Confirmation bias leads us to interpret events to suit our own worldview. We seek not to learn but to reaffirm. If you are interested in reading a book about how the Liberal government has fared since Justin Trudeau’s surprising victory in 2015, your own biases will probably dictate whether you choose Trudeau: the Education of a Prime Minister, by John Ivison, or Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power, by Aaron Wherry.
Each offers an informed take on the Trudeau government, although from something close to polar opposite perspectives. For Ivison, who is a political columnist at the National Post, Justin Trudeau is a political prodigy who never measured up to expectations, and who fundamentally misunderstands the country he leads.
Wherry, a senior writer at CBC, sees things very differently. For him, a visionary Prime Minister and his team have sought to achieve “big things, hard things, things that can shape a country.” If at times they fell short, it was not through want of trying.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Ivison’s book is a proper biography, starting with Justin Trudeau’s birth on Christmas Day, 1971, the first-born son of prime minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret, the most famous couple in all the land.
The first third of the book chronicles his progress toward the prime ministership: the turmoil within the Trudeau family, Justin’s peripatetic years as a student and teacher, the death of his brother Michel in an avalanche; the famous speech at his father’s funeral, winning the riding of Papineau, the boxing match that led to him taking over the leadership of a broken Liberal Party, culminating in his come-from-behind election victory in 2015.
But in Ivison’s view, it didn’t take long for things to go awry. While crediting Mr. Trudeau’s political abilities – “On a good day he is a formidable politician”– he describes a government that aimed far beyond its grasp.
For Ivison, this administration is hobbled by three faults. First, many who were seduced by Trudeau’s famous name and surface charm have soured on him. Older men, especially, "dismiss him as a fop and a phony – someone who got to be where he is because of his name and not his achievements.”
Second, the government is so focused on image that it has neglected to fulfill many of its promises: “a triumph of symbolism over action.” Third, Trudeau believes most Canadians are as progressive as he is, and Ivison believes they’re not. This, he acknowledges, is an unproven hypothesis that will be tested on Oct. 21, the date of the federal election.
The Trudeau government has had a particularly hard time getting legislation passed. Filling the Senate with people chosen based on their contributions to Canada, rather than to the Liberal Party, is arguably one of this administration’s finest accomplishments. But a more independent Senate is also a Senate more prone to sending bills back for revision. Coupled with the government’s fumbling management of the House – “its legislative agenda was moving at the pace of coastal erosion” – Ivison calculates the legislative completion rate sank to less than 40 per cent (as of June 2018), compared with the 60 per cent average of previous Conservative and Liberal governments.
The author points to what he sees as a disappointing lack of progress on Indigenous issues, large deficits in good economic times, foreign-policy missteps in India and China, and much more. He does, however, praise the government for bringing coherence to defence spending, after decades of Conservative and Liberal dithering.
At the root of Ivison’s harsh judgement of the Trudeau team is its contempt for anyone beyond its pale. Referencing Thomas Sowell’s 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed, Ivison describes a Liberal worldview that divides the population into people like them – progressive, enlightened, tolerant and committed to using government to advance social and environmental goals – and benighted outsiders who are too thick even to comprehend their own ignorance.
“Trudeau was elected promising to be a great unifier,” Ivison writes. But “years of playing identity politics, with its baked-in hostility toward anyone deemed ‘privileged’ has cleaved fresh breaches, disharmony and estrangement.”
One suspects that John Ivison just doesn’t like Justin Trudeau very much. “For many Canadians,” he writes, "this preening prime minister has proven himself too vaulting, too capricious, too extravagant.” It is only a matter of time, he believes, before "he is demoted, and it will be because voters have tired of the idiosyncrasies that once amused them.”
If you nodded in agreement at that sentence, this book is for you. If you scowled, maybe not so much.
For me, Ivison is too chary in his praise. One example: He dismisses the new NAFTA agreement as more failure than success. “The ‘win,’ such as it was, was the avoidance of catastrophic defeat.” Really? The government got a deal, probably the best one available.
And I have a large, from-one-journalist-to-another caveat: Ivison relies heavily on unnamed sources, whom he quotes. Fine, but people should not be allowed to slag off others anonymously. Ivison should never have quoted the “insider” who described some members of the Liberal caucus as “borderline idiots.” This is a book, not Twitter. And the charge is not true of any legislator I have ever met, from any party.
Ivison tells his story chronologically, which can lead at times to a feeling of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened ...” Aaron Wherry takes the more difficult, but more rewarding, approach of tackling his subject thematically.
So there is a chapter exploring the people around the Prime Minister; a chapter on the government’s efforts to improve life for those in the mythical middle class; a chapter on foul-ups, from the trip to the Aga Khan’s island to the effort to tax individuals who sheltered their earning by forming private corporations. The arrival of Donald Trump and the new NAFTA negotiations get two full chapters. And there are sections on pipelines, foreign affairs, immigration policy and more.
In Promise and Peril, Wherry is quick to praise, and slow to rebuke. The Prime Minister, he writes, sometimes forgets that his name and wealth make him vulnerable to being called elitist, even though “maybe no other Prime Minister has ever had quite the relationship with the public that Justin Trudeau has had.”
Here is how he criticizes Trudeau’s decision to promise electoral reform and then to break that promise. “This was not the Trudeau who legalized marijuana, bought a pipeline or put a price on carbon. And this government’s meandering pursuit of electoral reform stands in stark contrast to the comprehensive and nimble effort to negotiate a new free trade agreement with the United States and Mexico.”
He has praise for the government’s handling of the airlift of Syrian refugees, for Senate reform, for advancing the rights of women and minorities and for efforts at Indigenous reconciliation.
In a bit of legacy-building, he concludes that during his first term, Justin Trudeau has been “enthusiastic and eager, a bit audacious and periodically a little theatrical. … He has pursued an ambitious agenda. He priorities have remained relatively consistent, however much the details of the follow-through might be debated."
It’s almost as though Wherry knew what Ivison’s book was going to say, and sought to rebut it.
Both Wherry and Ivison were confronted in February – when their books should have been going into copy-edit – with the revelations that Trudeau had improperly pressed his attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to intervene in the criminal prosecution of the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, which ultimately led to a spate of resignations. Ivison deals with the issue by tacking on an extra chapter. Wherry does a better job of integrating the material, although his criticism of Trudeau over his handling of the affair will be too gentle for some: A well-meaning Prime Minister baffled by a disloyal and combative cabinet minister, “might have been more proactive, transparent and open” in his efforts to defuse the crisis. That’s it?
Trudeau agreed to a series of interviews with Wherry. (The footnotes suggest he sat for one with Ivison.) Combined with the author’s tendency to let quotes run on, Promise and Peril at times reads like a Trudeau memoir, with Wherry the ghostwriter of his own book.
Then there is the book’s wonkishness. For example, no matter how much you might have wanted to know about what went on behind closed doors during the new NAFTA talks, the chunk of text that Wherry devotes to the fight over diafiltered milk and the Class 7 designation on dairy products might strike you as a bit much. One speech by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland gets seven pages of analysis. And then there is Wherry’s exhaustive dissection of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s address to the Kentucky chamber of commerce.
All that said, Aaron Wherry’s book offers a thoroughly researched and reported accounting of the major policy accomplishments of the Trudeau government. Historians will be delving into his analysis for years to come. John Ivison, in contrast, offers a bracingly acerbic deconstruction of a Prime Minister who, in his view, knows too well how to work the charisma machine and not well enough how to run the shop.
Maybe Trudeau critics should read Wherry and Trudeau supporters should read Ivison. It’s amazing what you can learn by listening to the other side. Better yet, read them together. They offer a rewarding, if contrasting, study of the strengths and weaknesses of Justin Trudeau and those around him, by two of the best journalists on the Hill, even if they do look at this Prime Minister in very, very different ways.
Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister by John Ivison; 360 pages, Signal/McClelland & Stewart
Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power by Aaron Wherry; 353 pages, HarperCollins
John Ibbitson is Writer at Large at the Globe and Mail. Stephen Harper, his biography of Canada’s 22nd prime minister, won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.