Justin Trudeau has the potential to be an innovative leader

Editorial: Justin Trudeau has the potential to be a leader

But until he demonstrates a true understanding of policy, he’s still just a name

Justin Trudeau. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The Conservatives claim he’s in over his head. But, after a year on the job, pollsters say that if an election were held this week, he’d likely find himself prime minister. True, the actual campaign is a year and a half away, but Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is clearly keeping his head well above water so far.

Since capturing the leadership in a landslide last April, Trudeau has had a beatific effect on his party’s fortunes, including the critical concern of fundraising. In the last three months of 2013, the federal Liberals boasted 44,000 individual donors—outpacing the Conservatives in this regard for the first time in a decade. The ruling Tories may still be the champs in total dollars raised ($9.6 million vs. $4.8 million in the last quarter of 2013, including transfers from riding associations), but the pendulum is beginning to swing in the Liberals’ favour.

The Trudeau effect is even more impressive in the public sphere, where he’s cemented himself in the national media firmament and come to be seen by voters as the unofficial leader of the opposition and potential prime minister. Since Trudeau became leader, the Liberals have led, or been tied, in nearly every national poll, the latest giving them an eight-point advantage over the Harper Conservatives. Poll aggregator Éric Grenier, who blogs at Three Hundred Eight, notes that the last time a majority government found itself trailing in the polls for this long was in the final, convulsive years of the Mulroney regime. And Thomas Mulcair’s official Opposition NDP is nowhere to be seen.

All this to the good, as far as Trudeau is concerned. Yet an unsettlingly large part of his success to date appears to stem from his name, good looks and uncanny knack for the spotlight. Political charisma is certainly a wonderful asset, as the success of the Kennedys or Trudeau’s own father attests to. But to be effective, it must be backed by something a bit more substantial, a point those Conservative attack ads have been making for a year now.

It makes little sense for an opposition party to reveal its full playbook this early in an election cycle. Thus, the modest policy hints Trudeau has provided so far deserve close and careful consideration for what they portend about Canadian politics.

His policy on marijuana—that it should be legalized and regulated—is bold, distinctive and risky, a welcome surprise from an opposition leader so far from an election. Then again, Trudeau is likely just slightly ahead of public opinion on this matter, particularly given recent events in Colorado and Washington state. It also has the beneficial political effect of forcing the Harper government to fall back on its cranky, law-and-order base, while Trudeau presents himself as open-minded and innovative.

His other bold stroke of banning (mostly elderly) Liberal senators from his caucus similarly serves to make him look young and forceful in comparison with Harper, although it does little to solve any of the larger problems with the upper chamber.

In broader policy matters, his comment that “the budget will balance itself” has been seized upon by the Conservatives as evidence that he lacks depth on economic issues. This may be true, but the phrase itself is simply a truism that economic growth will bring any budget into balance if expenditures are held constant. Ronald Reagan repeatedly made this claim in the 1980s. It’s in good company, and hardly a fatal gaffe. Unfortunately, that’s about it for the Trudeau policy binder. He has talked in loving tones about the middle class, supported foreign investment in the oil patch and backed the Keystone XL pipeline.

But all these are motherhood issues for large numbers of Canadians. And he has steadfastly avoided the difficult tangles that come from digging deeper in these policy areas. How exactly will he boost the fortunes of the middle class? And what of the trade-offs inherent in the conflict between resource development and environmental policy?

The lack of sophistication underlying Trudeau’s glibness was revealed in a speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade earlier this month. While giving himself ample credit for backing Keystone during a trip to Washington, Trudeau then claimed, “If Canada had had stronger, more credible environmental policies in place, the Americans would have approved Keystone XL a long time ago.” It is an absurd suggestion that betrays a complete misunderstanding of the American political system. More seasoning on matters of foreign policy is clearly required.

To date, Trudeau has manoeuvred his party into top spot, fixed many internal problems, avoided major missteps and kept himself solidly in the limelight. In other words, he’s proven himself an able politician. The bigger test, however, is yet to come.