In 1966, a year before Pierre Elliott Trudeau first blazed to power, the bard-poet Leonard Cohen published his second and final novel, Beautiful Losers. The book is a hallucinogenic, stream-of-consciousness steam bath of Catholic allusions, French separatist indignance and extra-marital forest porn with hot indigenous chicks. Needless to say it’s basically unreadable. Back home in Canada though, the book is still widely taught and read. Over half a century on it still sells thousands of copies each year. The reason, as one early critic noted, is that the book, while being an obvious failure, is nonetheless ‘an important failure.’ Which brings me to the matter of our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.
Having called a snap election, Trudeau is now flailing in the polls. While 20 September is still weeks away, it looks bad for his Liberal party. In effect, Trudeau has pulled a Theresa May. It’s difficult to know why politicians make the bad decisions they do. The safe bet is always on hubris but inevitably there’s more to it than that.
As with Theresa May in 2017, Trudeau was basically okay with his lot – but he wanted something better and saw a way through. Every PM wants a big fat majority but in Trudeau’s case he didn’t actually need it to survive. Canada has a long history of functional minority governments. There’s no imminent Brexit-type-political-disaster-scenario on the cards. Our parliamentary system is modelled on the British one, right down to our little folding green seats in the Commons. It’s the same but calmer, less fractious. Twice the size with roughly half the people.
While May reluctantly took the leap, Justin was up for it. He genuinely enjoys a campaign, which is different from saying he’s always amazing at it. The guy does have his golden moments. He’s optimistic, impulsive. The kind of sitting PM who once during a major magazine photo shoot persuaded his wife and children to jump into the family pool with him fully clothed just for fun.
But the race he now finds himself in has been devoid of gold dust. It kicked off in mid-August with the weirdest political ad in Canadian history. Cooked up by the Tories, it was a video released on Twitter featuring a scene from the original Charlie in the Chocolate Factory with Trudeau’s face spliced onto the body of Veruca Salt, the spoilt rich girl who throws a greedy tantrum before getting thrown into a garbage chute. Instead of Veruca demanding sweets in the ad, it’s Trudeau demanding a majority. ‘I just want one! DADDY I WANT ONE!’ You get the picture. It instantly went viral then just as quickly vanished because the Tories hadn’t paid for the rights.
At first, the ad seemed to help Trudeau. For a day or so his halo gleamed bright. But then at a press conference he was asked a question about inflation to which he replied with a chuckle, ‘I don’t think much about monetary policy,’ ham-fistedly clarifying that what he really cared about was ‘families.’ The problem wasn’t his faux self-deprecation, we’re to used that. It was the combination of entitlement and idiocy the comment implied. Did a two-term PM just say he didn’t think about monetary policy? Was it because he actually believed ‘families’ weren’t affected by minor details like what stuff costs? Or worse, did he just mean rich families like his own? As gaffes go, it was pure Veruca Salt.
Then there’s the public mood. Canadians are a patient lot but we are not just election-weary. Those of us who live there are emerging from one of world’s longest lockdowns into an expected fourth Delta wave after a vaccine roll-out that began as a debacle. I’m not sure the population has ever been so irritable and tetchy. In most provinces schools have been shuttered since April. Masks remain mandatory for students with threats of more closures to come. Some provinces are introducing mandatory vaccine passports for pretty much everything, which Trudeau’s base is more than okay with. But it’s bringing out the militants and crackpots on left and right. At every stop he’s been greeted by large, angry demonstrations of anti-vaxxers. The views of these mobs may not have much sway with the average Canadian voter but they sure are sucking the air out Trudeau’s campaign. The golden moments of human connection have been few and far between.
In stark contrast is his opponent, the leader of the beleaguered Tory opposition, a cold bowl of porridge named Erin O’Toole. Until the summer, 90 per cent of Canadians knew nothing about him apart from his name, which combines a girly spelling with a schoolyard insult. What could go wrong? But as Jeremy Corbyn found out in 2017, low expectations are occasionally the ultimate gift. By simply showing up, O’Toole is turning his perceived nothingness into an increasingly powerful but decidedly vague somethingness. He’s studiously ignoring his base, spouting bland, centrist platitudes and Canadians have been pleasantly surprised to discover that maybe he’s not the anti-vax, pro-life demon the Grits have gone around saying he is. Maybe they think he’s nice, or maybe they secretly hope that he’s not. In any case, his numbers are shooting up.
The upshot is Trudeau’s getting it from all sides now. Even the leftist NDP candidate Jagmeet Singh has improved in the polls. Singh and O’Toole are theoretically diametrically opposed on all major points – except the deeply held Canadian principle of tolerance when it comes to sticking it to the governing party. Needless to say, no one’s ‘ruling out’ the possibility of a coalition.
Perhaps the most important thing about Trudeau is that he’s the son of a legend in a country that lacks them. He is, don’t forget, the eldest son of a father who resigned then was begged – literally begged by his party– to stroll back into office for a fourth and final term. (An honour Pierre Elliott Trudeau ultimately accepted in the blasé manner of an exhausted rock star taking to the stage for his final encore.) This is not to say that even if he loses, JT will be regarded in history as more or less effective than his father. Like his son, PET could be vain and impulsive but he was also cutting and snobbish and notoriously cheap. He failed often and, so far, with more spectacular results than his son. What he had was a trick, a cunning trick, that the earnest optimistic Justin seems to lack. He made his failures seem important.
Canadians, it is often said, tend to go for the bronze. We’re okay with good grades, best-efforts, tolerant of mediocrity and the safety it provides. We don’t mind losers or failures. We will even venerate them, beg them back to the stage and re-read them for decades – but only if we believe they are beautiful and important.
It’s quite possible Justin Trudeau will scrape by in the end. Probably he’ll limp out his third term in a fractious minority and retire early – still young and handsome and rich. Whatever happens there will be no grand encore. He is not and was never meant to be a legend. It’s fine.