Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new Prime Minister, is more than just a pretty face. But his rise to power in last week’s federal election would hardly have been the same without that marvellous mug — framed by all that thick dark hair and sitting atop a physique chiselled in boxing rings and on snowboarding slopes.
At first, it made it hard for Canadians to take him seriously. The country has known of the photogenic 43-year-old since he came into this world on Christmas Day 1971 because his late father, Pierre, was the Canadian prime minister at the time. But Justin — and like many a heartthrob, he exists on a first-name basis with his more visceral admirers — was reduced to a national punch line this year as he led his father’s old party, the traditionally centrist Liberals, into political battle. “Nice hair”, the advertisements of the ruling Conservatives said, before concluding that Trudeau was “just not ready”.
The commercials stung because, pedigree aside, Trudeau has an unusual CV for a leader of the world’s 11th-biggest economy. He holds two bachelor’s degrees — in Literature and in Education — and studied Engineering and Environmental Geography without receiving diplomas in either field. He taught Maths in elementary school and French and Drama in high school. He only entered parliament in 2008, the year after he played the role of Canadian war hero Talbot Papineau in a television docudrama. On his left shoulder, there is a tattoo of the planet Earth inside a Haida raven (in the mythology of Canada’s indigenous Haida people, the national history museum explains, the bird is “a trickster who liberates humankind from a clamshell”).
But Canadians came to like what they saw in Trudeau, at least in comparison with what they had in Stephen Harper, 56, the Conservative prime minister since 2006. Harper’s popularity waned this year as lower oil prices led to a weaker economy. By Monday’s polls he was yesterday’s man — an unabashed advocate of the energy industry at a time when Canadians were worried about their dependence on commodity production and a believer in government so small he scaled back the census form in an era of “big data”. In his place, Canada opted for a sunnier soul, promoting an anti-austerity political line.
Ultimately, the focus on Trudeau’s good looks and lack of experience backfired on his opponents. He is, in fact, a skilled communicator. His eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000 was well received, as was his work as a winter sports-safety campaigner following the death of his brother Michel in a 1998 in an avalanche. With expectations for his debate performance low, he exceeded them. After the candidates sparred on foreign policy, Trudeau was judged the clear winner — particularly among women, according to a survey by the CBC, the national broadcaster.
In the manner of a Muhammad Ali, Trudeau proved to be a nice-looking fellow who could also box clever (introduced to the actual sport of boxing by his father, Trudeau scored points with the public by winning a charity bout against a Conservative foe in 2012).
The cunning of the Trudeau campaign was revealed in the way it courted the anyone-but-Harper voters, those that analysts expected would move to the opposition candidate with the best chance of winning. In the early going, these voters leaned towards the experienced pair of hands belonging to Tom Mulcair, 60, of the left-wing New Democratic party. Leading in the polls, he responded by playing it safe, promising to balance the federal budget.
As Mulcair moved to the centre, however, Trudeau outflanked him on the left. With interest rates low, he argued Canada should borrow more to improve public transport, and build affordable housing and other infrastructure. He made a point of pledging to run modest budget deficits for three years to kick-start the economy.
The emphasis on infrastructure enabled Trudeau to strike an optimistic tone as the Canadian campaign turned nasty. In his final days, Harper pressed his call for a ban on Muslim women wearing the niqab, a face-covering veil, while taking the oath of citizenship. Trudeau, by contrast, accentuated the positive. “I’m on the side of both economists and people who say why put off investing when we have an opportunity now,” he said in a campaign interview with Financial Times.
His economic ideas give his victory international significance. Trudeau sits in the middle of an intellectual circle buzzing with talk about “secular stagnation” — a thesis that holds greater fiscal stimulus is needed to lift the industrial world out of its doldrums. “My style ... is to gather around me brilliant people,” he told FT, pointing proudly to a brains trust that includes such advocates of increased public investment as Lawrence Summers, the former US treasury secretary.
Within hours of Trudeau’s win, Summers was making the case that US presidential candidates should take note of the Canadian results because they show “progressives do best when they reject austerity and embrace public investment”. Days later, the influential New Yorker magazine picked up on the theme, proclaiming: “The eyes of the world will be on Canada.”
How Trudeau will handle this scrutiny remains to be seen. But he has come a long way in a matter of weeks. Canada’s pretty face now stands a chance of becoming a global role model.
— Financial Times