If Justin Trudeau was a lawyer, one of his advisers was irritably pointing out the other day, he wouldn’t be getting nearly as much criticism about his credentials for the Liberal leadership. But oh, he was just a teacher. Not good enough.
What is that? the strategist asked. Where does this kind of career condescension come from?
Mr. Trudeau is being criticized as a tenderfoot who lacks both experience and substance by Conservative Jason Kenney and Liberal foes including Marc Garneau, who is now demanding a head-to-head debate to unmask him. But the son of the storied prime minister won’t bite on the Earth orbiter’s bait. He’s been around, speaking of experience, too long to fall for that.
The arguments against Mr. Trudeau’s leadership preparedness, which will get more airtime in this weekend’s candidates’ debate, certainly have some merit. But to give his defenders their due, they also tend to overlook a few things.
For starters, Mr. Trudeau has about the same amount of experience as Stephen Harper did when he sought the Alliance Party leadership in 2002. Mr. Harper was roughly the same age and had served about the same number of years in Parliament. Mr. Trudeau was a teacher. Although Mr. Harper likes to call himself an economist, he wasn’t. He had a graduate degree in economics but no real job experience in the discipline. He did have some executive experience as head of a small right-wing lobby group, the National Citizens Coalition, and as policy director for the Reform Party.
But to argue that he was better prepared would be to forget a big advantage Mr. Trudeau has over everyone in the experience department. You want political seasoning? How about being raised since birth in the cauldron of power? How about living all your early life at 24 Sussex Dr., son of a prime minister?
For a course in political immersion, it’s hard to beat. Years of foreign leaders and premiers and princes and kings traipsing through your living room. Heated debates at your dining room table. Daily life with Papa PM during the fight for the country in the 1980 referendum. Constitutional negotiations with the premiers just down the stairs from your bedroom. Foreign trips to broaden the perspective. Then, all the counsel and tutoring in his father’s post-prime-ministerial years.
Politics in the blood? Who among young Mr. Trudeau’s challengers can match it?
His political education might help explain how he has moved through the early months of the leadership without many pratfalls. Under pressure, he’s reacted with equanimity, like someone who has been around a while.
It may be because of all this experience that he hasn’t put forward innovative policy proposals, as Mr. Garneau claims. Mr. Trudeau has seen a lot in his time. Maybe he knows how to play frontrunner.
Experience has its downsides. All those years in the cocoon of privilege, the power bubble, raise the question of how far you can see beyond it. You are suspected of not knowing what is on the other side of the tracks. (This was thought of the Kennedys, wrongly.)
Remembered that, in addition to Mr. Harper, Brian Mulroney had zero experience as an elected politician before becoming Tory leader. Barack Obama, served some time in the Illinois state Senate but had just two years of experience in Washington before running for president.
It’s on matters of policy substance that Mr. Trudeau is most vulnerable. He has shown little depth. On this note, his supporters can point to the abbreviated leaderships of Michael Ignatieff, Stéphane Dion and Paul Martin. They had intellectual heft but didn’t last because they lacked something more important – political smarts.
That’s what counts in this game, just ask Mr. Harper. That’s the big question here – whether all the time at the vortex of power has provided Mr. Trudeau with those smarts.