Greg Weston: Justin Trudeau must turn 'star quality' into votes

Forty-two years after Pierre Trudeau forever defined his leadership of party and country with the words "Just watch me," his eldest son Justin has seized the Liberal crown with a campaign that seemed more like "Just look at me."

Likable, yes, but Justin Trudeau still has plenty to prove

While the likeability of newly elected Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau has never been much in doubt, pollster Nik Nanos says "Winning a federal election is not based on a leader’s hugability." (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Forty-two years after Pierre Trudeau forever defined his leadership of party and country with the words "Just watch me," his eldest son Justin has seized the Liberal crown with a campaign that seemed more like "Just look at me." 

Often criticized as long on charisma and short on substance, Justin Trudeau’s campaign nonetheless worked. Brilliantly. 

His overwhelming first-ballot win with more than 80 per cent of the weighted vote suggests the Liberal leadership race was more coronation than contest. 

Yet, despite the lack of drama in this five-month ordeal, there’s no doubting Trudeau and his campaign aroused something in a lot of Canadians beyond the core party faithful.

Even before Trudeau’s assumed win was official, recent polls were showing the Liberal Party moving from the basement of public opinion last year into a national lead over both the Conservatives and New Democrats for the first time since 2009.

Trudeau himself could hardly have fared better.

recent Nanos Research poll for CBC suggests Trudeau is connecting favourably with Canadian voters and ranks as the most inspiring of all the current federal leaders, including the prime minister.

When Canadians were asked which leader most closely reflects their personal values, Trudeau was a close second to Stephen Harper and far ahead of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. 

The likability of the new Liberal leader has never been much in doubt.

Throughout the leadership campaign, he has been packing meeting halls across the country, and otherwise lighting a fire under a party all but snuffed in the last election. 

But as pollster Nik Nanos puts it: "Winning a federal election is not based on a leader’s huggability." 

In the past two elections, for instance, he says Canadians have gone to the ballot box and picked the leader who represented the least risk in doubtful economic times. 

Justin Trudeau greets a crowd of supporters at a rally in Mississauga, Ont., last October during his Liberal leadership campaign. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

His polling shows Trudeau is seen to be profoundly lacking experience to be prime minister.

In short, now that Trudeau appears to be liked by a growing number of Canadians, he has 30 months to convince voters he and his party would be the best choice to run the country, or at least form the official opposition, after the next election in 2015. 

Liberal strategists say first and foremost, the party has to maintain its momentum and Trudeau needs to keep building his "star quality" of the leadership race. 

That won’t be easy. 

First, the other parties will do everything they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. 

Attack ads on the way

In his acceptance speech Sunday, Trudeau himself warned of a "steady barrage of negativity that you and I both know is coming soon to TV screens across Canada." 

In fact, he hadn’t even got that far in his speech when the Conservatives issued a statement slamming him: "Justin Trudeau may have a famous last name, but in a time of global economic uncertainty, he doesn’t have the judgment or experience to be prime minister." 

So the games begin. 

In Montreal, meanwhile, an NDP policy convention this weekend turned into a public relations show intended to combat the rising popularity of Trudeau, in part by recasting "Grumpy Tom" Mulcair as just another happy family guy.

Trudeau and his strategists were expecting nothing less, and have a plan: Get out of Ottawa. 

Trudeau will certainly be in the Commons on Monday afternoon to pose his first question as Liberal leader to the prime minister, an important moment of political theatre to be sure. 

But beyond that, Trudeau’s strategists hope to keep the new Liberal leader away from the capital — and the Commons — whenever possible over the next two years. 

"He needs to be in the Commons for important votes and in question period enough to show that he can hold the government to account," says one strategist. 

"But if he is going to maintain momentum and build his personal popularity, that’s not going to happen in the Commons where, let’s face it, as head of the third party, he is the least important of the three leaders." 

"On the road, he still has star quality." 

Besides, says the strategist, Trudeau is running as an "anti-establishment candidate who doesn’t need to be leading his caucus in the Commons every day." 

Instead, to whatever degree is possible without provoking criticism of his truancy, Trudeau may simply leave the daily Commons fracas to Bob Rae, one of the strongest performers sitting on either side of the House.

Heading for the boonies

There are other compelling reasons for putting Trudeau back on what is affectionately known in political circles as the boonies tour. 

Trudeau has proved to be a cash magnet for the party, easily filling meeting halls and cocktail parties with paying donors. He can’t do that sitting in Ottawa trading mindless barbs across the floor of the Commons. 

With the party down to a near-rump after the last election, Trudeau also needs to attract star candidates in ridings across the country if the party is going to make any sort of major comeback at the polls in 2015.

Again, that’s not going to happen sitting in his Ottawa office.

Perhaps most of all, Trudeau is going to be spending a lot of time in Quebec, where Liberal strategists hope they can shake loose many of the 59 seats the NDP won in the last election, all but one of them for the first time ever. 

Finally, Trudeau’s hitting the road will be publicly sold as his consulting with Canadians on a new Liberal Party platform, thereby providing a response to critics demanding to know where the Liberal leader and his party stand on various issues. 

If the boonies tour strategy works as well as Trudeau’s leadership bid, his popularity with Canadian voters will continue to climb, and the Liberal Party may once again find itself in contention for power. 

If it fails, the Liberals may have just gambled away their party on one last political messiah who wasn’t.


Greg Weston was an investigative reporter for CBC News and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio and Television from 2010 to 2015.