Tag Archives: Liberal Party Leadership

Justin Trudeau’s Next Round

trudeau

When I wrote this last summer it was just talk.  Rumour, speculation, wishful thinking perhaps on the part of defeated Liberals nostalgic for the glories of bygone days.  I wrote it with a sense of hope and optimism and something of a knowing smile after watching both seasoned, professional political pundits and anonymous Internet hacks (or is it seasoned anonymous pundits and professional political hacks) fall all over themselves concern trolling Liberals over their potential leader-in-waiting, who hadn’t even declared his intentions at that point.  It seems so long ago.  But last night it became reality.  Justin Trudeau is the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Not that the concern trolling is going to stop.  In fact, it’s been going on through the entire Liberal leadership race.  Charges that Trudeau is nothing more than a silver spoon-fed famous last name with good hair and no policy experience.  We’ll just see it ratcheted up a thousand degrees now that things are official.  The jumped-up frat boys of the Conservative war room have been squirming giddily for months now with dozens of attack ads ready to saturate the airwaves with the same message:  He’s too young, he’s not ready, and Canada desperately needs the seasoned economic stewardship of Messrs. Harper and Flaherty – those same guys who boast to any available microphone that Canada’s economy is doing better than anywhere else in the world but is also, paradoxically, apparently so fragile that it will collapse in a heartbeat if they’re not allowed to keep running Economic Action Plan commercials (which, as you file your taxes this month, you should remember that you’re paying for) every two minutes.

Liberals worry about the coming onslaught.  (The first ad has already been released, but I’m not dignifying it by providing a link.)  But they won’t be as effective against Trudeau as they were about his predecessors.  Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were unknown quantities – the former a lesser known junior cabinet minister, the latter almost completely unknown outside academia – and vulnerable to being defined before they could define themselves.  Most Canadians’ opinions about Justin Trudeau have been more or less cemented at this point.  If you already like him, you’re not going to be swayed by what the nasty Conservatives say, and if you’re still holding on to an NEP grudge, you were never going to vote for him anyway (and fortunately for Liberals, that’s a diminishing constituency).  A few veteran Liberals were surprised when Trudeau announced a few weeks ago that he would not go negative, and they rued a repeat of Dion-Ignatieff where taking the high road meant progressively less seats in the House.  But as usual, they were oversimplifying what Trudeau meant – anyone who saw the Brazeau fight knows that he’ll never refrain from punching back.  Saying that he won’t go negative is about the vision he intends to offer the country.

Ever since their election in 2006, the Conservative Party of Canada has governed as though they were still on the opposition benches.  Forgetting that being in power means more than just fancy titles and bigger offices, and that you actually have to, you know, do some stuff, they have never shaken the mode of perpetual critic – devoting the majority of their efforts to scaring Canadians about the members on the opposition benches and blaming them for not being able to get anything done.  The truth is that Conservatives don’t actually want to do anything.  They are a party utterly bereft of a vision, unless that vision is enriching an already wealthy few.  The Prime Minister, a passionless zombie, has never seemed as though he even likes his native land very much, quick as he is in attacking the patriotism of his critics.  His record proves it.  Even George W. Bush played at being a “uniter, not a divider;” Harper said famously that whether Canada devolves into a loose association of provinces and territories is secondary in his opinion.  It’s all about tearing down what has been built because… I don’t really know.  It’s there, I guess?  He’s never said otherwise.  When Harper does talk about where he sees Canada in the future, his answers centre entirely on economic progress, i.e., money.  Get rich or die tryin’.  For him, empathy doesn’t compute.  That’s why Harper can’t fathom that there could be something more, something greater, running through the experience of what it means to be Canadian other than hockey and Tim Horton’s and a 200-year-old war no one cares about.  Stephen Harper is the model of a man who has lived his entire life feeling like he has never belonged to anything, and thus spends his time finding ever more inventive ways to promulgate the same loneliness and misery in everyone else.  He is the perpetual kid looking up at the treehouse where the meeting of the “No Stephens” club is being convened.  I suspect I’m not alone in believing that his national therapy session at the taxpayer’s expense has gone on long enough, and that it’s time for him to retire to a bunch of corporate boards and hundred-thousand-dollar lecture circuits while the work of rebuilding Canada begins.

In the wake of nearly a decade of Canadians being pitted against one another in the name of electoral math, Justin Trudeau has an opportunity.  He recognizes that it is not enough for him, nor the Liberal Party, to expect to coast to victory because people don’t like Stephen Harper.  It was why I could never get behind Joyce Murray’s push for an anti-Harper electoral pact with the NDP – voters would be more likely to lean Conservative or not vote because they would feel their right of choice was being taken away.  Additionally, Mitt Romney proved somewhat definitively that you can’t win an election by simply not being the incumbent; he also showed that a campaign bereft of positive ideas for people to latch onto, a campaign devoted entirely to the failings of the other guy, is doomed.  And we need to tune out the pundits and amateur critics howling that Trudeau has no policies, no plans.  Let’s state firmly and understand that plans do not win elections.  The idea that they do is a fallacy perpetuated by political writers trying to prove they’re smarter than everyone else.  I hate to keep repeating this same quote of Simon Sinek’s, but it applies as equally to politics as it does to creativity, or entrepreneurship.  “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  The why – the vision – is what will carry Justin Trudeau forward, through attack ads, through op-ed hit jobs, through every gaffe and misstatement gleefully dissected in five-part exposés on right-wing media and in their echo chamber of angry bloggers.  Being able to say that Canada is a great country and a light in the world, and here’s why.  Join with me to make it even greater.

Barack Obama’s first campaign for the presidency was about Hope and Change – notice that hope came first.  Hope resonates through fear and anger, no matter how loud or well-funded the voices of the latter.  Even at their worst, human beings have an incredible capacity for optimism and are amazingly receptive to positivity.  Justin Trudeau senses that this primal need is going unfulfilled by the cynical jackalopes on the government benches who never miss a chance to spread fear and xenophobia instead.  His chosen course is to give Canadians a vision of a government and indeed a country that is far more than tax cuts and deregulation and policies drawn from the Book of Leviticus.  There will be the hard and tedious work of rebuilding riding associations, boosting fundraising, recruiting candidates and getting the Liberal Party into fighting shape for 2015 (or whenever Harper decides to break his fixed-election date law again).  But none of that matters if the message is not there.  Merely having a famous surname, as his critics allege, doesn’t generate the kind of enthusiasm that Trudeau has been seeing at his rallies.  What he is saying – his why – is connecting with people and inspiring them.  When you reach that point of critical mass and explode into a movement, as Obama did, suddenly everyone wants to rush to jump onboard.  It’s important to stress also that this sort of phenomenon is not about a particular candidate’s individual level of celebrity or indeed even who he is as a person – he instead becomes the lightning rod by which a collective excitement is channeled into sweeping, grassroots change.

Justin Trudeau stands on the cusp of achieving that.

Stephen Harper has dreamt of, but never touched that kind of appeal.  At his best, he has always been a “least of the worst” option.  Against a genuine movement, he has no chance.  Against the younger generation finally motivated to come out and vote en masse to shape their future, he has no chance.  Against the offer of a Canada that demands the best of our nature and rewards us accordingly, he has no chance.  He can go finish his hockey book and look back longingly at Parliament Hill and the “No Stephens” sign in the window of 24 Sussex.

As Justin Trudeau begins his first day as Leader of the Liberal Party, let’s not get lost in the background noise, in the minutiae of policies and platforms, and the dissection of the inflection of each word by his opponents looking for find chinks in the armor.  Let’s instead answer the call to participate in building a Canada that stays true both at home and abroad to the principles we value most.  Let us reward those who advance a positive vision of our true North, strong and free, and let us send the cynics home to whine about it on the Internet.  That’s the Canada I’d like to see, and the one that I believe Justin Trudeau has a chance to make happen.  With our help.  A black man did not win election to the Presidency twice just because he was a great speaker.  And Justin Trudeau will not be elected Prime Minister on the reputation of his father.  In the end, the why will secure the win, just as it would if his name was Justin Terkowicz.

And so, as a famous fictional president would often opine, what’s next?

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Justin Trudeau vs. the Concern Trolls

UrbanDictionary.com defines a “concern troll” as “someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with ‘concerns.’  The idea behind this is that your opponents will take your arguments more seriously if they think you’re an ally.”

There is no better description of the dozens of op-ed writers (and thousands of anonymous commenters) cautioning Liberals against rallying behind Justin Trudeau as their next leader.  The opinions are widely disseminated, but all come back to the same litany of talking points:  it’s not his time, he’s too young, his last name is poison in parts of the country, he hasn’t run a successful business, he hasn’t accomplished anything noteworthy.  If any of these tropes sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same weak sauce flung at up-and-coming Senator Barack Obama in 2008, indicating clearly that none of what the concern trolls are falling over themselves in weepy anguish to preach to the poor, poor Liberals will make any damn bit of difference in Trudeau’s ability to lead his party to victory in a national election.  Instead, these pleas sound like attempts to nudge the Grits towards picking an unexciting candidate who will make Stephen Harper look like George Clooney – so Canadian readers can suffer another few years’ worth of pedantic “Is the Liberal Party Dead?” articles.

Canadian politicians have never been particularly renowned for their charisma.  Ours is a history of electing the safe and the bland, of choosing managers over leaders.  Ironically, the turning point in virtually every Canadian election has come when we’ve seen a flash of personality, a quotable moment that provokes headlines and water cooler discussion.  Brian Mulroney telling John Turner “You had an option, sir.”  Jean Chretien’s speech about his facial paralysis following a cruel attack ad from the other side.  Jack Layton shredding Michael Ignatieff’s election hopes with “If Canadians don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.”  Those are the President Bartlet moments we hunger for and latch onto because they are so rare.  We may claim we want only the seasoned, sensible accountant to watch the public purse, but we need that firebrand to stir our emotions, to get us thinking, and to spur a true and fair debate on who we are as Canadians and what kind of country we want to create for ourselves.   To engage us in the fate of our nation once again.  It’s quite possible we’d experience a collective freak-out were someone like that to emerge on the scene again; our stolid nature simply wouldn’t know how to handle it.

But that would be a good thing.

Justin Trudeau’s reluctance to take on the challenge of restoring the bruised and battered Liberal Party suggests that much unlike the copious evidence pouring out of Stephen Harper’s every extremity, he has not spent his entire life dreaming of power.  Trudeau could have parachuted into a safe seat during the Chretien heyday and squatted on the backbenches, quietly building an organization of loyalists and working towards an eventual leadership coup.  Would this have been considered the more appropriate path to the top by the pundits?  Perhaps, but instead, Trudeau chose to run in a Bloc Quebecois riding in an election where the Liberals had already been mired in opposition an uncomfortable two years under Stephane Dion, who despite good intentions could not connect with a lackadaisical public force-fed with the Conservative “not a leader” meme by a compliant media.  Against odds, Trudeau took the fight to the enemy and won it.  He did not coast in on fame and memories of Liberal glories past, nor did he simply promise to cut taxes and be a puppet for his party.  He won Papineau by going door to door advancing the ideals that government can be a place for good work when the best people are in charge of it.  One does not need to be an exceptional person to keep a corporate balance sheet in the black; the ability to inspire people with deeds, images and words, is a much rarer gift.  In Justin Trudeau, one can see these glimmers of the stuff of leadership.  Where the concern trolls get the idea that this translates to a lack of life accomplishment is a bit bewildering.

In his four years as an MP, Trudeau has been an advocate for youth, the environment and a vigorous democracy, and has done so while raising a young family.  He’s shown passion and an unwillingness to moderate his tone when it comes to speaking about what he believes; advancing the notion that principles are more important than electoral totals.  And famously, earlier this year, he stood his ground against a hulk of a Conservative Senator and trounced him in a boxing match the Sun News crowd were salivating over the prospect of watching him lose.  In the ring, Trudeau gives everything he’s got.  The nobility of the fight, what it truly means to the people watching, and not the aggrandizement of the ego of the man, is what matters to him.  Do you want to follow the leader because he’s leading for your benefit, or for his own?  Contrast this against the guy apparently so insecure he has to use your tax dollars to rename the government after himself.

The important thing to keep in mind as well when concern trolls spout off about a dearth of executive experience on Trudeau’s shoulders is that Harper’s attitude to the contrary, the Prime Minister is not the President – and even the President delegates.  Even as a rump of its former self the Liberal bench is deep with former cabinet ministers and seasoned professionals who would be well equipped to counsel a potential future Prime Minister Trudeau on any policies where he felt his own expertise wanting – to say nothing of who else might choose to stand for election with Trudeau leading the party.  And you get the sense that Trudeau would not be afraid to ask, either; that he understands the virtue of surrounding himself with smart people and letting them shine.  Again, one must look at this in comparison to Harper’s approach of farming out cabinet posts to party hacks and running everything out of the PMO.  This strategy leads inevitably to taxpayers footing the bill for $16 orange juice.

We’ve had enough managers, we’ve had enough boring old guys droning on about their eighteen-point-plans to reduce the deficit and ensure economic growth to 2050.  What will get Canadians excited, what the Liberals need, and what terrifies the concern trolls, is someone who can appeal to our better angels on a visceral level.  Someone who can get the cynical back to the polls and who can mobilize the divided yet potent, growing energies on the progressive side into a force that overwhelms the cash-heavy Conservative smear machine.  For all his skill as a parliamentarian, I don’t see that quality in the dour Thomas Mulcair, and Bob Rae obviously wasn’t sure he was that man either.  I’ll admit that we don’t know for certain if Justin Trudeau has that in him.  But the volume of ink being expended against his candidacy in the guise of ensuring the long-term future of the Liberals suggests a lot of people on the other side of the spectrum are panicked that he does and are trying, ever so gently, to urge him to stay out of the race, lest a dragon they cannot slay rear its big red head.

That Trudeau is not responding immediately to the media storm about his candidacy (or lack thereof) is encouraging.  He’s considering his options, consulting his family, and hopefully letting the background noise of the concern trolls wash over him.  If he lets any of their feigned worries become the deciding factor, then he wasn’t the guy to begin with.  But if he decides to step up, I suspect he’ll end up doing to the naysayers – metaphorically, at least – what he did to Senator Patrick Brazeau.