Maclean’s 2015 Newsmaker of the Year: Justin Trudeau

Paul Wells on the Canadian prime minister who won over the nation, and then the world—for better or for worse

Prime Minister Trudeau speaks with Katie Telford in his Centre Block Office. November 5, 2015. (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister's Office)

Prime Minister Trudeau speaks with Katie Telford in his Centre Block Office. November 5, 2015. (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister’s Office)

The French have a phrase for the challenge a child of a famous parent faces: “Se faire un prénom”—to make a first name for yourself. Until you can do that, you have to make your way through a fog composed of equal parts familiarity and incomprehension. Everyone knows who you are; nobody knows who you are.

If 2015 was the year Justin Trudeau made a first name for himself, part of the surprise was how easy it was. Partly it’s because Pierre Trudeau’s legacy is, by now, tucked away safely in the annals of history: The youngest Canadians who had a chance to vote for the Liberals when he was running the party are now 53. Partly it was that Justin Trudeau had lots of help from his adversaries in the first-naming department: Both Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair decided it would be superclever to spend the three-month campaign calling him by his first name, as though he had not earned the simple honorific of common courtesy. The disdain in that choice will have been wearyingly familiar to any voter under, say, 53.

But Justin Trudeau didn’t win just because his opponents acted like jerks toward him. Acting like a jerk in politics is hardly rare and rarely fatal. Nor did he win by default: When the campaign began in August, the Liberals were in third place and falling. Whatever modest popularity bump he got out of the early Maclean’s debate had plenty of time to dissipate. Tom Mulcair’s NDP spent weeks at the top of the polls. If the only thing voters wanted was “not Harper,” Mulcair stood ready to give them that.

No, the results suggest some voters actually wanted the sort of government Trudeau offered and decided, after a very long reflection, that he could be trusted to run it. What kind of government? In his mandate letters to 30 ministers, he described it as “a government that will bring real change—in both what we do and how we do it.” The “how” was easier to deliver in the days before Parliament’s return in December. “Government and its information should be open by default,” Trudeau wrote in those letters, and overnight it was much easier for reporters and other interested outsiders to get answers to routine questions from the government of Canada. “Night and day!” one diplomat called the contrast with the Harper government’s secrecy.

    We’ll see whether the “how” lasts. The “what” will take time. And already the young Prime Minister has been served a grim reminder that Harold Macmillan’s “Events, dear boy, events” can trump any plan. He wanted a swift transition. He had to make room for three global summits spaced a few days apart. He wanted to make a good appearance at the summits. He watched, horrified, in a green room at Ottawa’s airport as word of the worst terrorist massacre in French history arrived from Paris. Suddenly his plan to bring CF-18 fighters home from Syria contrasted markedly with French President François Hollande’s plan to triple the number of Mirage fighters in the same theatre of operations. The job Trudeau has won will ensure he gets a nasty surprise like that every few weeks for however long he lasts.

    He has made a few wise early decisions. One is to spread the burden. He plans to trust his cabinet ministers, rather than line them up to await his instructions. In portfolios that will face early challenges, he has put some of his most experienced people, including three veterans from the Chrétien years, nearly 20 years ago: Ralph Goodale at Public Safety; John McCallum at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; Stéphane Dion at Foreign Affairs.

    Of course, in a majority government caucus that succeeds the smallest and most bedraggled Liberal caucus since Confederation, he can’t count on many veterans. Fortunately some of the rookies have seen a thing or two on their way to the cabinet table. Marc Garneau, the new transport minister, has experience in such modes of transport as Navy destroyers and space shuttles. Jane Philpott, the health minister, is a physician, hospital administrator and medical school teacher. Then there’s the badass combat-veteran Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who can look forward to being reminded the first time he makes a big mistake that he was supposed to be badass.

    The (always relative!) openness and loose improvisational nature of the Trudeau government’s early days is made far easier by the soft landing the voters gave the Liberals on Oct. 19: 184 seats in a 338-seat House of Commons. A comfy majority. No danger of the government falling in a confidence vote from one day to the next. Stephen Harper had no such luck when he became prime minister: He had the most tenuous minority of any government since Confederation, and he was in a knife fight for survival from his first day on the job. He acted like it. It was hard to escape the impression that he enjoyed it.

    With Trudeau, too, personality and circumstance seem to align. He has never stopped reminding Liberals that his favourite prime minister was—no, not that one, but Wilfrid Laurier, who gave a speech in 1895 on the virtues of the “sunny way” in politics. In the campaign, Trudeau would sometimes cut short question sessions with reporters so he could prolong his crowd-surfing sessions, taking selfies with dozens of voters at a time. At his first international summit, the G20 in Turkey, he was photographed making a goofy hand-waving gesture in front of his suddenly ancient-seeming U.K. counterpart, David Cameron. During the first break at the Maclean’s debate, he broke away from his adviser Gerald Butts to whisper to the nervous moderator, “Remember to breathe.” (It was useful advice.)

    To his adversaries, and a large portion of the electorate, this glib and people-pleasing side of the new Prime Minister makes him easy to dismiss. That’s the sentiment the Conservatives went down trying to unlock, arguing first that he was “just in over his head,” and then that he was “just not ready.” It was the same belief that sent Ezra Levant, an occasional television host, to a charity boxing tournament in 2012 hoping to see Trudeau’s opponent, Sen. Patrick Brazeau, make Trudeau cry.

    That’s not how it worked out. I have never known Trudeau well, but what was clear from my first conversations with him a decade ago was that he is a keen student of his own limitations and a strategic thinker about how to mitigate them and compensate with his strengths, which include serious discipline in preparation. He worked hard for that boxing match. He prepared hard for the debates. He is keenly aware he could fail. The realization reduces the likelihood of failure.

    As was the case with Harper, Trudeau is kept grounded by his family. Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau gets credit in his autobiography as an important informal adviser on Quebec matters and a strategic sounding board. She is also the mother to their three children and, as political spouses often are, both a fierce protector and a reliable behind-the-scenes deflator of the prime ministerial ego. There is glamour to her too—she was a well-known broadcaster before she was a well-known spouse—and the flock of global paparazzi will be paying almost as much attention to her as to him.

    All that showbiz stuff will wear like sandpaper if the new Prime Minister cannot respond capably to the challenges of office. In the weeks before Parliament’s return, the Nanos polling firm found him more personally popular than any leader Nanos has tested. Justin Trudeau could rest serene in the knowledge that, by that score at least, it is all downhill from here. But he seems intent on enjoying the ride. Sunny ways.

    To find out who else Maclean’s named as major 2015 newsmakers from the worlds of politics, business, music, film, books and more—as well as the best and worst of the year—check out our full Newsmakers issue, available for download on this app and on newsstands near you, right now.


    Maclean’s 2015 Newsmaker of the Year: Justin Trudeau

    1. given the deluge of bile and negativity elsewhere, especially in comments sections, a pleasure to read something insightful, realistic and positive.

      • Voters in Canada gave Mr. Trudeau a majority government. Nanos polling firm recently found him
        more personally popular than any leader it has tested. So far his government has been far more accessible than Harpers. He seems to be well respected by our international partners. Its far too
        early to judge his ability to lead the country. I am happy to give him the benefit of the doubt and will
        be looking at what happens in the next few years. Canada will not collapse in the next 5 years until
        we are called to vote again.

    2. I have never been so disappointed in a Prime Minister… this quickly. This is seriously our George W. moment. Seems the kids can never duplicate their parents ability.

      • Would you care to cite factual references for your conclusions?

    3. Now Canadians need to ensure that the Liberal federal government redirects the massive amounts of money from the $12.9 Billion the Conservative government directed to ‘security’ that evaporates and is frittered away (by the way 2 Canadians have been killed by ‘terrorists’ in the past ten years) to medical research for NAFLD, cancer and diabetes that kill hundreds of thousands of Canadians each year, while costing our health care systems billions. THAT would be a lasting legacy.

    4. “… for better or for worse”?

      What kind of mean-spirited headline is that when Trudeau has hardly warmed the PM’s seat?

      Could it be the headline writer failed to read author Peter Wells reasonably well-balanced story? Perhaps the headline writer’s journalistic integrity has been compromised by attempting to gain favor with the ownership of Maclean’s. Wells’ story deserved better… and so did we. Shabby.

    5. I have a picture up on my wall of Justin and I that was taken about three years ago when he was visiting the riding of Wellington/Halton Hills. It was at a very small hall in Halton Hills in Georgetown. We chatted that day as if we’d known each other for years and I remember thinking….what a great amiable person he is – he spoke so well and so personally that day and was so receptive to all – and will it amount to anything – will he be appreciated and respected when it really counts. Really wondered about that off and on for those in-between years – and then when I saw him perform in the very first debate – after the first few minutes he was off and running and I had that feeling then – I had the answer – he will be appreciated and respected when it really counts – and he sure was and is! grandiose!

    6. And the media worship continues. This is all about selling mags, nothing else. Some Mcleans staff let the cat out of the bag on national tv a long time ago. They know every time they put Peter Pan on the cover they sell more copies. Hypocrites!

    7. I listened to the BBC interview. The kid is not ready for prime time. Why as Canadians do we not demand our leaders at least have a good education. At least his father was a well educated man. The world is too complex for a leader not to have a good grounding education. But as Canadians we elect him on looks and that is why we have trouble becoming a great Country.

      • Aw, C’mon – he has a nice hairdo – and a cute couturier shopping spouse – what else do you need?

    8. When Mr. Wells says that “The “how” was easier to deliver in the days before Parliament’s return in December”, he is as bland as Justin Trudeau can ever be. The “How” of doing things cannot be demonstrated to anyone’s satisfactions until you get to do the job itself. In any case, it would not be at the time of picking someone to do a job and giving him the assignment papers. A government is far more complex organism than these two individuals can ever visualize.
      For a government that just got elected, its promises have to be converted into projects. Projects have to be bundled into compatible non-conflicting programs. Again all these programs and projects have to be broken down into itemized action plans. They have to be costed line-by-line. The parliament has to consent to the release of funds. Then we get on to the work of cajoling the public servants into doing what the government wants, but they don’t want to do. Very often, in the past, this is where things have failed. They will normally at their desks and yawn until the time comes for a secret revelation to the opposition or the media on something that they consider as compromising information on their enemy : the government. If everything still works fine, at the end of a monitoring period, the government gets the feed-back, evaluates it against the goal it set for itself and takes remedial action if needed. It is very complex and time consuming. If anyone has discovered a new way of doing things and has succeeded, this is that “Eureka” moment. Having a way with word is not the same as demonstrating some practical abilities.
      Secrecy is something that is considered very vital to the success of the government’s action plan. It was a major part of the oath of office of all our new cabinet ministers. Sometimes, it is just a matter of preventing the interest groups from derailing the government plans (as it happened in the case of Stephen Harper). But, more often than not, it is a matter of protecting the nation itself from external dangers. Grasping this complex situation is where these two gentlemen miserably fail.
      Contrary to what Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Wells claim, the conventions and the law requires that the Cabinet takes full and joint responsibility, regardless whether a Minister of the Crown acts on his/her own or whether he/she was simply taking orders from the boss. Mr. Trudeau can delegate the authority to individual ministers, but not the responsibility for the consequences of their action. Every policy program and even certain appointments must be discussed at the Cabinet table. If a minister has had to disagree with his fellow members at the table, he doesn’t have the independence to openly state such fact for the entertainment benefit of the eagles and vultures of the news media. That way he is always vulnerable. So much for the “open Government”!
      Again, letting the ministers do their own thing is not a good management practice for the boss. It dissipates synergy and brings in dissonance. A powerful PMO eliminates these deficiencies and inculcates efficiency in implementing government policies. While this is simple logic, the first-ever Canadian Prime Minister to put this theorem into practice was Mr. Pierre Trudeau. Mr. Mulroney, Mr. Chretien and Mr. Harper definitely benefitted from this practice and they were all successful Prime Ministers regardless of their earning, at times, the wrath of the population at large. History will always be very kind to them but definitely not to our young hero Mr. Trudeau Jr. He will be known in time as someone who catered to special interests, missed the opportunities to build up on what he inherited and allowed the Country to descend into chaos. He will be also known as someone who miserably failed in demarcating a proper balance between his duties to those who elected him and his attention-seeking international popularity contests. While many of his cabinet choices are yet to be tested for their mettle, there is no question that in Marc Garneau, Stephen Dion and Ralph Goodale, Mr. Trudeau has inherited some smart brains and good experience. However, viewed under the extreme glare of the “Theory of Sunny Ways”, it is doubtful if any of these reticent but very practical people can survive at all.
      I was laughing my heart out when I read the assertion of Mr. Wells that Marc Garneau, the new transport minister, has experience in such modes of transport as Navy destroyers and space shuttles. Is that the qualification that brought him to the Ministry of Transport? Well, Mr. Garneau, don’t blame us the nay-sayers. In the process of equating apples and oranges, Mr. Wells has just dismissed your innate abilities and importance of your portfolio with just a stroke of pen. And also, please do not forget that in view of Mr. Trudeau’s policy of fighting wars with peace-making and considering his extreme ambitions in the field of climate control, we will not need any destroyers or space shuttles. We won’t even need a car mechanic to handle the Ministry of Transport. We just need a “bullock cart” expert.
      Mr. Garneau, sorry to say that you have already lost your job even before you can start on it in the earnest.

    9. “He plans to trust his cabinet ministers, rather than line them up to await his instructions.”
      Really ?? The first thing he did was to issue each of his ministers a letter containing his instructions; -marching orders if you will. If that’s not lining them up to await his instructions, I don’t know what is. One can sense that the “badass” defence minister doesn’t agree with pulling the CF18s, but is just doing what the boss wants. Trudeau is just an embarassment, but people like celebrities over substance and the media plays along & doesn’t do its job.

      • All PMs issue mandate letters – it’s part of the job. It’s why we voted for a party Platform. But after that the Cabinet Ministers can be free to interpret and implement those letters.
        You seem to have information on our Minister of Defence that the rest of us don’t have. Can you explain?
        I’m sorry you feel embarrassed but that really is your problem not Trudeau’s and certainly not the problem of those of us who like what is happening.

    10. Trudeau won the PMO because of his last name, nothing more nothing less. Otherwise he’d be on his hands and knees cleaning out a grease trap at the local McDonalds.

    11. I, for one, am not quite ready to concede that PM Justin Trudeau has won over the Nation or the world just yet, but there’s no denying that he has certainly won over Mac Lean’s Paul Wells, hook, line, and sinker.
      If Trudeau is indeed Newsmaker of the Year, it is due in no small measure to the over-the-top saturation coverage and personal adoration displayed by the left-wing Canadian media as exemplified by Paul Wells and MacLean’s magazine.

      • I always love these comments regarding whether Wells is “right wing” or “left wing” because it always, always reflects on the leanings of the commenter and not Wells himself. He is *always* accused by one side or the other for playing for the other’s team. It’s amusing.

        • Plaid Shorts has come to the realization that individuals approach a subject from their own perspective. And this is considered amusing! Wow! What an original and brilliant insight. Gee, I wish that I could have reached this fascinating conclusion myself. I guess not everyone can be an original thinker like P. Shorts.

    12. Thank you, MacLeans for the photographs of Justin accompanying this article. Now if someone would kindly pass me a Gravol tablet to counter my nausea, I would be most grateful.

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