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Globe editorial: After two years, the real Justin Trudeau emerges

Remember when the federal government was run by a Machiavellian prime minister and his closest acolytes, who together pulled the levers of power from inside his office at the expense of Parliament? Who mercilessly enforced discipline on his cabinet, and used strict image and message control to present the leader as a man working hard for all the right causes?

Remember that? You should, because it was last week.

If nothing else, the first two years of Mr. Trudeau's Liberal renaissance have demonstrated the degree to which he is similar to Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader he defeated in the 2015 election.

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The tone and the ideology are different, of course. Mr. Harper was a gloomy loner who liked to be featured in party ads working by himself in his office late at night, his sleeves rolled up and his trusty Beatles coffee mug nearby. Mr. Trudeau is the smiling team player surrounded by his gender-balanced cabinet, sleeves rolled up and his trusty Star Wars socks poking out beneath his slim-cut trousers.

But like Mr. Harper, the Prime Minister is the avatar of his party's values. Mr. Trudeau's main role in his government is to visually represent the progressive issues that got him elected – Indigenous rights, feminism, immigration and diversity, climate change, government transparency and openness.

If there is an event related to these issues, he is there. We have been bombarded with images of him greeting Syrian refugees at the airport, being welcomed as the cool new kid on the Davos block, talking about women's rights with Melinda Gates, hanging with the non-Trump crowd at NATO gatherings, speaking passionately at We Day, taking part in native ceremonies on National Aboriginal Day.

He is just as conscious of his hipster appeal, making sure his official photographer is nearby when he "happens" to run past a tittering wedding party while out for a jog in Vancouver, or when he goes trick-or-treating dressed as a Star Wars character or as the pilot from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince.

He is assiduously feminist, as he never tires of reminding people, with a cabinet and staff evenly split between men and women. His senior political adviser and his chief of staff are regulars on Twitter, cheerleading for their issues, marketing by sharing, and even picking fights with other users. A Rolling Stone reporter wrote in an otherwise fawning cover profile this summer that "at times Trudeau and his young staff give off the aura of a well-meaning Netflix adaptation about a young, idealistic Canadian prime minister."

For NDP voters, and especially Conservative voters, it can be a bit much. For his supporters, he is a welcome change from the grumpy isolationism of the far less charismatic Mr. Harper.

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But there is cold calculation behind the illusion of the best, the brightest and sunniest at work for the good of Canada. You could see it clearly in the fiasco over tax reform, especially this past week when the government reversed itself in a bid to reassure small-business owners that it isn't out to raise their taxes or make their lives harder.

Suddenly the Trudeau Liberals seemed out-of-touch with hard-working farmers, doctors and others who incorporate as small businesses – many of whom, it learned to its surprise, are women. As with the broken promise to reform the voting system before the next election – another revealing episode – the PM's veneer as the free world's best hope was stripped away, exposing the rougher truths below.

Slipping into damage-control mode, Mr. Trudeau's team quickly organized a press conference in a pizza restaurant outside Toronto, far from Parliament and Question Period. His government, he announced unexpectedly, would lower to small-business tax rate from 10.5 per cent to nine per cent, and that more changes to the proposed reform were to come.

The finance minister, Bill Morneau, was there too. But Mr. Trudeau, who had previously allowed Mr. Morneau to lead the file, literally shoved his minister to the sidelines. It was impossible not to cringe at the sight of the Prime Minister reducing the minister to a bit player in his own show.

It was an especially difficult week for Mr. Morneau. He was forced to put his immense personal holdings into a blind trust, something he should have done when he became finance minister. Did he think that being a star player on Team Trudeau exempted him from the basic standards of financial propriety?

If so, it's an arrogance, or a blind spot, that may extend from the top down. That same Rolling Stone article revealed the coldness behind Mr. Trudeau's decision to box Senator Patrick Brazeau in a charity match in 2012 – a staged event used by the future leader of the Liberal Party to prove he was tougher than he looked.

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"It wasn't random," Mr. Trudeau said of his choice of opponent. "I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community. He fit the bill, and it was a very nice counterpoint."

Finding a chump to beat up to make yourself look good, especially an Indigenous one, doesn't exactly fit with the narrative of an enlightened, modern Canadian reconciler-in-chief. But it does reveal the machinations of this Prime Minister and his team.

Mr. Trudeau's actual record in office has been mixed, as these things always are. He has had successes (the Canada child benefit) and flops (electoral reform, tax reform).

But the biggest takeaway at the midpoint of this government is that its branding doesn't always match the product. The Liberal leader is as calculating as any before him. We lived through the Harper government. Now get used to the Trudeau government.

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