Trudeau puts Canada's Liberals back in the frame

Questions over new leader's irreverence and lack of experience sidelined as party pushes ruling conservatives for top spot in polls.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau receives a standing ovation from his caucus in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Powered by automated translation

OTTAWA // An eloquent farewell to the flamboyant former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau catapulted his son Justin Trudeau into the public eye 13 years ago, as he riveted Canadians with his emotional "Je t'aime, papa" goodbye.

Now the photogenic former drama teacher and ski instructor is the leader of the Liberal Party, the political force that ruled Canada for more years than any other before slumping to its worst showing in the 2011 election.

Mr Trudeau, who was elected party leader on Sunday, has captured enough affection that the Liberals are nudging the ruling Conservatives off the top spot in the polls, although a federal election is still 30 months away.

Bilingual in English and French, Canada's two official languages, Mr Trudeau, 41, combines elements of the dashing Kennedy clan with the message of hope that propelled a relatively inexperienced Barack Obama into the United States presidency.

He dismisses suggestions that his wavy hair and good looks outweigh his political gravitas, and even some opponents say Canadians appear ready to overlook any shortcomings.

"Justin's a fine young man ... he's got a lot going for him," said the former Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, the leader of the opposition for the last year of Pierre Trudeau's time in office. "Anybody who takes Justin Trudeau lightly does so at his own peril."

The Liberals have yet to put forward a platform for the 2015 election, but would probably back-pedal on some Conservative corporate tax cuts and tighten environmental rules.

The Conservatives, in power since 2006, are fighting to freshen up their team and enthuse voters about policies that include balancing the budget by 2015.

Justin's father rode a wave of popularity and a promise of change in 1968 to displace staid Liberal heavyweights and become prime minister.

He wore a rose on his lapel and sometimes sandals on his feet and young women flocked to kiss him. He slid down a hotel banister, broke protocol by dancing a pirouette behind Queen Elizabeth, and made an obscene gesture to protesters.

In 1971, aged 51, he married 22-year-old Margaret Sinclair, Justin's mother. Some years after his birth, as Margaret Trudeau detailed in her memoirs, she had an affair with the then US senator Ted Kennedy, which contributed to the end of the marriage.

The Trudeaus divorced in 1984, but the marriage only added to the glamour surrounding Pierre.

Justin echoed his father's sense of drama when he opened the eulogy for his dad in 2000 with the words of Mark Antony, "Friends, Romans, countrymen", from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, speaking to waves of applause from a packed congregation in Montreal's Notre Dame Basilica.

Five years later, after his storybook wedding to model Sophie Gregoire, the two drove off in the Mercedes convertible with which his father used to charm the crowds. The couple, who live in Montreal, have two children.

Elected a member of parliament in 2008, he has prepared the ground for a run at Liberal leader with regular tours of Canada, and last year staged a charity boxing match which he hoped would dramatise the idea that the Liberals could not be counted out.

He went into the ring the underdog against braggadocio Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau, but delivered a technical knockout that registered in the minds of Canadians whether they followed politics or not.

Last month an admiring passenger slipped him a note on an airliner asking if he could beat the prime minister, Stephen Harper, in the 2015 election.

"Just watch me," Justin wrote back, echoing Pierre's answer to a question on how far he would go to restore law and order.

Mr Trudeau has been a teacher, a radio reporter and a legislator with junior roles.

In 2001, some years before he entered politics, he admitted: "I don't read the newspapers, I don't watch the news. I figure, if something important happens, someone will tell me."

He has a number of other vulnerabilities, including a remark made in February last year that if Canada moved too far in the direction of the Conservatives, he would consider supporting Quebec independence, an idea that would fly in the face of both Liberal Party policy and the wishes of his fiercely federalist father.

In his campaign for the Liberal leadership, Mr Trudeau talked a lot about helping the middle class. But he earned more in speaking fees from two engagements than Canada's per capita income, and a Liberal leadership rival, Martha Hall Findlay, asked him what he actually understood about the middle class.

She later apologised, illustrating a possible problem for opponents. How far dare they go in attacking a man almost considered the dauphin?

Andrew MacDougall, the spokesman for the Mr Harper, the prime minister, refused to talk about the Conservative Party's strategy to deal with Mr Trudeau, saying: "I have no comment on the leadership race of the third party."

The left-leaning New Democrats have more seats than the Liberals in the House of Commons.

Asked about charges that he lacks detailed policy, Mr Trudeau pointed to areas where he has taken a position - he wants to legalise marijuana and he is in favour of oil sands development, including the Keystone XL pipeline that would take Canadian crude to US refineries.

But Mr Trudeau has also sought to make a virtue out of the fact that he has not worked out policy on every issue, saying that he will engage Canadians positively first.

"Canadians want to vote for something, not just against somebody," he said on Saturday in making his final pitch to Liberal voters. "Hope, my friends, yes. Always hope. But more than that. Hope and hard work."

Darrell Bricker, a pollster with market research company Ipsos Reid, said many Canadians appeared ready to support Mr Trudeau, even if they admitted his success so far was largely based on personality and his father's name.

"It looks like it's built on helium, and it's not. This is about hope, this is about change, this is about difference."

* Reuters