In Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, the Conservatives have long recognized a threat. Since he became Liberal leader in 2013, the Tories have taken pains to undermine his credibility—usually through personal attacks rather than policy critiques.
The Conservatives like to refer to him as "Justin" rather than invoke his hallowed last name, downplaying his status as heir to one of Canada’s most respected former prime ministers. And they continue to attempt to make political hay out of his relatively young age (Trudeau is 43, while Harper is 56).
“He’s like a celebrity. He says things before thinking them through,” one woman jeers in an attack ad.
Another says: “He has some growing up to do,” before a man flippantly adds, “Nice hair, though.”
The kicker? A voice-over announces: “Justin Trudeau: He’s just not ready.”
But at the Aug. 6th televised leaders’ debate Trudeau managed to land some decisive blows against his opponents, with the most memorable moment coming in his final comments.
Looking directly into the camera, Trudeau delivered to Canadians, not a technocratic platform, but an impassioned speech about what really counts when it comes to leadership.
“What I learned from my father is that, to lead this country, you need to love this country, love it more than you crave power," said Trudeau. "It needs to run through your veins. You need to feel it in your bones. Mr. Harper and I part ways on many issues. But our differences go deeper than policy. Mr. Harper is dead wrong about one thing. He wants you to believe that better just isn’t possible. Well, I think that’s wrong.”
The speech was a solid right-hook (if not a knock-out) to Harper’s politics of division and his autocratic approach to governing, and it may have marked a turning point for Trudeau.
An "amazingly good" politician
“Trudeau needs to continue performing strongly in front of the media and must avoid any gaffes that will allow the other parties to portray him as a lightweight,” said Stephen Azzi, an associate professor in the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
In the current run-up to the 2015 election, Liberals still trail the NDP and the Conservatives in third place in the polls— but CBC’s Poll Tracker reports some strong, positive regional trends for the party. The Liberals led Atlantic Canada at 43.9 per cent, up five points since July; and in Ontario, all three main parties are locked in a tight, three-way race.
Trudeau can perform. As the son of two famous parents, he was raised in the public eye with a constant guard detail assigned to him. One of his favourite stunts in public is to balance a baby in one of his hands and then stretch his arm, still holding the child, up to the sky.
In a profile on Trudeau in 2014 for Chatelaine, journalist Carol Toller referred to Trudeau’s “baby trick.” Toller called it a show-stopping moment that portrayed him as a “loving, hands-on parent; a warm, approachable counterpoint to Stephen Harper….”
It’s the sort of public demonstration that leads former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff to characterize Trudeau as a performer well-prepared for his role.
“He’s an actor, a professional politician who fully inhabits the role with a confidence that comes from having always known this was the role he was born to play,’ Ignatieff wrote in an email to National Observer.
“Justin Trudeau is amazingly good at retail politics,” said Lisa Kirbie, who previously worked for Ignatieff and is currently a senior vice president and principal of the Daisy Consulting Group, an issues management firm in Toronto. “He has a likability and authenticity that Thomas Mulcair doesn’t have and a charm that is absent from Stephen Harper.”
Norman Hillmer, a professor of history and international affairs at Carleton University, refers to Trudeau’s ease and comfort around people, something he adds is “refreshing when contrasted with the current prime minister who has none of that. There’s a terrific capacity to connect with people.”
And Trudeau knows it. He loves to work a crowd. “He’s the nearest thing I’ve seen to a Bill Clinton type, a person who genuinely likes politics and people,” said John English, the author of a two-volume authorized biography of Pierre Trudeau. “When you see him with a crowd, you realize he’s very comfortable with people.”
Trudeau looks younger than his 43 years and comes close to inspiring the sort of Trudeaumania his father used to incite. A recent profile in The Atlantic described the scene after he finished speaking at a political rally in Windsor, Ontario and music by DJ deadmau5 started up.
“He joined the crowd, posing for pictures, signing copies of his memoir, and recording a birthday video for someone’s mother. ‘I feel like I’m at a rock party,’ an older female fan said. Another woman called her friends Trudeau groupies.”
And as the candidate of choice for many Canadian women, it should come as no surprise that Harper and Mulcair both declined to participate in the proposed "Up for Debate" televised forum on women's issues—sponsored by Oxfam Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Native Women's Association of Canada, it was cancelled when only Elizabeth May and Trudeau agreed to participate.
By avoiding a debate on women's issues, they effectively denied Trudeau a chance to mobilize a core group of followers.
The Thursday morning before the debate, Trudeau had warmed up with some easy sparring at a Toronto boxing gym. He took up the sport in his 20s, signing up under an assumed name because he wanted to be known first for his work ethic, not his parentage, Trudeau wrote in his memoir, Common Ground.
“Whether the reaction of others to my name was good or bad, I didn’t like the idea that people would have preconceived expectations of me before they heard what I had to say in a debate or saw what I could deliver in a boxing ring,” Trudeau wrote.
During the Aug. 6th debate, at one point Trudeau and Mulcair argued over the number of votes Quebec’s sovereignty movement needed for a referendum victory. Mulcair kept badgering Trudeau to provide a number.
The Liberal leader turned on Mulcair and snapped: “You want a number, Mr. Mulcair? I’ll give you a number. My number is nine.
“Nine Supreme Court justices said one vote is not enough to break up this country.”
Trudeau’s sharp jabs brought to mind another debate, that one between former Prime Ministers John Turner and Brian Mulroney. In that 1984 debate, Mulroney lashed out at Turner over patronage appointments, delivering the now-famous line: “You had an option, sir!”
While Trudeau’s moment wasn’t quite as decisive as Mulroney’s, it nonetheless made people sit up and realize that in recent months they had underestimated him. It's a phrase that pops up repeatedly when people talk about Trudeau.
Warren Kinsella, a former advisor to Jean Chretien, said people used to underestimate the previous Liberal leader and prime minister. “People consistently underestimated Chretien and we used to joke you could wallpaper his house with political obituaries,” Kinsella told the National Observer.
“I think it’s the same with Trudeau. I think a lot of people thought he wasn’t going to do particularly well in the leaders’ debate and he did quite well. He exceeded expectations.”
English said Trudeau is misjudged because of his youthful appearance, “He’s very handsome,” said English.
“For that reason, you don’t expect him to be as quick as he is. He’s quick, and he listens too.”
That quickness was evident during the leader’s debate, according to Azzi, who opined that Trudeau performed much better than expected. “The Liberal campaign is doing what it needs to do: establishing Trudeau as a credible alternative to Harper.”
Much of what’s needed to position Trudeau as the alternative to Harper is already in place, said English. His first task was to do well in the debate. Having established a strong team with which to form a cabinet, he now he needs to present a coherent platform, much like Jean Chretien did in 1993 with his Red Book.
The latter enabled Chretien to beat Conservative Kim Campbell. “It gave Canadians a kind of road map.”
In order to beat Harper, Trudeau can't pull his punches
Another advantage for Trudeau comes from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is throwing her support behind him in Ontario over frustration at Harper’s refusal to provide federal assistance with the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan.
“The Liberals have to pick up seats in Ontario. I worry that there will be lots of vote-splitting with the NDP and that will cost some seats," English said.
Azzi said that Trudeau needs to keep hammering the issues that distinguish the Liberals from the New Democrats, particularly the party positions on the Clarity Act and security, as well as the Liberal proposal to shift some of the tax burden from the middle class to the wealthy.
“Trudeau needs to go after Harper more vigorously than Mulcair does.”
Warren Kinsella doesn’t agree with Trudeau’s policy that excludes negativity during a campaign. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t feel it’s negative to tell the public record of your opponent in a democracy,” Kinsella said. “That’s your obligation. As such, he has pulled his punches when he shouldn’t. I think he and his brain trust need to pay attention to the fact that the moments that have been happiest for the Liberals in the past two years is when he did actually throw some punches in that leader’s debate.”
To win, Kinsella believes Justin Trudeau's going to have to keep on punching, harder and harder.
An education in politics and power
The son of one of Canada’s most renowned prime ministers, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and his wife Margaret, Trudeau was born in 1971, seemingly to a life of privilege and ease.
Growing up in a rarified atmosphere of wealth and power, he routinely met world leaders and royalty. U.S. President Ronald Reagan recited Robert Service’s verse to him, and Princess Diana once stopped at the family home to swim. Richard Nixon offered a toast to the “future Prime Minister of Canada” when Trudeau was still in diapers at the age of four months.
According to his memoir, his parents' divorce led Trudeau to have a “sense of diminished self-worth” —and having to deal with his bi-polar mother at a young age led him to believe that he “had to take care of her, rather than the reverse.”
Trudeau was intelligent at school, and was both well-read and athletic. For all that he was also inconsistent in his education, in high school flunking experimental psychology deliberately because the course’s content annoyed him.
Around that time a teacher accused him of trying to coast by on the family name. The accusation angered Trudeau. “Our father had always been careful to ingrain in us the principle that the Trudeau name was not a currency to be spent but a badge of responsibility to be worn.”
At McGill University in Montreal, from which he graduated in 1994 with a BA in English literature, Trudeau met a student who encouraged him to join the debating club. Gerald Butts was a champion debater and became Trudeau’s best friend and leading advisor, both of which he remains to this day.
A recent profile in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald described the bearded, bespectacled Butts as “not a flashy guy,” and quoted Cape Breton-Canso MP Rodger Cuzner saying, “He’s like a policy ninja.”
On the college debating circuit the two men also met Katie Telford, who today is Trudeau’s national campaign co-chair. Before coming to work with Trudeau, Telford acted as Gerard Kennedy’s leadership campaign manager in 2006 and worked in Stephane Dion’s office as deputy chief of staff.
Following McGill, Trudeau attended the University of British Columbia’s 12-month education program. Inspired by the experience he’d had teaching kids to snowboard at Blackcomb, Trudeau wanted to pursue teaching as a career.
It was during this time in his life, in 1998, that news reached him that his younger brother Michel had been killed in an avalanche while backcountry skiing near Kokanee Lake in British Columbia. The news was devastating to the family.
Trudeau’s other brother, Sacha, provided support to Pierre Elliott, but Trudeau says his father was never the same man again. His mother “endured horrific, debilitating grief,” which her mental health problems compounded.
After his father’s death in 2000, Trudeau said the last thing on his mind was politics. The Liberals approached him to run, but Trudeau turned it down. Instead he returned to teaching and became involved with Katimavik, the volunteer program that put students to work for non-profits nation-wide.
In 2002, tired of the West Coast, Trudeau returned to Montreal to study engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique. The next year, while helping out with a fund-raiser, he met a television and radio host named Sophie Gregoire. She would become his wife and, by Trudeau’s account, every bit as important an advisor as Butts.
“My political style began to be profoundly influenced by Sophie, who, as well as having a deep intuitive understanding of Quebec, also kept a close watch on my campaign materials and my media appearances,” Trudeau wrote.
Trudeau recalled in his memoir that Sophie would also not let “the petty feuds and frictions of political life poison my personality.” This may be at the root of Trudeau’s vow not to personally attack any of his political opponents.
As well, she acted as his sounding board, making Trudeau explain every one of his platform points in direct and simple language, and restating anything that sounded complex or confusing.
Trudeau's hard work and natural ease paid off
In 2006, Trudeau tentatively dipped his foot into politics, lending his support to Gerard Kennedy, the Ontario education minister as he made his party leadership bid. Stephane Dion ultimately won the bid. The day after the convention Trudeau called Dion to congratulate him and the new Liberal leader told him: “Don’t go too far, because I’m going to want your help in getting rid of this Harper government.”
Trudeau decided his time had come. Jean Lapierre, the Liberal MP for Outremont, had decided not to run again and Trudeau viewed the riding as his. His family had roots in the area, he’d attended high school there and he and his wife living in the riding.
Things didn’t work out that way.
English said the party didn’t do Trudeau any favours at all. “Quite the opposite. He wasn’t welcomed into it.”
The area riding association made it clear they didn’t want Trudeau, so he set his sights on Papineau, an ethnically diverse riding held by the Bloc Quebecois. First Dion’s team tried to dissuade Trudeau from running, and then they announced it would be an open nomination for the seat. The president of the Quebec wing of the party told French media that Trudeau had nothing to offer as a candidate while the press wrote him off as young and inexperienced.
“My career as a politician began in a parking lot,” is the memorable way in which Trudeau recalls it in his memoir. He needed to sell Liberal Party memberships in order to build his base of support, and he started doing so in a grocery store parking lot in Papineau.
He did much more than that though, canvassing the neighbourhood, meeting people and “getting things done at a street level.”
Trudeau’s hard work and natural ease with people won him the nomination. But when he gained his seat in 2008, the Liberals were starting a slide that they’ve yet to recover from. That same year the party as a whole only won 26 percent of the vote nationally.
By 2011, Ignatieff was leading the party. While Trudeau gained re-election in Papineau, then-NDP Leader Jack Layton’s Orange Wave captured 103 seats, while the Conservatives moved into majority position with 166 seats. The Liberals suffered their worst defeat in their 144-year history, only getting 34 seats.
Trudeau TKOs former Senator Patrick Brazeau
In 2012, Trudeau got in the ring with now-disgraced Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau for a charity boxing match. It was widely anticipated that, Brazeau – a physically large man who had trained in the Canadian Forces – was going to thrash Trudeau. But Trudeau was in better shape and outlasted Brazeau to deliver a technical knock-out in the third round before a hall packed full of Conservative MPs and ministers.
The media fixated on the match and declared that it was the start of Trudeau’s leadership campaign. The match certainly helped imprint Trudeau on a much larger audience nationally.
The leadership convention was anti-climatic. According to Hillmer, “It was a walk. It was no contest. I was at a Liberal Party Christmas dinner just as that campaign was beginning and the excitement about Trudeau was palpable. It was really powerful.”
While the leadership convention may have been a walk, the weeks leading up to the election campaign proved more challenging. Trudeau’s stance on Bill C-51 – voting for it and saying a Liberal government would repeal the bill later – angered many, as did a number of off-hand policy statements in the media.
Trudeau’s biggest misstep, though, was letting former Conservative MP Eve Adams run as a Liberal candidate in a Toronto riding, according to Kinsella. He calls the mistake toxic and said Liberals were apoplectic with rage at the move. According to Kinsella, the Liberals began organizing against Adams, so Trudeau sent in his top organizers to help her out.
“They delayed the nomination meeting until they felt she could win it and she still lost. She got clobbered. That was a revolt by the grassroots of the Liberal Party against their own leader.”
English agrees that Trudeau’s appearance with and endorsement of Adams was a mistake. He takes less issue with Trudeau’s stance to end the bombing missions against ISIS – which many found controversial – and said perhaps it wasn’t as explained as well as it could have been.
“They didn’t seem comfortable with it,” English noted. He believes that those issues, along with Trudeau’s position on Bill C-51, is what enabled the Tories to produce the “not ready” videos.
Azzi calls Trudeau’s record as a party leader mixed, but said that’s the case with all new party leaders. He credits Trudeau with helping save the Liberal Party. “It wasn’t that long ago that commentators – including Peter C. Newman – were predicting the death of the Liberal Party. Trudeau has brought a lot of energy to the party and raised large amounts of money.
“Yet his gaffes have allowed the other parties to portray him as a lightweight – a pretty boy who is not up to the job.”
Despite that, Trudeau is far from the first party leader who’s made mistakes along the way. Azzi points out that as party leader Harper lost his first election and he noted that Lester Pearson, whom he calls arguably the most accomplished prime minister in our history, was a disaster in her first year as party leader.
“His first move was a blunder that led to the Diefenbaker Conservatives calling an election and winning the largest majority in Canadian history.”
Campaign observers are divided on the strength of the team Trudeau is fielding. English said he’s attracted a number of strong candidates, including former Toronto police chief, Bill Blair and journalist Chrystia Freeland.
“Harper has lost so many cabinet ministers,” English said. “He doesn’t talk about the team any more. Once that happens, it’s a very bad sign.” In contrast, English said Trudeau has the basis of a strong cabinet already formed.
Kinsella disagrees, noting that Blair defended carding and oversaw civil rights abuses during the G20 in Toronto and he snipes that Freeland appears to be more pre-occupied with writing editorial opinion pieces for The New York Times than looking after riding matters.
“I can’t identify a real stand-down star,” Kinsella said. “That’s not fatal in and of itself. You can win an election without a star. What people look at is the leader and the platform, but I think the problem is they’re going around saying they have stars when in fact they don’t.”
Platform expected around Labour Day
In order to win the election Trudeau needs to continue to demonstrate a grasp of the issues and remain steadfast in clearly getting his message across, Hillmer said. “But that’s not going to be enough. What he needs is something to go wrong on the other two sides.
“He needs the prime minister to continue to have difficulty both with the economy and other policy issues, but also to continue to appear to be aloof and to continue to be someone we’d like to see the end of.”
While Hillmer said that Trudeau is back in the campaign after the debate, he still needs Mulcair to perform poorly or make a bad mistake, “something that will interrupt this notion that if we want to be rid of Harper, than we’re going to have to vote for Mulcair and the NDP.”
English expects the Liberals will release their platform around Labour Day. While Trudeau has given speeches on democratic reform, the economy, the oil patch and security, among other things, none of it yet adds up to a platform.
English said the strategy was likely to wait until the election campaign before releasing the platform. “I think they would have never contemplated in the spring or last year that the election would have this long run to it.”
According to English, Trudeau has all the prerequisites to become prime minister. English cites strength of the character, intelligence, a love for the outdoors that places fighting climate change high on his priorities and, most importantly, a vision for Canada.
"His vision is one of fairness,” English said.