In 2015, Justin Trudeau went from the leader of the third party to Prime Minister of Canada with a majority government. The Conservative Party of Canada was in power for a long time and, Justin found himself leading a party that was prime to form a majority and govern the country. The Conservatives were in power for 9 years and seemed stale.
The economy, however, was humming along. Canada made it out of the 2008 Global Economic Recession relatively unscathed. While the Conservative Party was in power, fiscal restraint was its raison-d’etre. Cost-cutting measures were routinely announced, as with investments in infrastructure. Stephen Harper, then Prime Minister would regularly boast about the savings his government had found or new jobs created.
But the Party did a poor job communicating investments in healthcare, education and supports for marginalized groups. The deafening sound of silence on these issues was perceived as an attack of sorts on these sectors. At the same time, the cost of living was increasing and the perception of life being unfair was clear.
The Liberals saw their opening. If Justin could prioritize people first, voters just might turn.
And they did.
It seemed to happen overnight. In July 2015 approximately 18 percent of Canadians trusted Justin Trudeau to manage the economy. By October of the same year, this number grew to 31 percent, outpacing the governing Conservative Party. In a matter of weeks, Trudeau was seriously being considered for Canada’s top job.
What could explain this shift from Leader of the Third Party to the Leader of the Governing Party?
In 2013, Martin Goldfarb summed it up best:
[Trudeau] needs to define his promise, his values, his attributes. What will he do to make us a better country? What is the big idea that he wants to challenge the country with? By understanding this, we will have a good sense of the likely drivers of his decision making.
Support International Bodies
Justin Trudeau had to embody the values of what it meant to be a ‘Liberal’ in Canada in 2015. This meant supporting international bodies like the United Nations and the UN Security Council. Liberal supporters very much saw themselves and the country as an extension of being a global citizen. Not only were they global citizens and had a moral duty to speak out in the face of oppression; so too did their Prime Minister.
While Stephen Harper was vociferous in his 2011 address to the United Nations calling upon more countries to act in the face of terrorism, Liberals saw the greatest actor being the international institutions themselves. Through these bodies, true diplomacy and lasting peace can be achieved. And Trudeau had to believe this.
Be Politically Correct
Trudeau also saw the opportunity to be a champion of the new wave of political correctness: openly admitting his Feminist stance, attaining a gender-balanced Cabinet and righting the wrongs of history through apologies. Saying sorry went a long way. Many Liberals believed this to be a core principle of the Leader of the Party. Past wrongs of turning away boats of Jewish immigrants during the Holocaust. Or, apologizing for the tragedies undertaken by the federal government towards Indigenous peoples. Suddenly, voters who were left-wing saw some of their values eschewed in the Liberal leader, a party known to be centrist. Would left-wing voters be sacrificing their ideals in voting for Trudeau? Maybe not.
Stephen Harper on the other hand, never openly discussed these issues. And if he did, many did not remember. Again, Trudeau was unapologetic in his approach: he heard from many about the need for governments to recognize past injustices and apologize.
Occupy the Left-Wing Political Space
Uniquely, given his relatively young age as Leader, Justin Trudeau also had to be seen as a grassroots organizer appealing to the College/University students and capturing their votes as well. The left-wing New Democrats who were in official opposition status stand to risk the most from Trudeau’s brand image. Justin could erode the base of support from the NDP. Dabble with a few left-leaning policies and gain trust amongst undecided NDP voters. It was genius.
Justin also had to distance himself from his Father’s name. To some, Pierre Trudeau was an incredible leader. To others, he was alienator-in-chief. The Senior Trudeau was known for hanging out with celebrities, late-night Rendez-Vous with prominent females, and rubbed elbows with Socialist Dictators. Justin had to show he supported women’s rights and the #MeToo movement, without saying so. He also had to distance himself from Socialist sympathizers as much as he could.
The Power of Appearance
It is incredible what the power of physical appearance does to people. Stephen Harper was, to many, a leader who spent too much time reading policy documents or in the backroom making deals happen. He was older, grey-haired and had a terrible sense of style. Justin Trudeau was the complete opposite.
He was younger. Full head of hair. And wore impeccable suits. His shirts, ties, pants were all tailored. He exercises regularly. He was the living embodiment of the Liberal brand. And he knew it.
Timing, Timing, Timing.
You could say that Justin Trudeau was the right leader at the right time. The Liberals came out of a devastating loss in the 2011 federal election, which saw the Party’s worst showing ever. The Party elected its fewest MPs and many were questioning their efficacy to rebound. Party Brass probably saw that the Conservatives were occupying most of the political space in the centre. Stephen Harper was not a right-wing ideologue as much as people thought he would be when PM: but he was not left-leaning at all.
And the Liberals saw that pushing the yardstick to the Left could occupy space traditionally held by smaller left-wing Parties like the New Democrats.
Will Canadians trust Trudeau again in 2019? It’s hard to say. A lot has happened in 4 years, both good and bad for Trudeau and the Liberals. But by pushing the yardstick further left, the Liberals might be alienating their support from centrist voters. Timing is everything, and many political pundits are very unsure how the October election will play out.
After all, we’re only beginning to understand the success of Justin in 2015. It may be years before we truly understand the results of the 2019 election.