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November 21, 2012

Why Justin Trudeau is nothing like his father

Thomas Walkom

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The entrance to the Justin Trudeau event was guarded by two women. "Please sign up here," said one.

The reporter looked at the sheet labelled something like “Justin’s supporters.” He pointed out that he was not a supporter.

“That’s OK,” said the other. “You can ask to be taken off the list later.”

To the reporter, that sounded like negative option billing. He demurred. In fact, had he signed up and jumped through a couple of other hoops, he would be eligible — even as a non-Liberal — to vote in April’s Liberal leadership contest.

“If you don’t sign, you can’t go in,” said the first woman. The reporter said he was a reporter and went in anyway.

Inside the University of Toronto auditorium, about 300 people, mainly youngish, were listening. Justin Trudeau, the man who would be Canada’s next federal Liberal leader, was on stage answering questions.

He seemed perfectly at ease.

Trudeau is usually called charismatic. He is often compared to his father, former prime minister Pierre.

But the son’s charisma — if that’s what it is — differs from that of the father. Pierre Trudeau always seemed slightly alien. His face was more interesting than handsome, his diction oddly flat.

To many, the sense of mystery that Pierre Trudeau exuded appealed. Others were put off. A few saw him as the anti-Christ, particularly when it became known that his licence plate contained the number 666. In the Bible, that’s the sign of the beast.

By contrast, the son’s appeal lies in his approachability. He is not the anti-Christ. In fact, he seems rather nice.

On this day, Trudeau appeared to be having a ball. A former teacher, the 40-year-old handled the largely student audience deftly — picking, apparently at random, those whose questions he would take and then answering in a manner that appeared straightforward even when it was not.

Youth unemployment? Trudeau spoke firmly against it and said something must be done. It’s only when the reporter checked his notes later that he realized the candidate had never quite said what.

Medicare? The existing system, said Trudeau, is not sustainable. A serious conversation is needed. Otherwise medicare will die from benign neglect.

Later, the reporter asked Trudeau what he would say if such a conversation were held. The answers were either vague or disappointingly close to the conventional antimedicare wisdom rampant in Ottawa. More emphasis on prevention. More home care. But all without more federal money.

“More money got us into the mess we’re in now,” Trudeau said, a statement which is almost certainly incorrect.

At times, Trudeau seemed as if he were both performing and watching himself perform. The term he might use is being “meta.”

Asked about his views on foreign policy, he launched into a denunciation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper for paying too much attention to domestic politics when dealing with the world.

Then suddenly he stopped himself and chuckled. “That’s not clear,” he admitted. “But I don’t want to go too far into the weeds on this.”

What he meant, presumably, is that he was too close to criticizing Harper for his uncritical and adamantine support of Israel. As former party chieftain Michael Ignatieff found to his chagrin, being outspoken on the Middle East is dangerous for anyone who wants to lead the Liberals.

Still, there was something there beyond the standard weave and dodge. A sense of optimism maybe. A kind of infectious enthusiasm.

These days, the Trudeau campaign is compared to that of U.S. President Barack Obama. But with his intuitive ability to connect, the candidate’s style is actually more like that of Bill Clinton, albeit without the former American president’s attention to detail.

Not that everyone was impressed. “I’m for Marc Garneau,” a Liberal shanghaied into helping with the event confided later — a reference to the former astronaut and current Quebec MP who has not yet indicated whether he will run.

And Justin Trudeau? “He’s very charismatic,” the Liberal said.

Thomas Walkom is a news services columnist who writes on national affairs.

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