Favourite Son: The young Liberal leader with the famous name was convinced that, more than anything, Canadians were hoping for a change in their country's political climate. So that is what Justin Trudeau gave them. His “sunny ways” broke up the ice of Harper’s endless winter. The wind dropped away. The sun came out. The electorate’s doubts about the Liberal Party were cast aside. And he won. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press.)
“SUNNY WAYS, my friends, sunny ways.” The rest of the world may have struggled to grasp the meaning of Justin Trudeau’s words, but Canadians knew exactly what he meant. Canada’s new prime minister was beginning his victory speech by quoting an old one – the highly successful Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919).
In the Aesop’s Fable, from which Laurier drew his catch-phrase, the North Wind and the Sun compete to remove the cloak from a passing traveller’s back. The freezing breath of the North Wind strips the leaves from the trees, but the traveller wraps his cloak ever-more-tightly around his body. Defeated, the North Wind makes way for the Sun, who beams down upon the traveller with radiant good will. The North Wind’s chill is replaced by shimmering summer heat. Overjoyed, the traveller casts aside his cloak.
“If I were in power, I’d try the sunny way”, said Laurier. And he was as good as his word, choosing persuasion and positivity, over force and negativity, on every possible occasion during the 15 years (1896-1911) he served as Canada’s Prime Minister.
Trudeau’s “sunny ways” quip was, therefore, political shorthand for: “The frigid years of Mr North Wind, Stephen Harper, are over; and the years of Mr Sunshine, Justin Trudeau, are about to begin.”
But the 43-year-old son of Pierre Trudeau (Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 until 1984) wasn’t content to draw rhetorical inspiration from Canadian leaders alone, his superb victory speech went on to borrow from President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address.
Once again it was about the superiority of positive over negative politics. Having promised Canada a Liberal-led Government that would be “positive, generous and hopeful” he reminded his cheering supporters of the extraordinary campaign that had made it possible. Proof, he said, that: “You can appeal to the better angels of our nature – and win by doing it.”
And what a win it was! The Liberal Party began the campaign holding just 34 seats in the Canadian House of Commons. By the end of election day, 19 October, the Liberals had won 184 seats – ten clear of the number needed to govern the country on their own. Lazarus would’ve been proud!
How did they do it? How did they rise from third party status to overhaul the left-wing New Democrat Party (NDP) Opposition, which the early run of opinion polls had identified as the front-runner? And, how did Justin Trudeau do it? An MP for just seven years, and leader of the Liberals for less than three years, how did a 43-year-old schoolteacher unseat an incumbent Prime Minister and dash the hopes of his NDP rival, Leader of the Opposition, Thomas Mulcair?
First and foremost, Justin Trudeau won because he was … Justin Trudeau. As the son of one of Canada’s most popular prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000) he was always going to be talked about as a prospective prime minister. Such expectations do, of course, have their downside. Still, instant name recognition across the entire electorate is a pretty hefty advantage with which to begin one’s political career.
He also had the advantage of growing up in an intensely political environment: absorbing, from an early age, the abstruse rules of the political game; the unique political culture of his father’s Liberal Party; and the intoxicating fumes of dynastic expectation.
As if these advantages were insufficient to set him apart from his political competitors, Trudeau is also highly intelligent and blessed with a film-star’s good looks. In 2005 he married Sophie Grégorie – a prominent Canadian TV celebrity journalist – and in short order they produced three, equally telegenic, children. These sort of things shouldn’t matter – but, of course, they do. Right from the start Justin, Sophie and the little Trudeaus looked like Canada’s First-Family-In-Waiting – straight out of Central Casting!
And yet, even with a great name, a lifetime spent in and around politics, a celebrity wife and three gorgeous kids, a politician still has to possess, in his own right, the attributes and instincts of an effective leader. Perhaps the greatest of these attributes is political courage: the capacity to do what others would dare not do, and to stick with his choices – no matter how fierce the criticism. He must also be able to read the political terrain. To see a way of reaching his objectives that his own choices, and the choices of others, have opened up. The other attribute a politician needs is an acute sense of timing: of knowing, like Kenny Rogers’ Gambler, when to hold onto your cards; fold-up your hand; walk away from the table; and run for the nearest exit. All that – and luck. Lots of luck.
Like the NDP Leader, Thomas Mulcair, believing that he had to prove the NDP was ready for office by coming out in favour of a balanced budget. Trudeau immediately saw that, by tacking to the right, the NDP had opened up a vast swathe of political terrain to its left. Already convinced that the politics of austerity was a dead-end street, the Liberal Leader courageously abandoned conventional wisdom and declared that his government would rescue Canada’s faltering economy – not by reducing expenditure, but by stimulating it through job-creating infrastructure projects. If the NDP was willing to line up alongside Stephen Harper, then the Liberals were only too happy to channel the spirit of John Maynard Keynes!
And he did it all with a winning smile and an unrelentingly positive demeanour. He sensed that Canada’s patience with Mr North Wind’s vicious flurries towards war and religious intolerance; his squalls of fiscal and social conservatism; had come to an end. The young Liberal leader with the famous name was convinced that, more than anything, Canadians were hoping for a change in the weather. So that is what he gave them. His “sunny ways” broke up the ice of Harper’s endless winter. The wind dropped away. The sun came out. And the electorate’s doubts about the Liberal Party were cast aside – like a cloak they no longer needed.
And he won.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 21 October 2015.