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.