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Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau talks to media outside the legislature in Quebec City, Thursday, April 18, 2013. (Clement Allard/CP)
Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau talks to media outside the legislature in Quebec City, Thursday, April 18, 2013. (Clement Allard/CP)

LAWRENCE MARTIN

Round 1: Kid Trudeau stings like a pillow Add to ...

Debuts for party leaders are obviously significant. Given the buildup for Justin Trudeau, his was doubly important. It didn’t go well.

Mr. Trudeau’s week started with his speech to the Liberal convention where he was crowned leader. It was chock full of pieties and pablum.

The next day, he made his first appearance in the House of Commons as Liberal Leader. His line of questioning was passable but paled by comparison with the cut and thrust of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who’s capable of outgunning anyone in the chamber.

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At the same time, the Conservatives released their tawdry and duplicitous television spots impugning Mr. Trudeau’s character. The Liberal Leader responded by turning the other cheek. His strategy is not to stoop to Stephen Harper’s level. Other leaders have tried that strategy, but it hasn’t worked.

Next came the Boston bombings. Mr. Trudeau quickly got himself into trouble by saying the response should be to look for root causes. A week on, it might have been okay to say that. But in the bombings’ immediate aftermath, it was ill-timed, and Mr. Harper pounced. The PM was unrestrained by the fact that his own Conservatives have an ongoing multimillion-dollar program to, ah, study the root causes of terrorism.

At week’s end, the Trudeau strategists made a smart move. They asked the House to vote to amend rules so party whips couldn’t block MPs from making statements of their choice in the run-up to Question Period. Mr. Harper is facing a mini-rebellion from his own MPs for denying them this right. The Trudeau gambit served to highlight the gagging and censorship issue.

But the setting of that potential trap didn’t compensate for the stumbles. Kid Trudeau floated like a butterfly, stung like a pillow. His strategists have no counterattack ads in the can, but they say that Mr. Harper has overreached, that Canadians are fed up with his dirt machine and that they have a plan to embarrass him. “We are not Boy Scouts,” one adviser said yesterday. “There are effective ways to deal with this kind of sleaze. Stay tuned.”

Voters will, but, meantime, the ads are reaching millions of TV screens. Potentially damaging is the one in which Mr. Trudeau says, “Quebecers are better than the rest of Canada.” This was a remark he made in referencing his father, who had once made such a point in the context of putting down separatists. Pierre Trudeau was saying Quebeckers were already in an advantageous position in the federation and didn’t need special favours from the rest of the country.

The level of deceit in the ad shows again how low the Conservatives are prepared to go. Some try to excuse this stuff by saying, “Oh well, politics is a blood sport and this type of thing has happened before.” Calling it a blood sport is nothing but a lame rationale for perpetuating low-grade political standards. As for it happening before, not with this frequency, unless you go back to the 19th century.

Ben Carr, a Winnipeg teacher and Liberal activist, finds it curious that the Conservatives engage in character attacks and bullying while, in schools across the country, anti-bullying campaigns encouraged by these same Conservatives are afoot. Never has there been such an outcry against this kind of thing.

The government’s conduct, writes Mr. Carr, “sends the message to our kids that it is okay to use verbal assaults against your opponents to diminish or discredit them.” The man behind the attacks, of course, is the Prime Minister, the fellow who’s supposed to be a role model for the country.

He may well be going too far this time, as strategists say, and giving the Liberals an opportunity for effective retaliation. But, if so, it wasn’t apparent in their new leader’s first week. Kid Trudeau nearly went down without even swinging.

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