Ali Nasser Virji
Sitting in the E.J. Pratt Library days before the one-year anniversary of Justin Trudeau’s convincing ascent to power, Jonathan tapped my shoulder and pointed to his computer screen. The Prime Minister, apparently, had never met Drake, but feels that the Toronto icon is “really good” at “what he does.”
“Don’t you find him just a tad bit annoying?” I queried. “He says the right thing every time. It’s almost as if his public image is so well managed that we’ve been primed to ignore his foibles.”
“Yes. I do,” Jonathan replied.
In the run-up to the last federal election, Team Trudeau vowed to break from the moribund, divisive brand of governing that was characteristic of the Harper decade. They peddled a vision of “real change,” where an open government would reclaim public trust. It was to be a government that Canadians could take pride in, a government that could repair Canada’s tattered international brand, and a government that would not resort to self-serving wedge politics in order to cling to power. Trudeau promised to broker the interests of all Canadians, not merely pander to a minimum winning coalition.
Considering the September 2016 federal polling averages, which peg Liberal support at 48.9 percent, Trudeau’s honeymoon is unlikely to end anytime soon.
On October 19, 2015, the party carried 39.5 per cent of the popular vote – enough for a majority mandate. The levels of support Trudeau has enjoyed in this first year have been nothing short of astonishing. Within a month, support for the Liberal Party jumped 15 points. By June 2016, a full eight months after the election, government approval had reached an astounding 56 per cent. Éric Grenier defines a honeymoon as “the period in which a party polls above its vote share in the election that brought it to power.” Considering the September 2016 federal polling averages, which peg Liberal support at 48.9 percent, Trudeau’s honeymoon is unlikely to end anytime soon. By comparison, Stephen Harper’s honeymoon in 2006 lasted a mere seven months.
Setting aside the leadership turmoil consuming both major opposition parties, what explains the soaring levels of support Trudeau has been able to sustain?
In short: Trudeau is unlike any Prime Minister ever before elected in this country. He is not merely a man—he is a carefully constructed brand.
“The new public square is online,” Trudeau told the CBC in 2013. “The idea that political parties can somehow bring people into their lecture halls or bring people into their political organizations, rather than going out to them where they happen to be gathering on Facebook through social media anyway, is something that people are going to have to come to grips [with].”
This understanding won his party the social media war during the election campaign; it has allowed the Prime Minister to deftly control mass perception ever since.
With social media, politicians can forge direct connections with voters. As Eric Andrew-Gee writes, Trudeau is the first Prime Minister of the Instagram age. Armed with an official photographer who was granted unfettered access, Trudeau’s handlers have carefully curated his online persona. Try to find a photo that reflects Trudeau poorly. It’s difficult. Often garnering tens of thousands of likes and shares, his photos convey warmth and compassion. They display a man comfortable in authority, yet humble enough to be relatable.
Trudeau does not merely tell us what he’s up to. He shows us. Constantly.
His early government activity has been a patchwork of token pronouncements woven into an ambitious narrative of symbolic change. Through selective action, Trudeau has defined his brand in juxtaposition to the Harper government.
When Trudeau announced a Cabinet featuring equal numbers of men and women, his justification went viral: “because it’s 2015.” If you subscribe to political theories propounding the path-dependent nature of government action or status quo bias in decision-making, this is a crucial development. Should a future Prime Minister fail to name a gender equitable cabinet, she or he will not only be perceived as having taken a step backward, but also as being out of touch with modernity.
Out of touch with modernity. This is how we’ve come to view the Harper era. Stephen Harper did not welcome Syrian refugees. He refused to hold an inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women. He waged war on government scientists, and expressed disdain for the long-form census, evidence, and data. He would not engage with the Premiers. Harper did not march in pride parades. He would not support expansionary pension policy. He was neither featured in Vogue nor profiled in Vanity Fair. He wasn’t asked to appear on 60 Minutes. He never cuddled with pandas.
It surely doesn’t hurt that Trudeau is attractive. In fact, recent research suggests that good-looking politicians enjoy a distinct advantage when courting uninformed voters. Charlie Gillis suggests much of Trudeau’s sustained political appeal owes itself to his physical appeal.
We pay attention when Trudeau congratulates our athletes or celebrates our religious holidays. He is always there, always smiling.
In return, we have been incredibly deferential to his shortcomings. Despite facing pointed scrutiny for its approach to medically-assisted dying, or the circus that was Parliament in its aftermath, the government emerged relatively unscathed. One year after the election and we have yet to see any real action on electoral reform. An official conversation on Bill C-51 has only just begun. Cannabis legalization has been drawn out. Two consecutive Chief Statisticians have resigned citing a lack of operational independence. Amid bloated levels of government spending, we face sluggish economic growth.
The Trudeauvian narrative has largely cast substantive policy change aside. With parliamentarians flocking back to Ottawa following their summer break, the government would normally have the opportunity to redeem itself. However, a series of expense scandals see the Liberal Party accused of regressing back to an era of entitlement. For the first time, the Trudeau brand is under duress. Has the honeymoon finally ended?
Ali Nasser Virji is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy & Governance. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University and hails from Tsawwassen, a town whose name is arguably the most difficult to spell in British Columbia. If you bump into him on the street, he is likely clutching a cup of coffee, walking unnecessarily fast, and attempting to read up on broadcast and telecommunications regulatory policy on his oversized phone.