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gerald caplan

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power & Politics.

What's most fun about the Conservatives' highly effective ad saying that Justin Trudeau is "just not ready" to be prime minister is that it could've been directed at Stephen Harper when he first ran for prime minister. Although Mr. Harper never had nice hair. Nevertheless, the ad seems to have been a blow to Mr. Trudeau's standing with the public. Unfair as it may be, it clearly resonates with lots of Canadians. I must admit I'm one of them. Let me explain why.

Please, please believe I have tried to take Mr. Trudeau's measure fairly, without partisan bias. After all, one day soon, the NDP must work closely with this man. So I promise you: I take him seriously, and I've done my homework.

I've spoken privately to Liberal insiders about the private Trudeau, and I can report that they are deeply split. Like me, many buy the Conservative line.

I actually attended the Liberal Convention where he was elected leader, and I'm here to say that he rose to the occasion that afternoon. Mr. Harper has never made as good a speech as Mr. Trudeau did that afternoon. He easily outshone his opponents. But they were spectacularly unimpressive, and it was no high bar to be the best of that lot. Lucky for him, he won't have to name a cabinet.

I also read his book, called, I believe, Common Ground. The title is as forgettable as the contents. In summary: he had an unusual boyhood being raised by fascinating but dysfunctional parents; he was a high-school teacher; and then he decided to run for party leader. If there was more substance, or any insights, I missed them. The book shows why so many have said that if his last name weren't Trudeau, he'd never have dreamed of running for leader.

Among Mr. Trudeau's liabilities is the inevitable tendency to compare his memoir with others of the same ilk, most obviously Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father. This comparison does no favours to Mr. Trudeau. President Obama, who also had fascinating but unusual parents, wrote Dreams when he was only 34, and for originality and brilliance it can hardly be improved. It's hard to know whether Mr. Trudeau actually wrote his own book, and if he did, he shouldn't have. A good ghostwriter might have contributed some gripping sections.

I don't want to kick Mr. Trudeau too much now that he's down in the polls, but I must add this: I have rarely heard him speak where he doesn't sound as if he's ready for the local Toastmasters youth club, or perhaps a university debating society. He often seems uncomfortable with his material, and lacking in confidence and authority. Gravitas is the overworked but accurate word.

On the other hand, he does seem to be a clutch player, a valuable strength, as he showed both at the leadership convention and in last week's leaders' debate, where he more than held his own. Though I never trust a politician who declares he loves Canada, as if the rest of us don't.

On the whole, I find that Stephen Harper regularly feels like Mr. Trudeau's smart-ass and nerdy first cousin, and Mr. Mulcair like his wise and experienced uncle.

Mr. Trudeau has been criticized for a series of foolish gaffes that seems to have brought his popularity crashing back down to Earth. For me, two other matters have been far more disillusioning. One was the egregiously crass opportunism of welcoming into the Liberal fold hardline Tory defector Eve Adams and her notorious hardball-playing fiancé.

The second was his acceptance while an MP of many handsomely paid speaking engagements proffered by groups in the wider public sector. Education groups, library groups, charities, health associations – all of them hard-up, not-for-profits – offered newly elected MP Trudeau between $10,000 and $20,000 to speak to them. That was appalling thoughtlessness on their part. What was worse, he accepted, even though he agreed publicly he didn't need the money.

Think about it. After becoming an MP in 2008, Mr. Trudeau raked in $277,000 in speaking fees from 17 such speeches until he stopped to run for leader. What does that say about his good sense and his judgment? I confess it outrages me still, and it should you, too.

Nor did the man do himself a favour when he claimed that he didn't talk politics at these speeches, although his topics had included youth issues and education. Hello? How can these not be political issues, especially if you happened to be your party's parliamentary critic for youth, as he was? And as education critic, are you allowed to charge school boards when you address them? What was the man thinking?

As of this moment, according to the polls, it's a reasonable bet the Conservatives will win most seats, but not a majority. So the NDP, which should come a strong second, together with the Liberals, should easily be able to form a majority unity government (though probably not a coalition). As of this moment, that will make Mr. Mulcair the Prime Minister and Mr. Trudeau his lieutenant. That sounds like a good result for Canada. I presume the two are quietly preparing for this eventuality.

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