Justin Trudeau can bask for a few days in the good by-election results the Liberals received this week in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.
He should not, however, let these small triumphs go to his head, because he has made some of the kinds of mistakes that didn't count for much but, if repeated, will hurt his credibility. And on a leader's credibility hang a lot of a party's political fortunes.
Some months ago, Mr. Trudeau announced that he favoured the legalization of marijuana. It was already party policy, but people don't follow party convention resolutions. So when he declared himself for legalization, plenty of Canadians took notice for the first time, and the Conservatives, predictably, began to unload on him.
Mr. Trudeau has given only sketchy answers as to why this new policy would be wise. He says he's thought about the issue and offered a few reasons. But frankly, that isn't good enough. If a leader, especially one not known for deep policy thinking, is to highlight a new policy for the country, he needs to back it up with a position paper or something more than a few rather slight comments.
As it was, it looked as if Mr. Trudeau was trying to look hip for younger voters, most of whom don't care that he said he once smoked pot. (U.S. president Bill Clinton said he didn't inhale and no one believed him – at least Mr. Trudeau told the truth.) But if Mr. Trudeau intended to provoke a serious debate about a new policy, he did it with much too little backup and did nothing to alleviate concerns that he is light on policy.
He did the same thing in a recent speech at the Petroleum Club in Calgary, hardly a comfortable venue for federal Liberals. His speech was largely music to the petroleum industry's ears – including support for the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta's bitumen oil deposits to the Gulf of Mexico. But then, toward the end of his remarks, he slipped in a reference to the need to put a price on carbon.
Mr. Trudeau is right, of course, but how a price is imposed and at what level is absolutely critical. It's also politically very, very risky, as former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion discovered with his carbon tax and as the New Democrats are discovering while the Conservative falsely and repeatedly accuse them of wanting a carbon tax. (They favour a cap-and-trade system.)
If a leader wades into such dangerous water, he had better know what he is talking about. Otherwise, his opponents – in this case the Conservatives – will store away that quote and unleash it at a time most opportune to them.
Then there was that complete gibberish about China in an improvised answer to a question at a women's event. Mr. Trudeau said he sort of admired their system because it allowed the country to get things done, which is right about the system but doesn't make it admirable. At the very least, a lot more hedging would have been appropriate.
One supposes that the hordes of people who surround Mr. Trudeau wherever he goes don't follow the policy details. They seem to like him and his looks, and he has become a bit of a celebrity. But he's very ordinary in the House of Commons (which is all right given that the Prime Minister is hardly Pericles) and only so-so while speaking outside Parliament. An orator he is not, which is also all right provided that, over time, he has something to say beyond mush.
To Mr. Trudeau's credit, he was the first leader to deplore Quebec's values charter. He's lined up behind Keystone and the Canada-European Union trade and investment deal. He seems to get most worked up about the style of the Harper government, which is indeed grating and arrogant.
The lessons from his mistakes are to avoid improvising, to take time to flesh out new ideas so as to avoid the impression of shallowness, and to avoid letting short-term triumphs lull anyone into believing they mean long-term victory.