Justin Trudeau's Davos trip 1 more star turn before promises meet reality

For Justin Trudeau, this year's World Economic Forum is another opportunity to signal change. For the world's powerful it is an opportunity to take stock of this new figure. And for Canadians, it is one more chance to see Trudeau on a grand stage before he gets down to less glamourous business.

Media hails attendance of 'new wunderkind' - but it's not the 1st time economic forum has hyped a Canadian PM

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets French President Francois Hollande at last year's climate summit in Paris, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, second from left, looks on. Trudeau will once again be among the world's elite when he attends the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

To the rarefied air of Davos, Switzerland and the World Economic Forum, Justin Trudeau will arrive with some advance hype.

"Further star power will be supplied by Justin Trudeau, Canada's new prime minister and a reliable selfie magnet," promised the Bloomberg wire service in its preview. In the United Kingdom, the Telegraph has touted the attendance of "new Canadian wunderkind Justin Trudeau," while the Guardian billed the prime minister behind only U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Oscar-nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio (and ahead of Black Eyed Peas' frontman Will.i.am and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch). The New York Times is reporting that Canada might now qualify as "hip."

The creation of a German economist and launched in 1971 as the European Management Forum, the World Economic Forum has become synonymous with power, wealth and an elevated discussion of public policy; a meeting of the globe's elite known simply as "Davos," for the small town, nestled in the Swiss Alps, that plays host to a significant number of the world's leading names each year.

For Trudeau, this year's forum is another opportunity to signal change. For the world's powerful it is an opportunity to take stock of this new figure, for Canadians it is an opportunity to see their new leader on a grand stage.

It should be noted that Trudeau's predecessor came to Davos with some star power too.

"You come as the prime minister of a country which has relatively very well weathered the storms," Klaus Schwab, the founder of the forum, told Stephen Harper in 2010 on the occasion of the former prime minister's first appearance at Davos. "According to my knowledge, you have best managed of all the G7/G8 countries in the present economic crisis. Thank you for giving a good example."

Two years later, Harper returned and Schwab congratulated him both on his "resounding victory" in the 2011 election and on Canada's impressive navigation of the great recession. "Your own personal leadership in this regard, together with the sound regulatory and business context for which Canada is so well known, have served the country very well," Schwab said.

Harper though had a way of mucking up his Davos moments. In 2010, he sounded offside with his fellow leaders on climate change. In 2012, he controversially used his speech to signal an unadvertised change to old age security.

"You didn't make that announcement to a group of hard-rock miners in Sudbury; you made that announcement to a group of billionaires in the Swiss Alps," Tom Mulcair scolded Harper during last fall's election campaign. (Harper didn't attend Davos in 2011, but the Conservative government was criticized after the ministers who did travel to Davos that year managed to spend $23,000 on limousines.)

Relatively flashier and something of a celebrity himself, Trudeau might seem a more natural fit for Davos. And he will arrive to mark what the forum's program has advertised as a "new chapter for Canada."

"The core argument that we are looking to make," says an official with the Prime Minister's Office, "is that if you're looking for a positive, resilient, diverse place to invest, that Canada is the best option, or it's certainly [among] the top of the options." And not least, Trudeau seems set to argue, because of the new government's commitments to infrastructure and innovation.

Speaking to reporters this week, Trudeau suggested he would stress his argument of investment and put his own government's plans for economic growth into a global context.

Apparently conscious of the potential optics — see the aforementioned "billionaires in the Swiss Alps" — Trudeau is expected to invoke his mantra of emphasizing the middle class. The new prime minister will not, though, go to Davos with the same kind of economic and fiscal situations that his predecessor could point to (when Harper addressed the forum in 2012, the price of WTI crude was just under $100 per barrel). Cheap oil and a consequently swooning loonie are the dark clouds set against sunny ways.

Trudeau will address the forum on Wednesday and there will be a Canadian luncheon for attendees on Friday (which will involve the cabinet ministers who are accompanying Trudeau). The prime minister's schedule is said to include a number of meetings with corporate leaders and two closed-door sessions with forum members and he will participate in a panel on gender parity alongside philanthropist Melinda Gates and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook.

He will return to Canada on Saturday, set then to begin the unglamorous business of putting a legislative agenda before the House of Commons, with all of the promise and potential for trouble that that includes.

Davos then, in addition to whatever investors can be enticed, might be one last star turn before the promise must really be put into action.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.