Maclean’s 2015 Newsmaker of the Year: Justin Trudeau

Paul Wells on the Canadian prime minister who won over the nation, and then the world—for better or for worse

Prime Minister Trudeau speaks with Katie Telford in his Centre Block Office. November 5, 2015. (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister's Office)

Prime Minister Trudeau speaks with Katie Telford in his Centre Block Office. November 5, 2015. (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister’s Office)

The French have a phrase for the challenge a child of a famous parent faces: “Se faire un prénom”—to make a first name for yourself. Until you can do that, you have to make your way through a fog composed of equal parts familiarity and incomprehension. Everyone knows who you are; nobody knows who you are.

If 2015 was the year Justin Trudeau made a first name for himself, part of the surprise was how easy it was. Partly it’s because Pierre Trudeau’s legacy is, by now, tucked away safely in the annals of history: The youngest Canadians who had a chance to vote for the Liberals when he was running the party are now 53. Partly it was that Justin Trudeau had lots of help from his adversaries in the first-naming department: Both Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair decided it would be superclever to spend the three-month campaign calling him by his first name, as though he had not earned the simple honorific of common courtesy. The disdain in that choice will have been wearyingly familiar to any voter under, say, 53.

But Justin Trudeau didn’t win just because his opponents acted like jerks toward him. Acting like a jerk in politics is hardly rare and rarely fatal. Nor did he win by default: When the campaign began in August, the Liberals were in third place and falling. Whatever modest popularity bump he got out of the early Maclean’s debate had plenty of time to dissipate. Tom Mulcair’s NDP spent weeks at the top of the polls. If the only thing voters wanted was “not Harper,” Mulcair stood ready to give them that.

No, the results suggest some voters actually wanted the sort of government Trudeau offered and decided, after a very long reflection, that he could be trusted to run it. What kind of government? In his mandate letters to 30 ministers, he described it as “a government that will bring real change—in both what we do and how we do it.” The “how” was easier to deliver in the days before Parliament’s return in December. “Government and its information should be open by default,” Trudeau wrote in those letters, and overnight it was much easier for reporters and other interested outsiders to get answers to routine questions from the government of Canada. “Night and day!” one diplomat called the contrast with the Harper government’s secrecy.

    We’ll see whether the “how” lasts. The “what” will take time. And already the young Prime Minister has been served a grim reminder that Harold Macmillan’s “Events, dear boy, events” can trump any plan. He wanted a swift transition. He had to make room for three global summits spaced a few days apart. He wanted to make a good appearance at the summits. He watched, horrified, in a green room at Ottawa’s airport as word of the worst terrorist massacre in French history arrived from Paris. Suddenly his plan to bring CF-18 fighters home from Syria contrasted markedly with French President François Hollande’s plan to triple the number of Mirage fighters in the same theatre of operations. The job Trudeau has won will ensure he gets a nasty surprise like that every few weeks for however long he lasts.

    He has made a few wise early decisions. One is to spread the burden. He plans to trust his cabinet ministers, rather than line them up to await his instructions. In portfolios that will face early challenges, he has put some of his most experienced people, including three veterans from the Chrétien years, nearly 20 years ago: Ralph Goodale at Public Safety; John McCallum at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; Stéphane Dion at Foreign Affairs.

    Of course, in a majority government caucus that succeeds the smallest and most bedraggled Liberal caucus since Confederation, he can’t count on many veterans. Fortunately some of the rookies have seen a thing or two on their way to the cabinet table. Marc Garneau, the new transport minister, has experience in such modes of transport as Navy destroyers and space shuttles. Jane Philpott, the health minister, is a physician, hospital administrator and medical school teacher. Then there’s the badass combat-veteran Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who can look forward to being reminded the first time he makes a big mistake that he was supposed to be badass.

    The (always relative!) openness and loose improvisational nature of the Trudeau government’s early days is made far easier by the soft landing the voters gave the Liberals on Oct. 19: 184 seats in a 338-seat House of Commons. A comfy majority. No danger of the government falling in a confidence vote from one day to the next. Stephen Harper had no such luck when he became prime minister: He had the most tenuous minority of any government since Confederation, and he was in a knife fight for survival from his first day on the job. He acted like it. It was hard to escape the impression that he enjoyed it.

    With Trudeau, too, personality and circumstance seem to align. He has never stopped reminding Liberals that his favourite prime minister was—no, not that one, but Wilfrid Laurier, who gave a speech in 1895 on the virtues of the “sunny way” in politics. In the campaign, Trudeau would sometimes cut short question sessions with reporters so he could prolong his crowd-surfing sessions, taking selfies with dozens of voters at a time. At his first international summit, the G20 in Turkey, he was photographed making a goofy hand-waving gesture in front of his suddenly ancient-seeming U.K. counterpart, David Cameron. During the first break at the Maclean’s debate, he broke away from his adviser Gerald Butts to whisper to the nervous moderator, “Remember to breathe.” (It was useful advice.)

    To his adversaries, and a large portion of the electorate, this glib and people-pleasing side of the new Prime Minister makes him easy to dismiss. That’s the sentiment the Conservatives went down trying to unlock, arguing first that he was “just in over his head,” and then that he was “just not ready.” It was the same belief that sent Ezra Levant, an occasional television host, to a charity boxing tournament in 2012 hoping to see Trudeau’s opponent, Sen. Patrick Brazeau, make Trudeau cry.

    That’s not how it worked out. I have never known Trudeau well, but what was clear from my first conversations with him a decade ago was that he is a keen student of his own limitations and a strategic thinker about how to mitigate them and compensate with his strengths, which include serious discipline in preparation. He worked hard for that boxing match. He prepared hard for the debates. He is keenly aware he could fail. The realization reduces the likelihood of failure.

    As was the case with Harper, Trudeau is kept grounded by his family. Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau gets credit in his autobiography as an important informal adviser on Quebec matters and a strategic sounding board. She is also the mother to their three children and, as political spouses often are, both a fierce protector and a reliable behind-the-scenes deflator of the prime ministerial ego. There is glamour to her too—she was a well-known broadcaster before she was a well-known spouse—and the flock of global paparazzi will be paying almost as much attention to her as to him.

    All that showbiz stuff will wear like sandpaper if the new Prime Minister cannot respond capably to the challenges of office. In the weeks before Parliament’s return, the Nanos polling firm found him more personally popular than any leader Nanos has tested. Justin Trudeau could rest serene in the knowledge that, by that score at least, it is all downhill from here. But he seems intent on enjoying the ride. Sunny ways.

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