Justin Trudeau's next big test

John Geddes on the Question Period question

Today’s Liberal showcase event in Toronto is over, so the next big date for Justin Trudeau to mark on your calendar would be Sunday, April 14, when the winner of the Liberal leadership race is to be announced in Ottawa.

Unless you are among those—and you wouldn’t be entirely alone—who think that outcome is a foregone conclusion, in which case maybe the next big day for Trudeau is Monday, April 15, when he is expected to debut in the House of Commons as Liberal leader.

Which promises to be interesting. Trudeau proved himself a more than competent campaigner in this leadership race. But of course the crowds have been friendly, even adoring, and the atmosphere lends itself to Trudeau’s conversational, unthreatening style.

Question Period isn’t like that, and Trudeau has not often excelled there. His old friend, New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc, had that first QP as leader on his mind soon after Trudeau’s speech in Toronto wrapped up today. In fact, LeBlanc said he detected in it a taste of the sort of tone Trudeau needs to bring to the House.

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“I thought he was much more direct in taking the fight to Stephen Harper,” LeBlanc said. “This was a very partisan, direct attack on Harper. It was an either/or contrast that was much tighter than perhaps he’s done to date.”

He was referring to parts like Trudeau’s lines on the Prime Minister’s law-and-order messaging and caucus management style. “The Conservatives have forgotten about the value of service. The only time they talk about ‘community service’ these days is when it’s a punishment for a crime,” Trudeau told the crowd of about 1,500 Liberals. “And, anyway, the only person Mr. Harper wants his caucus to serve is their leader.”

For many veteran politicians, that would be a pretty standard partisan salvo. But Trudeau isn’t known for mixing it up that way. In this respect, he isn’t much like his famously combative father. Dick O’Hagan, who ran Pierre Trudeau’s press office for a period in the 1970s (and goes back even further as a former Lester B. Pearson assistant) described the father-son contrast this way to me in a recent interview:

“I don’t mean this in a negative way, but [Justin] is softer. He’s more accessible. There’s less angularity and edge to him. That frankly makes him broadly more appealing. He doesn’t have the dynamic thrust his father had, particularly when his father was aroused. We haven’t seen that side of Justin’s personality. He’s a reasonably person. His father had ideological attachments.”

Of course, it’s that approachable quality that has made Justin Trudeau so popular, especially with those Liberals who have had a chance to meet him in person. He wouldn’t want to give it up, even if he could. Yet that House of Commons test, starting April 15, will require him to show another side. It’s an unforgiving place, frustrating to many who don’t relish the need to be brief and brutal.

“I don’t think the confrontational format is very natural for him,” says LeBlanc. “But I think he will very quickly rise to the occasion. … That’s one test of his leadership.”

And certainly not the most important. But the first.