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Why Trudeau Attack Ads Are a Waste of Time

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Maybe Stephen Harper has been watching too many episodes of the HBO mini-series "Rome", which ends with Octavian ordering the death of young Caesarion, the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra.

Or maybe he just likes attack ads.

Whatever the reason, Harper and the Conservative Party are widely expected to unleash a hail of attack ads soon after Justin Trudeau is anointed Leader of the Liberal Party on April 14.

That Trudeau will win is a foregone conclusion. The attack ads should not be.

Sure, this type of "positioning" of opponents has worked well in the past for the Conservatives. Former Liberal Leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff never really recovered from their early portrayals; Dion as weak and ineffectual; Ignatieff as an aloof academic who was "just visiting", a reference to his 30 years living outside Canada.

But Justin Trudeau is not Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff. Unlike Dion, who was essentially unknown before being named Leader, or Ignatieff, who was indeed away, Justin has always been with us.

From the time of his birth, Christmas Day 1971, he has been a part of our collective consciousness, growing up in front of us all. Whether it was comforting his mother at the time of his younger brother Michel's death; delivering a moving eulogy at his father's funeral in 2000; his joyful 2005 marriage; or his more recent improbable (but successful) foray into boxing, we have watched him grow up before our eyes and shared collectively in his triumphs and tragedies. He is in that sense family -- and you don't score political points by publically beating up family members.

In this age of anti-bullying messages, hitting the airways with millions of dollars of attack ads would end up instead positioning Stephen Harper, unflatteringly, as Bully-In-Chief. It also would legitimize Trudeau as the opposition, no matter that his party lags the NDP by scores of seats in the House of Commons.
The truth is the Conservatives may be making more of Justin Trudeau than is warranted.

I had occasion to spend half a day with the young Member of Parliament for Papineau several years ago in Toronto, part of a small working group looking at issues related to climate and sustainability. Prince Charles was present as well -- in a sense, we had two princes in the same room. My impressions of Justin were largely positive. He was articulate, passionate without being overbearing, and expressed a clear belief in the importance of education and youth. He displayed depth of knowledge regarding the environment, reflecting studies he had previously undertaken at McGill.

He was, to continue the family analogy, the nephew who shows great promise. But he definitely did not appear to be a Prime Minister in waiting. My impression was that he lacked his father's toughness, not fully possessing the sly cunning needed to gain -- and retain -- power. While he has clearly matured since then, I still do not yet see that necessary toughness. He seems more a Paul Martin than a Jean Chretien.

It is that very fact -- his lack of a steely edge -- that will cause attack ads to fail to do what they are designed to do. Instead, they will boomerang, fostering sympathy.

There may yet be a Trudeau ascendancy. But Harper and the Conservatives would do well to keep their powder dry and their attack ads in the vaults. Right next to the final episode of "Rome".

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