Chairman's Desk

Justin Trudeau’s political style swept him into office. It may now see him out

In the early days of this campaign, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole proudly introduced his party’s platform. In doing so, he managed, for a few days at least, to have a conversation with Canadians about — wait for it — policy.

This week, as the Conservatives overtook them in the polls, the Liberals thought they’d give the same trick a try. Attempting to turn the proverbial channel, they launched their own platform with what they spun as a twist: theirs was the only one to be fully costed.

At first glance, aside from a contentious tax on insurers and banks, the Liberal platform appears to be consistent with what Canadians now expect from team Trudeau: more big deficits and significant expansions of social spending. A contrast, to be sure, with the fiscally minded and long-term approach to recovery of O’Toole, but nothing so controversial as to spark a new national divide.

And so, if we are not about to have a big ol’ debate about policy in this election, then a debate on style it will be.

And for Justin Trudeau, the man who mastered modern political performance in this country, the ultimate irony may be that style spells the end of his political career.

Back in 2015, Justin Trudeau excelled at both building and selling his brand. A brand based as much on style as it was on substance, it was perfectly set to drive his promise of “Real Change.”

Back in 2015, as the upstart leader of a third-ranked party, Trudeau succeeded in the monumental task he had before him. He did so in large part due to his ability to strike an astonishingly correct tone, convincing Canadians of his competence but also his humanity, highlighting a capacity for empathy that his opponents lacked.

In that campaign, Trudeau was the warm and compelling candidate, cutting a stark contrast to incumbent Stephen Harper’s snide and dismissive persona. Harper, to be fair, was initially more concerned with former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair than Trudeau. But as the Liberals caught up, Harper’s attempts to paint Trudeau as inexperienced or foolish largely reinforced his own reputation for being cold and out of touch.

The most striking memory of this strategy was that godawful advertisement mocking Trudeau’s “nice hair,” but there were other memorable examples. Throughout the leaders’ debates, Harper belittled Trudeau and scoffed at his policies. To Canadians, Harper seemed petty, while Trudeau’s quiet refusal to get down in the mud came across as dignified and prime ministerial.

Oh, how times have changed.

Over the course of the campaign thus far, O’Toole has managed to flip the script, striking an even tone and an earnest approach to politicking. The Liberals, on the other hand, have committed unforced errors again and again, by attacking the Conservatives in a tone that seems bizarrely insecure for a party that has been in power for six years.

The approach took a turn for the worse when Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland was slapped with a “manipulated media” warning by Twitter for spreading a misleading video of O’Toole. And there was more. The Liberal campaign machine also waded into the swamp, releasing a video that assigned the Tory leader the Trumpian nickname of “Two-Tier O’Toole,” among other things.

To make matters worse, a recent spate of violent rhetoric and inflammatory protests has derailed some of Trudeau’s campaign stops, and the Liberals have in turn attempted to tie the Conservatives to crowds of whackjob protestors.

But on the whole, it is Justin Trudeau and his acolytes who are turning up the temperature on this campaign. And the more their attacks on Erin O’Toole fall flat, the more bizarre it feels to watching a governing party writhe around for a convincing argument that their opponent is too untrustworthy to succeed them.

Ultimately, it may be that a Conservative candidate speaks out of turn or Trudeau is able to rile up his opponents on the debate stage. For now at least, it’s the opposition party that seems serious about forming government, while the incumbents seems intent on partisan hack jobs.

Even if Trudeau can sell his platform to Canadians, it will take more than substance to turn things around. He will need to rethink the entire style of his campaign — and fast.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on September 5, 2021.

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