The sketch: Justin Trudeau, somewhere between hope and a hockey joke

Taking stock of the Liberal leader

Justin Trudeau. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

“We are here to hope,” he said last Thursday evening, standing in the spotlight before a room packed with supporters. “We are here to work hard. We are here to build. We are here put together the team and the plan to make this country better.”

Shortly thereafter he was done and he was off the stage and off to record an episode of Quebec’s favourite talk show and it was there, in the midst of a discussion about the strife and turmoil of Ukraine, that he decided, badly, to make a hockey joke. “I think President Yanukovych is now illegitimate,” he said in that television studio, “and it is even more worrying now that Russia lost in hockey and will be in a bad mood. We fear some involvement of the Russian government in Ukraine.”

He was, he said, just trying to lighten the mood.

Three days later that video aired and the next morning his joke became a point of outrage to be addressed officially by a minister of the crown, and after a day of a fuss from his rivals and a demand for an apology from the ambassador and some attempt by Liberal MP Marc Garneau to claim that there was nothing to apologize for here and an email to Conservative supporters encouraging them to watch and share the incriminating clip, Mr. Trudeau took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to convey his regrets and shortly thereafter he proceeded to the Ukranian embassy to sign a book of condolences.

So, if nothing else, Mr. Trudeau’s claim to the title of The Most Easily Interesting Man in Canada must remain undisputed (Stephen Harper is quietly interesting, Rob Ford is less interesting than depressing, Justin Bieber is disqualified by residency). But so how should we currently assess his basic state of being, both as a politician and a potential prime minister?

His party’s basic lead in the polls, coinciding perfectly with his election as leader, is now ten months old. For three consecutive quarters, covering the last nine months of 2013, his party has boasted the most donors. In the abstract, even if it would be too much to proclaim him the frontrunner, it would seem fair to surmise that Mr. Trudeau has a somewhat-better-than-decent chance of becoming the 23rd prime minister in this country’s history (and just the 16th to win the office as the direct result of an election). He is an obviously talented individual, whom 42 percent of respondents to a recent poll identified as the best of the potential prime ministers.

The question of his fitness persists. Is he a Serious Person? To what degree should he be taken seriously?

You might start to roll your eyes at various points. At the very idea of him—the celebrity son of a former prime minister, blessed of good skin and good hair, but lacking in serious pursuits before suddenly, after five years in Ottawa, he was the leader of the Liberal party of Canada. (When this magazine presented him as the next leader of the Liberal party, it had to be clarified that the claim was serious.)  He of the long-haired, third-person declaration of allegiance to the country and the boxing match and the strip tease and the toke. There was the fuss over his speaking fees and the fuss over his opinion of the long-gun registry and that odd comment about China and those old comments about Alberta and that rambling response to the bombing in Boston. There is that he is 42 and that habit of leaving the top two buttons of his shirt undone and that time he allowed himself to be videotaped wearing shorts and that, more crucially, he is not the steadiest performer when in scrums or in the House.

There is that “hopey changey” stuff. To stand today, as a politician, before a packed hall and a dozen cameras and speak the sentence, “We are here to hope” is to dare the ridiculous. And to speak as he does, with those pauses and that pronunciation and that obvious ambition. We are supposed to be far too cynical—sorry, wise—for such stuff these days.

But then, however grudgingly or sparingly or guardedly we are willing to invest, it is hope that they’re all selling hope (even those with wins to claim). It is all down to who sells it best.

If you wish to do so, you could construct a story about this past weekend as an unimpressive showing for Mr. Trudeau. The rehearsal of his Thursday speech was inadvertently broadcast to reporters. The debut of a star endorser, already undermined by a spending controversy, was unnecessarily complicated by a leak that could not be explained and questions that weren’t answered—the resulting fuss overwhelming what was a very good speech. There were no new policy commitments from the leader and his Saturday speech was not perfect—the Nathalie anecdote went nowhere, the middle part dragged and the ending lacked oomph. And then Mr. Trudeau declined to meet reporters at weekend’s end, leading to a mostly unanswered scrum and inciting the usual gnashing of teeth.

And yet. It was an interesting speech and an ambitious speech—perhaps as interesting and ambitious a speech as we will hear all year (and perhaps those are the two adjectives that best describe Mr. Trudeau at this point). And throughout the weekend, there on stage, were the individuals Mr. Trudeau has convinced to stand beside him: the former Commander of the Canadian Army, the regional chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations, the chief of staff to the mayor of Calgary, the chairman of the board of the C.D. Howe Institute, the founding president and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba, not to mention the former managing editor of the Financial Times and the former Quebec MNA who have already been elected under the Liberal banner since Mr. Trudeau became the party’s leader. Are these people wooed simply by the prospect of winning that Mr. Trudeau currently represents? Even if so, can their involvement be discounted?

There is the possibility that his decision to remove senators from his parliamentary caucus is one of the most meaningful reforms in the institution’s history (and that that decision took some chutzpah). There is the fact that his position on marijuana is now the law in the states of Colorado and Washington. There is at least the possibility of political reform. And a basically reasonable position on Keystone XL.

And then there is the simple possibility that some significant number of the general population quite likes this Mr. Trudeau and what he has to say and what he seems to represent—at least so far. (Note: A simple conclusion it took me some counsel to appreciate.)

On Tuesday afternoon, he stood in the House to ask the sixth, seventh and eighth questions of the day in a forum in which he has been generally overshadowed and outdone by Thomas Mulcair, a more-obviously “serious” person, but one whose temperament is criticized for different reasons.

“Mr. Speaker, in the last election the Prime Minister’s income splitting commitment was precise,” Mr. Trudeau reported as the Conservatives heckled and yelped in his direction. “It was not some other type of tax cut. It was not some other time. It was income splitting within the current mandate. Did the Prime Minister ever intend to keep his 2011 campaign promise?”

Mr. Harper dodged and then swung back.

“Mr. Speaker, as we have said, we will look at tax reductions for families when we actually have the budget balanced,” he said. “This party on this side understands, unlike him, that the budget does not balance itself.”

The Conservatives laughed. So eager are they to demonstrate Mr. Trudeau’s unseriousness that they are now chasing after even vaguely interesting sentences of his—in this case seemingly undaunted by the prospect of a debate about why and how precisely the budget is being balanced.

Now the Prime Minister stumbled a bit and referred to this weekend’s gathering as an NDP convention before catching himself. “I got confused over the weekend,” he joked.

Mr. Trudeau came back at this. “Mr. Speaker, I am sorry about the Prime Minister’s confusion,” the Liberal leader offered. “It is true, an open convention is something he has never seen.”

The Liberals stood and cheered this one, the Conservatives heckled some more.

Mr. Trudeau proceeded with an entirely reasonable question. “During budget week, the Minister of Finance said that income splitting still required ‘a long hard analytical look,’ ” the Liberal leader recounted. “Why did the Prime Minister not ask the finance minister to conduct this analysis before the election promise was made three years ago?”

Mr. Harper, up smiling, would not let Mr. Trudeau’s mockery go unreturned. “Mr. Speaker,” he quipped, “I do not recall ever having to leave one of my conventions through the back door.”

The Conservatives stood and cheered, delighted with their man’s retort. (Presumably when Mr. Harper avoids engaging with the press gallery he has the decency to walk out the front door.)

Back then to Mr. Trudeau. “Mr. Speaker,” he responded, “I recommend to the Prime Minister that perhaps he try using the front door of the House of Commons and actually talking to people.”

The Conservatives yapped and laughed.

An hour later, after waiting his turn behind the leader of the opposition, Mr. Trudeau strode up to the middle microphone in the House foyer, the one setup before the grand wooden doors of the House. The CBC would broadcast this scrum nationally.

He was asked first about his apology.

“I wanted to make sure that I had the chance to express directly to leaders within the Ukrainian community,” he explained, “including Paul Grod at the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the ambassador himself how seriously the Liberal Party takes the situation in Ukraine and to say that I regret my comments about Russia which made light of some very real fears and concerns that Ukrainians have about Russian intervention.”

He looked contrite and he nodded along as questions were asked and he was pressed further on this and other matters. At one point, a reporter suggested simply that this was not the first time he had placed his foot in his mouth and so perhaps he was lacking somehow in judgment. He explained himself en francais and was then asked to repeat himself in English.

“The Conservatives have decided that they want to make the make election about judgment and I’m actually quite pleased that I will be up against someone who had the judgment to decide that Pat Brazeau, Pam Wallin and Mike Duffy weren’t suitable members of our Senate,” he responded. “I think there’s a lot of questions to be asked, but ultimately what I’ve heard across the country and where I trust Canadians is that Canadians are open to having people who aren’t tightly scripted, who are willing to talk like people talk and from time to time take risks and from time to time have to apologize or withdraw their comments. I’m confident that my values, my approach and my openness with Canadians is exactly what people from across the country are looking for in their representatives in Ottawa.”

So from time to time he will say something for which he will have to apologize. And that will be the price of change. Or that will be part of why Mr. Trudeau never becomes prime minister. Or that will be what has to change for him to become prime minister.

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