknowledge is the huge political upside and potential Trudeau has once he to torture the metaphor he takes the gloves off or if you prefer steps on the gas”

    • Sent before quite finished sorry.

    • I don’t trust anyone who publicly says….” All the best Prime Ministers come from Quebec”. Nuff said!

  9. Junior’s claim to fame are his last name and his good looks. The horror of Ontario’s predicament, thanks to McGuinty, whose brother David is one of Junior’s favorite candidates, and McWynne, who is also one of his favorites, will not help him. And Junior’s suggestions that Canada send humanitarian UN consultants to ISIS instead of war planes makes its own statement. Help!

    • Exactly.

      • Yeah!

  10. Most people, once they really think about it, don’t want a silver spoon fed part time drama teacher who has made no stands on anything other than visiting mosques to be running our country. Personally, I’m concerned with some of Harpers hardline crime ideas but he’s totally right on the current cult of climate change (global warming didn’t work) and doesn’t want to ruin our economy just because other countries think we should because they ruined theirs……..but there’s no other choice. Mulcair??????? Seriously?

    • I certainly hope most Canadians are more educated on their party leaders than you.

  11. The Ipsos Poll results tell a much different story than survey results from other companies that are more consistently following public opinion. Ipsos surveyed its online panel – a self-selected group – and this methodology is not as credible as a truly random survey. That said, it is true that both PM Harper and Mr. Mulcair have been very active in recent weeks, rolling out their platforms and staking positions. Contrary to Mr. Wells’ comment, the full Liberal platform has yet to be seen and one might wonder if, in fact, the Tories and the NDP have peaked a bit too early.

    • Your point about the weakness of the Ipsos poll loses validity when you understand that what Wells is doing is comparing Trudeau’s approval according to that poll last fall to his approval according to that poll today. In other words, he’s comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges. To counter the point, you’d have to show Trudeau is doing better currently than he was last fall as measured by some other poll, especially one with stronger methodology than you claim for Ipsos. Good luck finding it.

      Good luck, too, with things improving once “the full Liberal platform” is seen, as if there’s some magical collection of policies the Liberals are carefully cultivating, but are keeping under wraps until the time is optimum to dazzle the citizenry with them. As Wells points out, there are fewer and fewer policy blanks left for JT to fill in and few if any of those blanks are with respect to issues that are likely to make or break voting decisions. There’s also the small problem of “policy articulation” not being among JT’s strong suits anyway. A better strategy, if you ask me, is to start to steer him away from saying ANYTHING about substantive policy and hope charm and good looks are still enough to carry the day.

      • Or let other members of his team start making policy statements to show bench strength that might overcome certain weaknesses with the leader. Goodale’s response to Oliver’s pre-budget babbling was a good example of such; they could do with more like that.

      • ” A better strategy, if you ask me, is to start to steer him away from saying ANYTHING about substantive policy and hope charm and good looks are still enough to carry the day.”

        Harper certainly showed that to be an effective strategy in the 2008 election. No platform released until voting had already started and widespread muzzling of candidates. The only thing you missed was the ad naseum repetition of a handful of mindless slogans and buzzwords.

        • MY God! Goodale is the budget babbler of all time record! Although he is strong on the benches he is a leftover from better days. Is he still crying about the Wheat Board?

  12. I note that our recent survey of over 11,000 Canadian voters from 2011 has Justin Trudeau and Liberals at 31.5% support with Conservatives at 26.5%, tied with NDP. These numbers for the Liberals are similar to mainstream polling. These numbers are also the same from us at http://www.robbinssceresearch.com as published by the National Post and journalist John Ivison in January 2012 prior to Mr. Trudeau becoming leader. I believe that some progressive conservatives who previously supported the Liberals have now transferred support to the Green Party particularly in British Columbia and to a noteworthy minority in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Mr. Trudeau needs a couple of ‘national’ points back from Elizabeth May – or needs to bring her into his camp with sincere proposals on the environment. His support for the Harper anti terrorist bill hurt him with Green voters notwithstanding his somewhat muted calls for oversight.

  13. I just wonder where he has been lately. We see Harper, and we see Mulcair, but where is Trudeau? It is almost like he is waiting for the country to stop focusing on terrorism before he starts talking again.

  14. Trudeau lost me with his cavalier push for legalized marijuana, not because I am, as the Liberals would want you to believe, a “right-wing religious fundamentalist nut,” but because he has not acknowledged any of the dangers associated with the drug. Researchers at Dalhousie U. have proven a link between marijuana and mental illnesses. The most susceptible individuals are young people. Trudeau’s own mother wrote candidly about being hospitalized after marijuana made her dangerously ill.

  15. Paul Wells’ true colors are coming out dispite the fact that he remains to be coy about his biases in favor of Harper.

    He full well knows that IPSOS polls at election time have historically been outliers and he fully knows that currently this IPSOS poll is an outlier in the extreme when compared to the latest polls in the past few weeks including the latest EKOS poll.especially the EKOS poll which tells a completely different story from the IPSOS one.

    IPSOS is an internet (voluntary) based methodology which by definition is open to abuse by any “communications” (such as that huge group employed by the Conservatives) that wishes to “stack” the deck.

    Wells knows this as well but refrains from mentioning the results from the other polling firms whose results are such that IPSOS stands out as way off track.

    Wells knows as well that before the election is called the conservatives are allowed by the rules to spend as much as they want.

    Trudeau is “keeping his powder dry” until then so as not to give them the ammunition that they need to unleash an unrelenting barrage of attack ads against his policies. Once the writ is dropped the conservatives are held to the spending limits – I call this sound strategy. Wells probably privately agrees but this is not convenient to his narrative.

    I do know that Trudeau holding back on his platform is a cause of deep frustration to the Conservatives who are chomping at the bit to either steal his ideas, or to build an attack narrative on them as they did against Dion and Ignatieff.

    That narrative allowed the Conservatives to define their version of Dion and Ignatieff and plant that version in voters minds – but only after several months of non stop attack ads.

    Trudeau has so far not given them that ammunition. Wells is just playing into the narrative that Trudeau has no further policies to offer – nevermind that in the background he has some very capable Canadians such as Frank McKenna and George Gosbee, chief executive of Calgary-based AltaCorp Capital Inc. Wells knows this as well.

    In so far as C-51 is concerned, Trudeau had no choice and he has been quite open about that – the bill will pass regardless of anything he or Mulcair says. In supporting it he took the pragmatic route and he has promised to amend it significantly if he gains power. And he will – the bill is as repulsive to him as it is to most Canadians.

    And finally, Wells’ comments about funding to the Provinces is hogwash. Trudeau will do what Harper refuses to do – meet and work with the provinces. Create a national partnership and negotiate common ground.

    Harper’s policies and methods of governing have by now become our new “normal”.

    It looks like Wells would like to keep it that way.

    How disappointing.

    • Perhaps you should then take heart from the weekly Nanos moving polls.

  16. Justin Trudeau’s mini-slide could be summed thusly, and reversed forthwith by reverse-engineering his next policy statements and any talk of the odious HarperCons with this in mind:

    “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”—Elbert Hubbard