This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on May 19, 2019.
When Justin Trudeau took the stage in October 2015 to celebrate the Liberals’ majority victory, he spoke of his party’s “positive vision,” for Canada.
Their campaign, he said, had “defeated the idea that Canadians should be satisfied with less, that good enough is good enough and that better just isn’t possible … this is Canada, and in Canada better is always possible.”
As we head into what may well be one of the closest and most unpredictable election campaigns in recent years, his words that night could not be more prescient. This is Canada — and, especially in an election year, Canadians will be looking for something better from their politics.
Four years ago, polling showed that two-thirds of Canadians wanted a change in government. And it was that longing for something new, not just in policy but in style and approach, which Trudeau’s team so effectively harnessed and rode to their majority.
Their “Real Change” platform explicitly laid out the stark contrast between Tory present and Liberal future. Stephen Harper on the other hand concluded his foreword to the Conservative platform by claiming his Economic Action Plan was a success. “It’s working,” he said. “Let’s continue on with what we know works.”
In attack ads and campaign messaging, the Tories characterized Trudeau’s “celebrity” appearance — and especially his hair — as proof of style over substance. On social media, the Liberals responded by claiming that he had both and did so in a way that was charming, pithy and most importantly, viral.
From the new-found power of Instagram to the traditionally influential pages of Vogue, the prime minister managed to capture the attention of the digital age in a way few politicians, Canadian or otherwise, had.
And it worked. Trudeau came to be deemed Obama’s successor as the leader of the world’s progressives.
But what was clearly Trudeau’s greatest asset in 2015 may well be his undoing in 2019.
The problem with a campaign built on self-image and the optics of virtue is that people, inconveniently, expect it to be true. And what is fairly easy to execute in a campaign setting becomes near impossible to implement when governing.
What’s more, the gift social media gives, it also takes away. Unlike campaign advertising or stump speeches — which Canadians know is contrived — the power of social media lies in the sense that what you are seeing is, at least to some extent, genuine.
And so, when Canadians see their PM beaming with pride over his gender-balanced Cabinet or taking a selfie with a young couple while out for a jog, style becomes conflated with substance.
And now, after four years of governing, that conflation has become a collision. The chickens have come home to roost. In short, Trudeau is paying the price of the expectations he set when he promised to be a new and different kind of leader and began to practice the politics of political celebrity.
By dubbing himself the “feminist Prime Minister,” Trudeau opened himself up to the attacks that inevitably followed his expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from his caucus.
In trumpeting his commitment to Indigenous communities — not least of which being a visit to a teepee set up by activists on Parliament Hill — Trudeau set himself up to be pilloried not only for his slow progress on Indigenous files but for tone-deaf responses to Indigenous protestors.
And by claiming the mantle of Canada’s traditionally welcoming stance on immigration as his own, he has made himself vulnerable to the attacks of challengers who want to paint him as responsible for what they characterize as an unsustainable influx of irregular border crossers.
Many believe governments are not defeated, but rather that they defeat themselves. On the whole, I disagree. I think, in most cases, governments are elected to do a particular job, and when that job is done, another party is called up to bat.
For Trudeau, the job he was hired to do was to bring, in his own words, sunny ways to government.
Now that is done, Trudeau’s challenge is to rewrite his job description in a way that convinces Canadians he still has work to do and is still the best leader for the job.