Justin Trudeau: Style Versus Substance

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Justin Trudeau has assumed the mantle of Canada’s most charismatic political leader. But can the Liberal leader also convince voters he’s serious about public policy? Speaking at CARP’s Annual General Meeting, he tried to show the all-important older voter that he’s Prime Minister material – not just a pretty face.

Charisma is a word that gets casually tossed around when discussing the attractive merits of our political leaders. Difficult to define, it’s an elusive combination of style, confidence, intelligence, sophistication, wit and charm. By way of quick illustration, this leader had it. This one didn’t. Public perception also helps – even if a politician isn’t actually charismatic, when the media says he or she is, well, that’s often good enough.

The U.S. presidential elections are often decided by which party has the most charismatic candidate: Kennedy defeats Nixon, Reagan defeats Carter/Mondale, Clinton defeats Bush Sr./Dole, Obama defeats McCain/Romney, each result going in favour of the candidate whose public persona managed to captivate voters.

Where’s the flash?

It’s often said that Canada’s leaders lack the flash of their American counterparts. That’s natural in a parliamentary democracy, where the focus isn’t so much on the leader as it is on the local candidate. Our current PM Stephen Harper is utterly devoid of charisma, at least publicly. Said to be a charming fellow in private, Harper certainly hides it well, evincing all the dazzle of a nerdy policy wonk, which of course is what he was before entering politics. Past prime ministers like Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien tried their best to strike the right note, but in the end the description wouldn’t fit.

Our one shining star

In recent memory, Canada has had only one leader who inarguably possessed this furtive quality: Pierre Elliot Trudeau. When Trudeau came on the scene in the late ’60s, the press went gaga over his every move. He was young, athletic, smart and quick witted; and he capitalized on these qualities, using them to make fun of his political rivals, portraying them as old men with old ideas.

Whether it was standing up to the FLQ, meeting John Lennon and Yoko Ono or pirouetting behind the Queen, Trudeau’s elan was enough to cover up his unpopular policies, such as the National Energy Plan or his unchecked public spending. Even his political enemies grudgingly admitted his appeal.

Enter Justin, the matinee idol

Today, with little to choose from between Harper and Thomas Mulcair, the media is now christening Justin Trudeau as Canada’s most charismatic politician. The 42-year-old son of Pierre has certainly inherited many of his father’s attributes. He’s handsome, youthful, engaging, has a beautiful family and, as an effusive Chatelaine profile recently cooed, has “awesome hair.”

Unfortunately, this rock-star treatment cuts both ways. While Trudeau the younger emits star power, critics contend that he comes off as a bit of an intellectual and policy lightweight, a criticism never levelled at his father. Several of his off-the-cuff comments which were meant to be witty landed with a thud, described in the press as divisive, ill-advised or sophomoric. The fallout has left many asking whether he’s serious enough to be a national leader or just another pretty face – all his father’s charisma minus the content.

Well aware of this criticism, Liberal party advisors understand that their young leader makes his best showing away from the House of Commons, where one strategist admits he’s “the least important of the three leaders.” It’s on the road where he’s in his element: mixing easily with everyday Canadians, posing for photo-ops, performing his famous baby-balancing routine and generally  showing off the “star quality” that Millennials find appealing. It’s on the campaign trail where he’s made, and will continue to make, inroads toward restoring his party to national prominence.

Wooing the older voters

And so, taking advantage of a break from promoting his new memoir Common Ground  (described by the normally friendly Toronto Star as “policy light”), Trudeau paid a visit to the Zoomerplex in Toronto to attend CARP’s Annual General Meeting in Toronto, spending quality time with a group of older voters not likely to be influenced by good looks and charm.

Trudeau used the two-hour visit to overcome impressions that he appeals only to Millennials and to bolster his policy cred among CARP chapter representatives from across the country. Poised and funny, he used his speech to tell the audience he’d present an alternative to Conservatives who have allowed a “pervasive sense of apathy and cynicism to take hold of this once optimistic country.” He also took the Prime Minister to task for failing to meet with the provinces to improve health care delivery in this country by creating a new Health Accord. The lack of dialogue between Ottawa and the provinces in the nine years the Conservatives have been in power suggests: “the Federal government has left the playing field.”

By and large, he hit all the topics guaranteed to resonate with the CARP crowd including the two policy promises that drew a burst of applause: his party would restore the Old Age Security age of eligibility back to 65 (the Conservatives had upped it to 67) and agreeing that the best way to provide retirement security was through an enhanced Canadian Pension Plan, rather than through private savings. On other issues, he was less direct. Yes he would consider universal pharmacare and eliminating forced RRIF withdrawals, but he would not commit to anything beyond starting “a national discussion” with individual Canadians, provincial leaders and interest groups on each issue.

While his talk was solid, it was afterward that he really showed off his strengths. As people crowded round him, he chatted easily, shook everyone’s hand, politely posed for numerous selfies and left everyone effusing about his natural charm, not to mention his fabulous good looks. Without a doubt, Justin Trudeau won the room and established himself as a serious candidate in a room full of people who had voted for his father.

Mission accomplished. But his charisma alone won’t be enough to unseat the Conservatives. To get there, he has the major task of rebuilding a party that was nearly decimated in the last election.

To be successful in the next election, he must win over the country’s largest voting bloc, 45-plus Canadians who have loyally supported the Conservatives over the last two elections. His ultimate success will depend on whether his policies resonate with older voters and whether he can prove to them he’s a mature, thoughtful reliable leader worthy of their confidence. That’s where his battle will be won or lost.

Good looks, awesome hair and balancing baby tricks are cute, but in the end they won’t be enough.