From a Work in Progress to the Campaign Trail

John Ivison
Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister.
Toronto, Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2019.

Review by Robert Lewis

The 2011 federal election was a disaster for Michael Ignatieff and his Liberal party. The Grits won the fewest seats in their storied history (34, compared to 166 for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and 103 for Jack Layton and the NDP). Ignominiously, and perhaps mercifully for him, Ignatieff lost his seat in the Liberal stronghold of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Across town, Bob Rae, the man who should have been Liberal leader, was experiencing a rollercoaster ride in historic Toronto-Centre riding. As the election wound down and the national campaign ran out of steam, Rae faced probable defeat. But on election night the tally from the advance polls — folks who had voted earlier — put him over the top. Campaigns do matter.

Wisely, John Ivison refrains from speculation about the outcome of the 2019 election which, today, looks as unpredictable as any race in recent history. What the accomplished National Post columnist does deliver is a meticulous and polished account of how Trudeau the younger scaled the political heights and how he’s exercised power as Canada’s 23rd prime minister. The book is not a pretty portrait, which should come as no surprise to regular readers of Ivison’s column. The 306 pages fairly bristle with anecdotes and examples of a flawed prime ministry, “a triumph of symbolism over action.”

Ivison’s central thesis is that Trudeau and his team are smug in a view that Canada is a more progressive country than it really is; that it can be ruled from the left-of-centre. In images borrowed from U.S. neo-conservative Thomas Sowell, Ivison writes that Trudeau conducts himself as the “anointed”, on a higher moral plain than the unworthy “benighted” who do not buy his vision. Ivison contends that the prime minister’s celebrity, “lifetime of privilege” and impulsive behaviour — factors in his initial popularity — are the same ingredients that could propel him from office just as quickly.

Ivison documents chapter and verse on the Trudeau government’s failure to deliver on promises — “making things happen” — in favour of communications and an unerring ability to get in the way of its own story. “The government,” he writes, “has not lived up to as many of its promises as the majority governments that preceded it.” Among its failures, Ivison submits, is not delivering on its First Nations agenda, electoral reform and balanced budgets — all “third party promises” made when the Liberals were a lowly opposition unit.

Then there were the self-inflicted SNAFUs: the elimination of the small-business tax; the SNC-Jody Wilson-Raybould-Jane Philpott saga; his Bahamian vacation freebie with the Aga Khan; his futile attempt at a trade deal with China; and his unproductive $1.5-million jaunt to India with his family and a trunk full of traditional attire befitting a local wedding. Still, Ivison is careful to give the other side. In this case, he quotes an assertion from an interview with Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s eminence gris, that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the government “were out to screw us and were throwing tacks under our tires to help Canadian Conservatives.” Besides, added the Trudeau friend and adviser, “we did 48 meetings and he was dressed in a suit for 45 of them.”

If there is a disappointment in the narrative, it is the paucity of insider information about how Trudeau makes his decisions. Unexplained is what really causes our first Instagram PM to so consistently compound a crisis with his own words and actions. To borrow from a quote once attributed to a frustrated New York Mets manager Casey Stengel, “can’t anyone there play this game?” Perhaps, Ivison suggests, the reason Trudeau’s performance has been so uncertain is that he “had never managed anything bigger than the Katimavik youth charity.” As for his early years, that chapter is competently sculpted mainly from Trudeau’s own 2014 autobiography, Common Ground, and the public record, but there are no telling revelations.

Ivison does dispense credit where it is due, if a tad grudgingly. The Canada Child Benefit, increased in this pre-election season, has been “transformative for lower-income Canadians”, while enhancements to the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security would bring incomes for retired seniors within reach of a minimum wage. Ivison acknowledges that a defence review resulted in substantive commitments beyond the recent promises of either main party. He also takes note of other government accomplishments: the passage of the so-called middle-class tax cut, cannabis legislation and the prompt landing of Syrian refugees. Reform of the Senate appointments process also “changed the face of the Senate for the better.”

In fairness to Trudeau, a series of events beyond his control forced him into a sharp course correction. Where once he could count on Liberal governments across Canada that governed 29 million people, Ivison notes tellingly that the election of the NDP-Green coalition in B.C. and right-leaning governments elsewhere have reduced that number to 1.6 million — and accentuated Trudeau’s awkward balancing act between a carbon tax and ownership of a pipeline.

And then came the surprise blow with the election of the “bull travelling with his own china shop.” Donald Trump’s challenge to NAFTA caused Trudeau to shuffle his cabinet and focus the government’s energy on Washington, often at the cost of other pressing issues. And the U.S. demand that Canada extradite Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou led to the retaliatory arrest of two Canadian executives in China and an ongoing crisis that will surely flame during this election season. The sad part, as Ivison notes, is that “American pre-eminence meant that Canada was obliged to tack in whatever direction the capricious U.S. captain chose to sail.” In pursuit of a new NAFTA deal, Ivison writes, “Trudeau had sacrificed his own self-respect.”

More profoundly, Trump’s battle cry — “America First —has fundamentally clouded the outlook of the small-l liberal values that animate Trudeau and his team, and other democratic governments. From Russia to Hungary, from Italy to Brazil and points in between, the very notions of open borders, multiculturalism and the rule of law have been called into question. Even in Canada, we are now confronting issues of hate speech, the validity of science-based evidence and social tolerance.

For all the challenges, Ivison argues, the Trudeau government “should be in clover”: the economy is growing, unemployment is low, the New Democrats under leader Jagmeet Singh are in disarray and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is largely unknown and certainly untested. But after his impressive come-from-behind majority victory of 2015, Justin Pierre James Trudeau, 47, is now facing the fight of his political life. In Ivison’s words, “the Liberals’ prime asset has become their biggest liability.” As the October 21 election looms, it seems Justin will be lucky to emulate his father. In 1972, Trudeau père lost his “Trudeaumania” majority and emerged from the election with a two-seat margin. That too was a late October election. Justin was 10 months old.


Robert Lewis, former Ottawa bureau chief and later editor of Maclean’s, is the author of Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill, Dundurn, 2018.