Justin Trudeau, nine months out

A few days watching the man who might be prime minister

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/CP

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/CP

After a few minutes collecting himself in Bridal Room B, Justin Trudeau strides into Salon C of an Italian banquet hall in Oldcastle, Ont., to the vaguely hopeful beat of a dance track that’s based on a Ray Bradbury short story. Amid the contrived, but still useful, trappings of a political rally, Trudeau stands on stage and tells a cheesy joke.

“On Wednesday last week,” he said, “the finance minister said falling oil prices would have no impact on the budget.”

There was laughter.

“The very next day, he said, ‘Oh, wait, yeah, they actually will, so much so we’re delaying our budget until sometime in April.’ ”

A bit more laughter.

“These guys are making it up as they go along,” Trudeau says, now getting to the punch line. “And I’m sorry, I’m a teacher, their excuses sound like the political equivalent of the dog ate my homework.”

Laughter, applause, cheers.

There is a lot going on here.

A government committed to cutting taxes and balancing the budget in an election year is having to figure out how to do both despite a lower price for oil and a sluggish economy. A Liberal leader is campaigning a few hundred kilometres from the nearest Liberal riding in an economically depressed part of the country where a few victories could signal a solid chance at forming government. And a candidate for prime minister who has been accused of lacking in the seriousness necessary for the job is enjoying an opportunity to return the accusation in kind.

By the time of the telling of that cheesy joke in Oldcastle, a joke he’d repeated a night earlier in London, Justin Trudeau had been in southwestern Ontario for something like 48 hours. Two hours after he and his fun-sized caucus formally convened in London last Tuesday, a 462-word statement was issued in the name of the local Conservative MP, Susan Truppe, enunciating all of the ways in which Trudeau would imperil the nation if he ever gets the chance. That evening, the Conservative party emailed its supporters to warn them about the attempts of the “Ottawa media elite” to cover for Trudeau’s childishness and divisiveness. And then on Wednesday, after the Liberal leader told the London Free Press that a “large part” of the future of southwestern Ontario should include “transitioning away from manufacturing-based employment as a driver in the economy,” Finance Minister Joe Oliver issued a statement to lament that Trudeau was thus “turning his back on our manufacturing sector and the hundreds of thousands of workers who depend on it for their livelihood.”

The NDP would alert reporters to potential trouble with Liberal plans to fund infrastructure improvements and its own concerns about the focus of the regional economy, the latter inspiring a letter to the editor from NDP MP Peggy Nash. The Canadian Press would write Trudeau up for not having an answer to the question of whether the government should run a deficit, while the Toronto Star would chide Trudeau for retreating into a bubble during his two days in London, his pair of scrums kept to a relatively tight 10 minutes each. His exchange with a London radio host about the battle against Islamic State in Iraq would excite the folks at Sun News, while his comments in the same interview about carbon pricing would inspire consternation elsewhere.

In the midst of all this, with discussion turning to the precise parameters of this country’s military engagement in Iraq, Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole took to Twitter to suggest with breathtaking simplicity that Justin Trudeau is a doofus.

Had our founding fathers not cursed us with democracy, we could settle O’Toole’s concern with a round of IQ tests or a night of pub trivia. As it is, we are nine months away from an election and Justin Trudeau has very decent odds of ending up prime minister by the end of the year.

Not quite Trudeaumania, but still something

One should be careful not to overstate Trudeau’s reception. The nation is not rushing en masse to clutch at the hem of his garment. At present, something like a third of the reachable electorate is willing to express to a pollster an interest in voting Liberal, a figure that has not, on aggregate, exceeded 40 per cent in Trudeau’s time as leader of the Liberal party. More respondents view him favourably than unfavourably, but not in overwhelming proportion. Were an election held tomorrow, the Liberals would, by two different projections, win fewer seats than the Conservatives.

If there’s nothing quite resembling mania, there are still various things of current and potential significance that can or could be said in Trudeau’s favour. The aggregate polling has put the Liberals some distance ahead of the Conservatives for 22 consecutive months and the Liberal party raised nearly $16 million last year.

“I think Justin is way smarter than a lot of people give him credit for being. Very sharp politically. Good nose,” says Liberal MP John McKay, one of just 11 Ontario Liberals to survive the disaster of 2011. “And he’s basically rebuilt the infrastructure of the party—money is the most obvious thing, but also in organization, also in metrics, also in expectations, just go through the whole of what constitutes the infrastructure of a modern political party.”

So he is probably smarter than Erin O’Toole thinks he is and he is so far faring better than either Stéphane Dion or Michael Ignatieff ever did. That is not nothing. Trudeau might also have decent timing. Last week marked the ninth anniversary of Stephen Harper’s government and Canadians, a people of impressive patience and a general reluctance to interject, tend to switch their federal leaders only every decade or so. Furthermore, after successfully kneecapping Dion and Ignatieff, the Conservatives seem less able to undercut the latest Liberal. That might be because of who Trudeau is—a sort of national son who grew up on television. Or it might be that with attack ads the third time is less charming.

“If there is an appetite for change and you’re getting the sense that there is an appetite for change, then Justin is the change,” says McKay. “And I think, it’s sort of like real estate, it’s being in the right position at the right time.”

In many ways, from the choice of hairstyle on down, Justin Trudeau might seem the antithesis of Stephen Harper. And possibly it is a particular good time to seem as such—though the Prime Minister’s resilience in public polling should be noted. But also like real estate, predicting political results is never anything more than a gamble.

There are certainly reasons to question Trudeau’s chances. The fall didn’t seem to go particularly well, not least because of the debatable handling of misconduct allegations against two Liberal MPs, but also because Trudeau’s performance in the heat of debating war. The Liberals seemed to struggle to find a comfortable spot between the Conservative “yes” and the New Democrat “no” and then there was that penis joke.

He is not as smooth or as quick in a scrum as, say, Tom Mulcair. Until an election is near, there is no way to know how he and his team would fare during a five-week national campaign, or how much improved his party is as a vote-driving organization at the riding level. He could be trounced in the leaders’ debates. There are so far only the hints and teases of a full platform. His seriousness has only begun to be seriously questioned and he has graciously offered observers periodic reasons to doubt his seriousness (the penis joke having been preceded by the hockey joke). Whether Trudeau falls apart between now and Oct. 19 or if he’s elected and bumbles his way through government, either way his critics will say it was obviously predictable.

Change you can believe in?

“There’s a sense that when Justin speaks, he’s not hedging his words and that he means what he says and that is a profound contrast to the current style of governing,” says Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia. “I think people just appreciate that. They want to be spoken to honestly.”

That is one way of looking at Trudeau. The Liberals want their man to be “authentic and open.” Setting aside the problematic nature of authenticity as a quantifiable philosophy, there is much to be said for openness. Putting the odd word wrong might even reinforce his unscriptedness. That is not quite to say he is pure of public comment. In the speech he delivers in London and Windsor and Ottawa there is at least one slight of hand: Jim Flaherty’s suggestion that the Ontario government had “no one to blame but themselves” for a budget deficit is turned into, in Trudeau’s telling, a dismissal of all Ontarians at a time of job losses. Asked by reporters in London to comment on the shape of the next budget and the possibility of a deficit, he talks right past the questions.

Perhaps the latter is merely a matter of playing the game, or refusing to play it, as it were. It does seem to fall short of the ideal of doing politics in full sentences. Among the lessons to be taken from the Harper era is that the precise interest of the current electorate in the day-to-day tumult of politics is difficult to ascertain. But seriousness—even when presented as a challenge by the same Conservative side that gave us the G8 Legacy Fund, Paul Calandra, Mike Duffy and the destruction of the long-form census—is still worth testing for.

“One of the issues we’ve got going for us, ironically, is all of these attacks and criticisms are putting him through tests that the public will watch him pass,” says an adviser to Trudeau. “It’s an arc. It has a story to it.”

Trudeau’s policy on marijuana is doing fairly well in Colorado so far, his version of Senate reform is the only obviously feasible option on offer, he’s shown an interest in improving the formation of public policy and his party has made encouraging noises about parliamentary reform. Liberals will frown when you tell them they haven’t put any policy on offer, but demands for greater detail and larger answers are entirely reasonable. It would help to be able to point to a plan, even if waiting to reveal that plan means not having to publicly rewrite that plan to account for whatever numbers the government tables in April.

“I think the issue for us now is, okay, so you’ve been all over the country for the past two years, meeting with people of all shapes and sizes, now the question is, what do you want to do for them? We absolutely welcome that debate,” says the adviser. “Because we have a really clear idea of what we’re going to do for them.”

From London to Windsor to Ottawa

While the electorate waits on that, Trudeau has an evolving speech that he delivers in London and Windsor and Ottawa. In London and Ottawa he drew a few hundred. A couple of hundred travelled through snow to see him in Windsor. After each speech, he will wade into the crowd, parts of which will form a roving and rotating huddle seeking handshakes, autographs and pictures.

In London, he talks about a woman from Milton who lost her job at Target. In Windsor, he talks about a man from Leamington who had to move to British Columbia to find a job. In Ottawa, the homework joke receives a slightly subtler telling en francais. He challenges Stephen Harper’s claim to be the steady hand on the tiller. And he uses a good deal of his time to paint a large target on the government’s commitment to its income-splitting tax measure, which Trudeau deems a “$2,000 gift” for “the wealthiest Canadians.”

“In these times, Mr. Harper’s top priority remains to give wealthy families like his and mine $2,000,” Trudeau says in Windsor. “Let me tell you something: We don’t need it. And Canada can’t afford it.”

There is not quite a comprehensive prosecution of the Harper government’s record, but if the Prime Minister has tried to claim credit for the country’s economic growth, Trudeau is trying to make him wear the economic frailties. He talks about “change” and “new leadership” and a “new kind of leadership.” In Windsor, he chides Joe Oliver for the contretemps in London and by Ottawa the response has been drawn out into a philosophical argument: “Mr. Harper and his Conservatives can always make time to attack and divide. What they cannot seem to do is bring people together and lead.”

The conclusion is a call to Liberals to work hard and thus earn it and a nod to the promise to voters.

“We live in a great country. And this year, we can give it a better government,” he says, hammering the syllables in the word better.

That is a seemingly simple and easily alluring, but still vague promise.

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