Justin Trudeau: The man who makes Stephen Harper tremble

Paul Wells on how the new Liberal leader deals with the PM

‘Root causes’: ‘There is no question that this happened because of someone who feels completely excluded,’ Trudeau said of the Boston bombing

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

If you want to be the calm at the eye of the storm, it helps to be calm. Justin Trudeau is figuring that part out.

On Monday, Trudeau’s (pause to count on fingers) ninth day as leader of the plucky underdog Liberal party, the wavy-maned MP for Papineau exited the House of Commons and parked in front of a scrum microphone in the Centre Block lobby. He was greeted by the customary mob of journalists badgering him for autographs. Just kidding! No, we had Tough Questions for him.

What did he make of his latest exchange with the Prime Minister, which came after five questions from the NDP, a party the scribes are basically ignoring this month? “I asked a substantive question,” Trudeau said, once, twice, three times. But Stephen Harper preferred to send mockery in return.

Surely this will be a theme of Trudeau’s spring: he would like to be considered more than a pretty face. He asks substantive questions. If Harper can’t give substantive answers, or won’t, Trudeau hints, well then we’ll know who’s low on substantivity, won’t we? Substantivosity. Substantiveness. Substance? Never mind. We’ll know what needs knowing.

One of the scribes asked Trudeau about the root causes of the Boston Marathon bombing. The goal here was to get him to say something reminiscent of the answer he gave Peter Mansbridge less than two hours after the murders happened: “There is no question that this happened because of someone who feels completely excluded, someone who feels completely at war with innocence, at war with society.”

That comment, which could be taken as eagerness to sympathize with terrorists instead of hunting them down, led to a week’s excitement in Ottawa and wherever Conservatives worry about a Liberal renaissance. Harper came out of the London funeral for Margaret Thatcher and, before any of the reporters there had raised Trudeau’s name, said: “When you see this kind of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes. You condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

In turn, Trudeau said Harper was politicizing a tragedy. Later he announced he would use a regularly scheduled Liberal opposition day to encourage backbench Conservatives who are quarrelling with Harper’s office over the amount of freedom they have. The government’s House leader, Peter Van Loan, promptly announced he was postponing the Liberal opposition day so MPs could debate a terrorism bill that has been wending its way through the Commons in lethargic fashion.

Van Loan could not explain why he saw no need to debate the bill for the first three days after the Boston bombing, before upending the schedule of business on the fourth. It began to seem that the Conservatives’ legislative schedule is determined by the need to hurt Trudeau before he hurts them.

Over the weekend I reported that Harper’s government has budgeted $10 million for a five-year program of research into the causes of terrorism. So Harper’s government is actually keenly interested in root causes, except when it’s Trudeau talking about them.

By Monday, much of the righteous fury had gone out of all parties. In debate on the terrorism bill, the Conservatives had nothing fiery to say. In his Monday scrum, Trudeau demonstrated that butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. What about those root causes? “There are a lot of questions still to be asked,” he said blandly. But the first thing to do was to thank the police for dismantling an apparent terrorist ring in Canada. “This is the kind of work that the men and women of Canadian law enforcement agencies need to continue doing,” he said, “and they have our thanks and our full support on that.”

I pressed him on the proper treatment of terrorists. “We support [the government bill] broadly,” he said, “and we have supported it throughout the long time that it has wended its way through the House.” A pirouette and he was gone. Short answers with few moving parts. Something new.

All Harper had to do was zip up, and Trudeau’s comments would have stood alone for all to judge by their lights. He didn’t figure that out until after he had used a funeral to pick a fight. For the leader of a party that will be lucky indeed if it can simply stop losing seats, Trudeau has a knack for making his opponents do dumb things—simply, as far as I can see, by existing. In Quebec City, Trudeau paid a courtesy call on provincial party leaders. Jean-François Lisée, normally the brains of the Parti Québécois, convened a news conference to denounce Trudeau as a “young prince” who had summoned all three leaders like “vassals” to a single meeting. Problem: Trudeau had made no such request. Lisée wound up apologizing lamely on Twitter.

When Pierre Trudeau died, Stephen Harper wrote that he “took a pass” on the fights against Nazism and Communism. He believed, surely still believes, the old man was evil, or blind to evil, which is the same. He suspects the same of Justin. Anger wrecks his judgment. He has that in common with Lisée. In my years in Ottawa I’ve seen other politicians who polarized debate so effortlessly they drove furious opponents to dumb mistakes. Jean Chrétien was one. Harper himself is another. Apparently young Trudeau has some of that too. It’s a handy attribute.

On the web: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at macleans.ca/inklesswells