What Justin Trudeau has in common with his father

Special to The Globe and Mail

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks at the opening of the Liberal caucus in Georgetown, P.E.I. on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. (Nathan Rochford/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Spirits lifted by surprisingly good polls, Liberals have decamped to PEI to plan for the fall and winter.

So far, it’s been quite the year.

Highly respected Bob Rae departed the leadership. A few hopefuls campaigned well, but too many others crowded the microphone.

The choice of Justin Trudeau to lead the party his father headed 45 years ago was easy to see coming. He took the reins of a party that has slid badly in the last several elections.

Story continues below ad

In contrast, Trudeau the elder surprised a field of thoroughbreds, and inherited a party with money, power and a formidable brand.

Now, Pierre and Justin Trudeau are obviously different people, and their circumstances unique to their times. But watching Mr. Trudeau this summer, I’m reminded at least a little of his father’s political style.

Pierre Trudeau’s win in the 1968 general election was one for the ages. While losing Atlantic Canada to Robert Stanfield, the Liberals crushed other parties in Quebec, Ontario and B.C. He implored voters to “come work with me,” stared down violent Quebec nationalists, and added 26 seats.

(As a boy of 11 growing up in Quebec, I vividly remember the St. Jean Baptiste parade in 1968 where Pierre Trudeau famously stood his ground as protesters lobbed bottles and epithets at him. The next day, Trudeau swept 56 of 74 seats in the province.)

Pierre Trudeau was flamboyant. He legalized homosexuality, dated celebrities, slid down bannisters, did pirouettes and jackknife dives for cameras. All of which seemed incautious, but proved instead to enhance his popularity.

Over time in office, his popularity waned, waxed and waned again. His economic measures seemed more like bumper stickers devised in campaign back-rooms than recipes for the growth necessary to fund his idea of a Just Society. The country’s debts piled up rapidly. Deep divisions resulted from his National Energy Program.

But through it all, Pierre Trudeau knew the value of taking a stand.

He was capable of taking the fight to his opponents, but he seemed happiest bringing the conversation to him. Nowhere was this more evident, and with greater political reward, than with the Constitution and Charter of Rights. “Just watch me” was more than a quote in the heat of the FLQ crisis. It was, more or less, the Pierre Trudeau brand.

In watching Justin Trudeau this year, there are at least a few parallels.

Justin Trudeau draws crowds, and loves wading into them. This summer he got behind the wheel of an RV with his wife and kids and drove to meet voters, in places where Liberal has been a dirty word since his father’s time. Places where every Liberal leader for years has been met with indifference or worse, but where Mr. Trudeau seems to be cultivating interest and maybe even a bit of warmth.

Advocating the legalization of marijuana? Many will say this was rash, unnecessarily risky, and a rookie error. It may be all of those things, but despite a shaky first inning pitching this policy, Mr. Trudeau may be starting to find the strike zone. In a recent Althia Raj Huffington Post piece, Trudeau offers a decent argument that after hundreds of millions in policing costs, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians acquiring criminal records, the current policy is hardly law and order at its best.

His plan will endure much more shelling, but so far at least, it doesn’t look like Canadians are lighting their hair on fire over his views.

While other leaders have been taciturn and tactical on the subject of PQ musings about religious freedoms, Mr. Trudeau has opted for blunt.

Given his upbringing, this is likely about being true to his values about pluralism.

But it also speaks to an understanding that on some issues, voters crave a hard line, a leader who will call a mob a mob, and stare it down in the public square. Judging by the reaction of Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, he’s touched a nerve with his assertion that Quebeckers are better than this policy suggests and would become a laughing stock if it were pursued.

The Conservatives believe that when it comes to the economy, the issue to end all arguments, they will have a powerful upper hand over the untested Liberal leader. But, after this many years in power, their pitch is still that the global economy is rotten, eventually we’ll have a balanced budget again, and the other guys would be a disaster. To say it lacks a certain freshness would be kind. Sure, Mr. Trudeau will need to come to the economic debate with some good ideas, but I’m having trouble believing that he hasn’t already figured that out.

For much of the Liberal leadership race, many Conservatives were pleased at the prospect that the Liberals might choose Justin Trudeau as their leader. There was speculation that the Conservatives were holding back on attacks for fear that he might lose the race and they might miss the opportunity to define and take him down.

Several months, Tory attack ads and a few Trudeau stumbles later, Trudeau the younger is better known and no less popular. Conservatives may now be wondering if this will turn into a case of “be careful what you wish for”?

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

Topics: