As the leaves fall and the election nears, the Canadian media has framed October 21 as a referendum on Justin Trudeau. The progressive poster boy and beacon of promise will have to answer for his track record, the narrative goes. Has he lived up to his own self-generated expectations? It’s a question that John Ivison and Aaron Wherry, two veterans of the press gallery, probe as they consider Trudeau’s political ascent and what has happened over the past four years.
Though they take different tacks, both authors essentially contrast Justin Trudeau the idea with Justin Trudeau the imperfect prime minister. With Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister, Ivison presents a well-meaning, intelligent, but naive political actor, whose preoccupation with appearance, relentless need to be adored, and overestimation of the progressive leanings of Canadians have resulted in disappointment. Wherry is somewhat less definitive, somewhat more sympathetic in Promise and Peril. Trudeau’s political journey, the legacy of which remains largely unwritten, has been one of high stakes and many complexities, he argues. Wherry had significantly more on-the-record access to the prime minister than Ivison did, so in a way, Trudeau makes his own case, offering carefully constructed but ultimately revealing accounts of his most dramatic moments, including his early interactions with President Donald Trump and the breakdown of communications with former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The narrative of a falling prime minister can surely sell books, but it doesn’t necessarily bear out in the numbers. Yes, Trudeau has had a mix of successes and stumbles. The Liberals did not pass bills at the same rate as the previous government, for example. But in pursuit of their policy and legislative agenda, they promised to consult more than their Conservative predecessors. And while they passed less legislation, they delivered on a broad range of commitments: 92 percent of their 2015 campaign pledges have been fully or partially completed, according to an analysis by Presses de l’Université Laval.
Trudeau also begins the 2019 campaign with his party polling well above 30 percent, according to the CBC’s Poll Tracker. Compare that with four years ago, when he was languishing in the twenties for most of the summer, and you strain the narrative even more.
You can’t build a campaign slogan around numbers like these, of course. Nor can campaigns (or absorbing media narratives for that matter) capture the messy, unpredictable realities of actually governing. And that’s exactly what these two books help show.
Justin Trudeau was born on Christmas Day 1971, just the second child born to a sitting Canadian prime minister. Neither Ivison nor Wherry spends much time discussing his early life, however. We get glimpses with Ivison’s book, which includes anecdotes about Trudeau’s high school years, marriage to Sophie Grégoire, and relationship with his younger brother Sacha. But the formative insights are the exception, not the norm.
Instead, these titles focus on the recent past and the near future. For Wherry, Trudeau has led Canada at a particularly anxiety-ridden time. Rapid changes in labour, global geopolitics, and technology have posed severe challenges for the government and for the prime minister’s ability to deliver progressive leadership. Ivison is less focused on external forces, instead suggesting that Trudeau’s fatal flaw has been a misreading of the Canadian voter.
Ivison does not offer much support for that reading, however; where most Canadians see themselves — how far to the left or to the right — remains an open question. Besides, Trudeau’s 2015 campaign was not so much a shift to the left, as it’s often been depicted. He did not propose a dramatic expansion of government. Nor did his party rely heavily on the language of class warfare that has seized left-leaning politicians around the globe.
Rather than misread Canadian leanings in 2015, Trudeau articulated a widely held sentiment that the middle class had been left behind and that a more aspirational government would be its strongest advocate in Ottawa. Indeed, middle-class tax cuts and historic infrastructure investments do not fall neatly on a left-right spectrum.
Ivison risks misrepresenting the Liberal government’s agenda as he builds his argument. At one point, he muses that “the worry for many investors, and voters, is that Trudeau is a prime minister more interested in taxing than generating wealth; that he believes the private sector is a golden goose that can’t be killed.” Yet corporate taxes have remained unchanged since 2015; the small business tax rate was reduced; and the government committed to $14 billion in corporate tax incentives in its most recent fall economic statement, aimed at capital investments. While the Trudeau government’s fiscal management is subject to valid criticism, broad-based fear of a tax-heavy, anti-business government has not materialized.
Ivison’s miscalculation thesis also ignores the dramatic change in progressive politics. Gone are the days when Jean Chrétien could win successive majority governments against a divided right on the promise of balanced budgets alone. We have reached a point, in Canada and globally, where people question the very notion of progress that underpinned Chrétien-Clinton liberalism. Climate change presents an existential threat, housing prices are increasingly out of reach, and automation produces the greatest labour disruption since the Industrial Revolution. Progressive politics today requires at least some activist solutions.
Four years ago, Trudeau promised to do politics differently, and he built a coalition of progressive voters under the banner of middle-class advancement. What that actually looks like can be dramatically different for a unionized tradesperson in the oil sands and for an Indigenous person who is skeptical of pipelines being constructed through traditional territory. The harsh truth confronted by the Trudeau government is that politics is often about picking winners and losers.
The prime minister wants Canadians to “choose forward” on October 21. Throughout the campaign, he will face hard questions that require complicated answers — about his record, his priorities, his ability to meet promises. In making the case for his vision of progress, he will need to persuade a coalition of geographically and ideologically diverse voters that he remains committed to them and their agenda.
Maintaining such a coalition is an exercise in complex, ongoing bridge-building. It’s what Promise and Peril presents as Trudeau’s core challenge heading into the fall. For the past four years, Wherry notes in his preface, “a uniquely suited but imperfect prime minister has thrown himself at a selection of the thorniest challenges of this era.”
A quick look at Trudeau’s three First Ministers’ Meetings underscores the challenge. While he could once approach issues like trade, climate policy, and infrastructure investments with a common set of priorities, he now faces a hostile table of premiers, led by Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Ontario’s Doug Ford. The consensus that a federal government could protect the environment and the economy by supporting pipeline development while also pricing pollution, for example, has died a quick death.
One might even forgive Trudeau for taking a pass on populist conservative concerns. From a crassly political perspective, a Liberal prime minister today need not be overly concerned with the frustrations Alberta voters have with climate and energy policies. In 2015, the party won three seats in the province; it has no growth potential in 2019. Siding with the more environmentalist NDP government in British Columbia — and opposing the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline altogether — could win favour with a much more movable segment of the voter base.
But that hasn’t been the prime minister’s approach, because bridging gaps seems central to his identity. Wherry quotes Trudeau on this very point: “My highest imperative around holding the country together . . . involves fighting that easy polarization that dominated my childhood between Quebec and the rest of Canada.” To build an integrated national economy while respecting the environment is an admirable aspiration. Trudeau has even had successes doing it. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier to explain a $4.5-billion pipeline to many voters.
Can Justin Trudeau bridge increasingly wide gaps for the next four years? Or will that remain an unwritten chapter in his story and the larger story of Canada? Even if he wins, and no matter the size of his mandate, he will never sing “Kumbaya” with Kenney or Ford. But he will have the ears of many if he continues to articulate a coalition-based message — striking the notes of decency, modernity, and national aspiration — at a time of increasing tribalism.
Ivison is less focused on this tribalistic moment, instead presenting Trudeau’s past (and perhaps future) stumbles as largely self-imposed: rather than building bridges, Trudeau has naively misunderstood the opposition that he faces. On the government’s efforts to preserve free trade with the protectionist White House, for example, Ivison describes the hope of a “win-win-win” trade agreement as misguided, and he maintains that Canada’s ambassador to the United States during the negotiations, David MacNaughton, should not have offered NAFTA improvements as a diplomatic talking point. Putting Trudeau in that position ranks “as one of the great examples of a sovereign government disintegrating like cheap toilet paper,” because “for Trump to win, it meant others had to lose.” (Wherry, for his part, dismisses such an argument, suggesting instead that “Trump might’ve forgotten to bother with Canada if MacNaughton hadn’t put his hand up.”)
Because Ivison sees the Canadian attempt to find points of mutual benefit with U.S. diplomats as so naive, he struggles to explain the significant wins of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which includes such liberal values as labour standards, gender equality, and environmental protections — deftly shaped so that Trump could still present a good deal to his base. If Ivison has trouble squaring this circle, Wherry offers it up as a success story, detailing the conversations that took place, the goals that were set, even the food that was served. While he focuses on Chrystia Freeland’s role as foreign affairs minister, the successes are implicitly a resounding validation of Trudeau’s bridge-building efforts.
Ivison and Wherry seem to agree that the prime minister has something of an impetuous streak, which has resulted in unnecessary friction both domestically and internationally. Yet despite this impetuosity, he has maintained a relentless pursuit of common ground in an increasingly polarized climate. Justin Trudeau has never been an ordinary man, but Canadians are attracted to his perspective on federalism. Confederation was built by compromise, and a strong coalition of progressive voters want to see him succeed in bringing people together.
Four years ago, the Conservatives ran attack ads that alleged Trudeau was “just not ready.” The ads savaged his approval ratings, but he rallied to win a majority. Ivison quotes Gerald Butts describing the effectiveness of these ads in great detail, with Greater Toronto Area voters repeatedly parroting Conservative lines of attack about the young Liberal leader’s preparedness for the top job. Trudeau’s ability to rebound after such attacks points to a resilience that both Ivison and Wherry acknowledge with incredulity.
Former Ontario premier Bill Davis once commented on his own leadership style, explaining that “bland works.” It certainly did for fourteen years’ worth of Progressive Conservative governments in that province. Stephen Harper was likewise guarded as prime minister, hoping to minimize exposure and risk. But nearly a decade of bland and guarded left Canadians wanting more. In 2015, they yearned for openness and optimism — for less cynicism in Ottawa. They wanted to agree with their prime minister’s policies and be proud of him on the world stage.
At first, the international press fawned over the new prime minister, who many painted as the great hope of a progressive world. But cynicism, perhaps even humiliation, has crept in since. Trudeau and his team are anything but bland, but they have attracted the wrong form of international attention with everything from wardrobe and guest list gaffes in India to the SNC-Lavalin affair. The prime minister is not just “a cog in something turning,” Ivison reminds us. “He operates the machine.”
Ivison describes Trudeau’s operating style as one of symbolism over substance. Wherry asserts the prime minister is more focused on home runs, at the expense of bunts and singles. Self-generated expectations create a genuine concern that voters may feel their prime minister (and by extension Canada) is falling short of the Trudeau brand. As Wherry notes, the new Conservative messaging — “not as advertised”— tacitly concedes that the Liberal vision of 2015 was promising in presentation if not in practice.
If the coming election is ultimately a referendum on Trudeau’s ability to live up to his own standard, Liberals have reason to be proud. The vision and values the party put forward four years ago continue to hold widespread appeal; it just remains to be seen if Canadians will once again select a leader to advance this same agenda. As both Ivison and Wherry show, the first four years made for a fundamentally compelling story. (It’s hard to imagine a similar account of a Prime Minister Andrew Scheer making for such good reading.)
Ultimately, Justin Trudeau’s most perilous moments have been the result of an inherently tumultuous time for progressive politics, not of a famous last name or gaffe-prone leadership style. The forces of polarization have created exceptional challenges for politicians who present themselves as bridge-builders, and despite the litany of self-inflicted wounds, Trudeau has painted a clear picture of the country that is — and the country that Canada strives to become.
Campaign slogans are simple. Governing is hard. Nobody is predicting the future, but surely Justin Trudeau’s story is about to get that much more interesting in the coming weeks.