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Federal Politics

What Tempts Trudeau to Stay in the Ring?

Two new books say the PM is punched out. But there are blows to strike against Poilievre, and rounds to go.

Michael Harris 30 May 2024The Tyee

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. His investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

The critics of beleaguered PM Justin Trudeau are stuck on this big question: How many nails in his political coffin can he endure before giving up the ghost?

Whatever the answer may be, two more have just been hammered in — a full-length book by Stephen Maher, and a slim volume by Paul Wells. Both ultimately paint the picture of a leader who is washed up.

Maher’s book, The Prince: The Turbulent Reign of Justin Trudeau, is already a No. 1 bestseller on Amazon in the Kindle edition. And the Wells 96-page essay, Justin Trudeau on the Ropes: Governing in Troubled Times, has been reviewed as a skilfully written psychological assessment of one of Canada’s longest-serving prime ministers. Neither work will put many smiles on faces in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The Globe and Mail called Trudeau on the Ropes a “devastating critique” of the PM. Wells thinks the government’s dismal standing flows from Trudeau himself, a politician who specializes in the big splash announcement, rather than the workaday and largely thankless task of implementing policy.

Wells also portrays the PM as a man who doesn’t deal well with opposition. It’s his way, or the doorway.

“For all his pedigree and physical grace the work of politics has never come easily to him,” Wells writes, adding that “his judgment is often terrible. He has not surrounded himself with great talent; in fact, he has discovered a real gift for chasing talent away.”

Considering what happened to Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and Gerald Butts, Wells has a point.

As for Trudeau’s determination to lead the party into the next election, a stance some critics have called perverse because of the dismal polls, Wells offers a possible explanation.

It involves the PM’s rumble in the ring with Sen. Patrick Brazeau: “I am told that Trudeau keeps the boxing match in his head as a reference, a model,” Wells writes. “Every time he’s in trouble, he thinks, ‘I’ve been in trouble before and they were wrong to count me out.’”

Two Justins

Since Maher’s book, at 385 pages, is the first full-length biography of Justin Trudeau, the interest it has already sparked is not surprising. Based on 200 interviews, including one with the PM himself, The Prince offers a trove of inside information that one would expect from the talented journalist who was part of the team that broke the robocalls scandal surrounding the 2011 election.

While Maher was writing the book, I visited with him in his home, a converted boathouse on the back harbour of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

Over beer, we talked shop about the challenges of taking on a big book about a Canadian prime minister. I had one piece of advice for him about the complex business of getting a book from concept through to publication, a process in which an author is pushed and pulled in many directions: “Stick to your guns.”

I was struck that day by Maher’s sense of fairness in his assessment of the prime minister. He was not interested in writing a “hate Trudeau” book, although by doing so, it would be easy to cash in on the PM’s plummeting popularity.

A marketer’s dream but a writer’s nightmare. No real author writes to order, no matter how many books might fly from the shelves by pandering to polls and public opinion.

In fact, when Maher began his work on The Prince, he thought the current PM was a more consequential figure than either Jean Chrétien or Stephen Harper, a high-impact leader who changed the country more than his predecessors.

It was the author’s opinion that history would look kindly on Justin Trudeau. Although that impression changed as his research progressed over 18 months, Maher’s book has been received as a fine example of a traditional journalistic deep dive: exhaustively researched, fair and balanced.

Maher looked at the PM’s whole record and came away with what amounted to a theory of two Justins, a kind of rise and fall.

There was the early Justin who saved the Liberal party after the debacle of Michael Ignatieff’s doomed leadership, and who then went on to notch three election victories and several legislative triumphs.

And then there was the other Justin, the one who squandered hard-earned political capital on judgment calls that could have come from an over-refreshed frat boy. Maher itemizes both the accomplishments and face plants of the two sides of this enigmatic character.

There was the leader who lifted countless children out of poverty, who had the backs of Canadians through the COVID pandemic, who managed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement despite then president Donald Trump’s best efforts to scuttle it, who kick-started a national and affordable daycare policy, who made progress on the climate file, who put the country on a path to Indigenous reconciliation and who made it legal to smoke a joint.

But there was also the entitled son of the establishment, the Prince. That is the Justin who made the ill-advised trip to the Aga Khan’s private island, despite advice from senior staff that the optics of such a visit were terrible.

Trudeau followed that up with other let-them-eat-cake moments.

The vacation time in Tofino on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, when his itinerary showed him to be in private meetings in Ottawa.

And then his disastrous $89,000 Christmas freebie at a Caribbean resort owned by a friend of the family.

And who can forget the comical Trudeau fashion show that dominated coverage of his widely ridiculed trip to India?

To run or not to run

Which Trudeau is the real one? The earlier version full of hope and hype, and some big-ticket accomplishments; or the Prince, who can’t get over his own sense of entitlement, even as his tired government seems to have lost its way?

Whether we will ever know the answer to that question depends on what the PM decides to do: walk off undefeated into the lucrative sunset of the speaker’s tour and the corporate boardroom, or stand his ground and fight, despite dismal polls and relentless journalistic epitaphs.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Maher shared a momentous quote on how the PM himself sees his political future. They are fighting words.

“I just see it as such a fundamental choice in what kind of country we are, who we are as Canadians,” Trudeau told Maher. “That, for me, is what I got into politics for: to have big fights like this about who we are as a country and where we’re going.”

Maher says that Trudeau convinced him in their interview that he is sincere in wanting to lead the Liberals into the next election. Time will tell. Being sincere about your intentions is not the same as following through on them, especially in politics.

For what it’s worth, and by way of corroboration of what he told Maher, Justin Trudeau told me the same thing after he decided to go for the Liberal leadership back in the dismal days when the Grits were the third party in the House of Commons, reduced to a mere 34 seats after the 2011 election.

He said then that what mattered most to him was that the country was governed with the right values, not the right party. For Trudeau, Harper values were not Canadian values.

According to Maher’s book, nothing has changed except the name of the Conservative party leader, who happens to be an acolyte of Stephen Harper and, some might argue, a puppet. It is safe to say that the PM does not believe Poilievre values are Canadian values.

For now, the Liberal government has the look of the Titanic bearing down on an iceberg. It trails the Conservatives by a stunning 20 points in the polls, and the PM is no longer seen as the man on the top of the political wedding cake. If these numbers hold until the next election, the Conservative party will win a massive majority government.

Maher draws the standard conclusion about the PM’s prospects, that “it is difficult to have confidence that Justin Trudeau has the right answers, the right team, and the right ideas to tackle Canada’s problems.”

Countering Poilievre’s jabs

But reality is always more nuanced than that in politics — particularly with the next election a year or more off. No one should forget that the Liberals aren’t the only ones with leadership issues.

A recent Nanos poll commissioned by the Globe and Mail had some surprising numbers. It found that more than half of Canadians believe that both Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre flunk the credibility test.

Remarkably, the two leaders were virtually tied. Only 3.9 out of 10 respondents thought Poilievre was credible, compared with 3.7 for the PM.

Those are strange numbers for a guy whose party is 20 points ahead in the polls. It is important to note that Trudeau’s dismal score comes after nine years of actually governing — through a pandemic; high inflation; high interest rates; a housing shortage; rising housing, energy and food costs; and various scandals.

Which is not to say the Nanos poll was kind to the PM. It was not. More than seven in 10 said that they experienced negative emotions when Trudeau speaks. But the survey also found that most Canadians are still paying attention to what the PM says.

In other words, if the news gets better, if interest rates are cut, if inflation now at just 2.7 per cent drops even lower, if the government’s housing stimulus starts getting traction, it is not inconceivable that the 20-point lead in the polls could begin to shrink.

When respondents were asked what emotions came to mind when Pierre Poilievre spoke, 11.4 per cent used words like “hopeful,” “promising,” “joyful” and “excited.”

But virtually the same number, 10.6 per cent, used very different words to describe what they felt when the Conservative leader spoke: “dishonest,” “liar,” “deceitful” and “manipulative.” And 4.6 per cent of those polled described Poilievre as “aggressive,” a “bully,” “rude” and “antagonistic.”

Almost six in 10 expressed negative emotions when Poilievre speaks, and only three in 10 shared positive emotions. Those numbers are barely better than the PM’s numbers.

So what does it all mean?

In a nutshell, for the past two years, the leader of the Opposition has landed most of the heavy blows on the prime minister. He has bludgeoned Trudeau over the carbon tax, scandals like ArriveCAN, and the PM’s dubious personal judgment.

But as the country edges into the election cycle, the jabs and haymakers Poilievre has dished out will begin to be returned.

The Nanos poll shows that although his party has a big lead over the Liberals, Poilievre himself is virtually as unpopular as Justin Trudeau — despite that $3-million makeover. And that provides an opening for the Grits to remind Canadians that they should give pause before making Pierre Poilievre prime minister. There are more than a few points of attack.

Why couldn’t Poilievre denounce Alex Jones, after the infamous white supremacist endorsed him? Instead, he called the PM “wacko,” one of Donald Trump’s favourite put-downs, and got thrown out of Parliament.

Why did former Conservative prime minister Kim Campbell say that she might not be able to vote for Poilievre because he was a liar and a hate-monger?

Why does Poilievre routinely deliver caustic lectures to the media when he gets a question he doesn’t like — just like Donald Trump? And why does he want to defund English programming on the CBC?

If Poilievre is not on the extreme right wing of his party, why was he a member of the so-called Khmer Bleu group when he was part of the Harper government?

According to a story in the National Post about a new biography of Poilievre by journalist Andrew Lawton, the purpose of the Khmer Bleu was to offset the influence of Red Tories and the Quebec caucus on the Harper government.

Poilievre’s other name for the Khmer Bleu? The Liberty Caucus. Sound a little like the Freedom Caucus of far-right Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives?

Why did Poilievre hint to the Canadian Police Association that he would use the notwithstanding clause to make sure Conservative justice policies would become law?

No federal government has ever used that clause. Is this just another Conservative effort to get around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the courts, an effort to clear the track for a hard-right agenda?

Poilievre once said that he believed in term limits for MPs and that “politics should not be a lifelong career.” He pledged that he would resign after his second term. Twenty years on, he is now working on his seventh term as an MP.

And how can Poilievre build on the massive truth and reconciliation efforts of past governments when he once said that money was not the answer to the troubles of victims of the oppressive residential school system? What Indigenous people need is a better work ethic, asserted Poilievre. His forced apology notwithstanding, the question lingers: Did he mean it?

In addition to answering all those questions, Poilievre will soon have to start telling Canadians how he would fix things, instead of bloviating about how badly everything is broken.

That argument gets a bit harder to make these days. According to the 2023 U.S. News and World Report’s annual best-country rating, Canada is doing OK. Out of 87 countries, we are the second-best place in the world to live.

If Justin Trudeau still believes that people are wrong to count him out, if that self-confidence does propel him back into the election ring, he’ll have plenty of punches to throw.

Whether they will land is the big question.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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