Justin Trudeau: A Leader in Waiting?

Posted on October 23, 2012

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The leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada is up for grabs, and likely contestants are testing the political waters. Some, though, have already given up on the idea. Why? There’s one person who, for better or for worse, has a significant advantage over the competition even before any policy discussions get under way. 

Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, has the power of name recognition on his side. And the most recent polls suggest that he will win the leadership – and easily.

Politics is a game of who gets what, where, when, and how. The leadership of Liberal Party of Canada is the what and where. The stickier points are when and how. When is after the Liberal party was decimated in the last election, falling to third-party status for the first time in history after three consecutive underperforming leaders. Michael Ignatieff, Stephane Dion, and Paul Martin each had their failings, and the Liberal party suffered because of each one.

Paul Martin succeeded Jean Chretien in 2003 during a time of backlash against the Liberals due to the Sponsorship Scandal. Martin was seen by many in the party as the heir-in-waiting to Chretien. But having been a long-standing member of parliament under the Liberal banner, Martin was easily tied to the old, scandalous order, and fell to Stephen Harper’s 2006 minority government in what was the first victory for the rising wave of the Conservative party. Many observers regard Martin as having been the wrong leader at the wrong time.

Stephane Dion, a former academic, became Liberal leader following the 2006 election. His successful bid was a surprise to many, as high-profile candidate Michael Ignatieff and former Ontario premier Bob Rae were seen as the likely successors. Whatever the quality of Dion’s character, he was in fact an ineffectual leader. His policy messages were poorly delivered and he gave the impression of a man better suited to a kinder line of work. Stephen Harper’s young Conservative Party had shown itself as a force to be reckoned with – and the Liberal party needed a reckoning.

Michael Ignatieff brought no such revelation. Ignatieff entered – was brought into? – politics for the purpose of leading the Liberal party. Many high ranking officials inside and outside the party believed that Ignatieff was a perfect fit. An accomplished academic and prolific writer on international affairs, Ignatieff was a star candidate. His loss to Dion in 2006 was seen as a surprise, but also an opportunity for Ignatieff to show his commitment to the cause. As Deputy Leader of the Opposition, he was regularly spotted measuring Dion’s seat. Ignatieff was promptly anointed leader in 2009 after the Conservatives won their second minority government. His tenure, though, was shaky at best. Harper’s incessant attack ad campaigns successfully painted Ignatieff as an out-of-touch elite and a man whose international (read: American) teaching positions somehow made him a poor candidate – I mean, who wants a Harvard professor as Prime Minister of Canada, right?

This brings us to the how of politics. As Canadians have seen in the leadership of the two leading parties in parliament, there is no substitute in politics for a candidate who earns every piece of hard-fought political territory. Both the Conservatives and the NDP were led to their respective positions by leaders who not only battled fiercely to attain their status, but also built their party’s foundations with clear policy positions (in the opinions of their respective ideological camps, that is). Jack Layton and Stephen Harper gained respect after time. Both leaders’ policies were established through experience. And neither was handed the reigns of their party because of star status or anointed leader because of their popular appeal. They earned their place, and then they earned votes. That is how politicians become great leaders.

Without Justin Trudeau going through the trials and tribulations needed to build a great leader, the Liberal party would be ill-advised to select a candidate whose stardom is the reflection of another person’s actions. Then again, politics is about winning elections. And whether he is ready or not, Mr. Trudeau may be able to do just that.

This article can also been seen at CANYAP.

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Posted in: Canada, Politics