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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Jeffrey Simpson: Star power, yes, but what does Justin Trudeau stand for? Add to ...

If a Liberal backbencher named Justin Turner or Justin Thibeault had declared his intention to seek his party’s leadership, let alone leaked that intention a long time in advance, only his mother would have attended the press conference.

But the Justin of Tuesday’s announcement carries a name – a very famous name. And he’s very handsome and possessed of a personal charm that, in an age besotted by celebrity, guaranteed him attention that would certainly have been denied almost anyone else.

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Ronald Reagan was once asked early in his political career how a mere actor, as he had been, could be successful in politics, to which Mr. Reagan replied: How can a politician not be an actor? Theatricality is an essential part of politics, never more so than in the television age, when image and the creation of image can so easily dwarf substance.

You might say that, well, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the antithesis of a political actor and look where he’s gone. But Mr. Harper is an actor, and a very accomplished one. Because he understands his own personality, he has arranged his public persona so as to marginalize any chance of spontaneity from his public events and to organize them with such overwhelming artificiality and attention to detail that they are performances.

Justin Trudeau has the instinctive talents to capture attention, and to use the undoubted star quality of his surname to his advantage. He was, even when seated in the last row of his party’s back benches, the Liberals’ best fundraiser. If a riding association wanted to attract a crowd – not easily done in some parts of Canada – the word went to headquarters: We want Justin Trudeau.

And he often obliged, so that even in places where (to paraphrase John Diefenbaker) Liberals are protected only by the game laws, Mr. Trudeau brought his name and qualities to shine light, however briefly, into forgotten corners of Liberalism. These are the kind of debts that MPs and constituency associations don’t easily forget.

For what Mr. Trudeau stands, apart from his career, is rather a mystery. His caucus responsibilities have been, shall we say, rather light in that the ministries he was designated to critique were not among the most important in the federal government. He often spoke across the country, but it’s difficult to remember anything he said. Nor did he leave a trail of the written word, as his father did.

It would be grossly unfair to hang his father’s accomplishments and failures on his shoulders. Justin Trudeau is his own man, and should be judged accordingly, although we should presume he stands in the broad tradition of his father, favouring a strong central government, a commitment to bilingualism, an activist government and an engaged foreign policy.

But this is nothing more than a presumption at this stage of his national career. He hasn’t yet been asked about a myriad of domestic and foreign issues, and no one has seen how he might stand up to the assaults of the Conservative Party attack machine that contributed to the reputational dilution and political defeat of two previous Liberal leaders, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Pierre Trudeau confronted gentlemen – Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark – as Progressive Conservative leaders; Justin Trudeau will face a posse of political ruffians in the Harper party.

All this presumes that Mr. Trudeau will win the Liberal leadership. It seems a foregone conclusion at this stage – which not only speaks to his star power but also to the dilapidated state of the party he seeks to lead.

When his father won the leadership in 1968, the Liberals were a formidable force; credible, seasoned people ran against him. It would seem, in contrast, that Justin Trudeau is the favoured candidate faute de mieux – which is a pity for the party and for him because hard battles can make for better leaders.

Justin Trudeau has a flair for the dramatic and an actor’s instincts. He has surprised many, starting with winning a difficult seat in Montreal and holding it. He will need more, much more, to succeed at the higher level of political combat he now seeks to enter.

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