Political parties live and die by their leaders. For Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, this was supposed to be good news.
After his party died a pair of dismal deaths under hapless leaders in back-to-back elections, Mr. Trudeau arrived on the scene as a potential saviour.
Amazingly, that’s just what he was. The young pretender had energy, charm and a sound strategy of pulling the Liberals left. (Plus, that name.) In his first election at the helm, he romped to a majority government.
The party was now indelibly his. They were the Trudeau Liberals, just as his defeated rivals were properly the Harper Conservatives.
In the intervening two-and-a-half years, Mr. Trudeau has assembled a competent government that has gotten many of the big things mostly right.
Settling tens of thousands of Syrian refugees was generous and global-minded. Passing a sensible law on assisted death showed competence and determination.
Canada’s free-trade agreement with the European Union is largely in effect and the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership is signed. In this age of Brexit and arbitrary steel tariffs, the Liberal embrace of free trade is a balm.
Even the government’s handling of Donald Trump’s White House has seemed savvy. The results will out with NAFTA, but Mr. Trudeau’s approach can’t really be faulted.
So why, more than half way through its mandate, does this government feel like something of a disappointment – too often mired in damage control, and slipping badly in recent polls?
It’s increasingly clear that the answer resides at the top. Yes, Mr. Trudeau breathed new life into the Liberal Party, but he has since become its biggest liability.
The trouble seems to be his judgment – not on large, moral matters, necessarily, but on the kind of practical questions that allow a person to put one foot in front of the other without tripping themselves.
Take Mr. Trudeau’s dramatic pledge to make the 2015 election the last conducted under first-past-the-post voting rules. The Liberals have abandoned (read: broken) that promise – a betrayal of younger, leftist voters and a stain on the government.
But making the promise was a mistake to begin with. It was never in keeping with Liberal interests or values, and it seems unlikely the Liberals had any intention of keeping it. To claim otherwise was cynical, yes, but also misguided.
The own-goals have piled up since. Even if the reaction to Mr. Trudeau’s accidental elbowing of an NDP MP on the floor of the House was overwrought, storming across the aisle in a huff was rash and beneath the dignity of the Prime Minister.
Of course, that hardly compares to Mr. Trudeau’s Christmas vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island, which violated conflict of interest law along with every unwritten law of political common sense, and was all the more egregious for the PM’s absurd contention that this billionaire religious leader, whose organization has received millions in federal funding and is asking for more, had extended the invitation as a mere family friend. Corrupt, it was not. But wrong? To a degree that still amazes.
And yet, still not half as dubious and ill-conceived as Mr. Trudeau’s recent trip to India, a content-free sideshow that was a failure well before a former Sikh separatist gunman showed up in a photo with the PM’s wife and on a guest list for dinner at the Canadian High Commission in Mumbai. Indeed, well before Mr. Trudeau dug himself deeper by backing a conspiracy theory that framed the whole mess as an Indian plot to embarrass Canada.
There have also been less serious slip-ups, like the bad joke about chastising a woman for using the word “mankind,” and repeatedly and falsely describing Science Minister Kirsty Duncan as a Nobel Prize winner. (She, along with hundreds of scientists, contributed to a climate change panel that won the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007.)
This is all quaint stuff by Trumpian standards, and some Canadians are surely grateful to have a leader so much more respectable and enlightened than the U.S. President.
But we can hold ourselves to a higher standard. Mr. Trudeau certainly should. It isn’t too late for him to curb the errors that have marred his performance and hurt his party.
This government has shown itself to be credible and serious. If only the Trudeau part would stop getting in the way.