It's no sin to be born into money. But it can be a burden, especially if you're a politician trying to establish a bond with middle class voters, as Liberal leadership frontrunner Justin Trudeau is -- and especially especially if you're counting on young voters, most of whom are facing a foreseeable future of debt, low wages and diminishing workplace benefits, to carry your political career to the next level.
So, while Martha Hall Findlay's sucker-punch -- suggesting Trudeau's wealth renders him unable to comprehend middle-class voters -- during Saturday's leadership debate was crude, it nonetheless represented a real blow, the first in this contest, to Trudeau. And if Hall-Findlay's attack stung, wait till the Conservatives and NDP start to take their own jabs at Trudeau's silver spoon. There will be no halfhearted apologies then.
Justin Trudeau is wealthy, his financial disclosure to Postmedia last week makes that much clear: his trust fund stands at $1.2 million, most of the inheritance thanks to a wealthy grandfather (not his famous father); dividends from a numbered company have paid Justin as much as $200,000 a year from the time he came of age; and a speaking career, this gig mostly thanks to his father (more accurately, his father's death in 2000), pays him $15,000 a pop (including after he was already employed as an MP, though by then he had curtailed his schedule considerably and has since stopped speaking for cash altogether); he also gets about $10,000 a year in royalties from his father's autobiography, published in 1993. And anyways, as an MP with a $150K-plus salary, his bi-weekly paycheque is not insubstantial.
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But he's not that wealthy. The $1.2 million isn't really that big an inheritance -- enough to own a nice house and car, pay tuition at private schools for your two kids and save for a comfortable retirement, but not enough to sit on and do nothing for the rest of your life, especially if he intends to pass on the wealth to the next generation of little Trudeaus. To his credit, Justin hasn't sat around twiddling his thumbs -- he was a teacher, one of the noblest professions I can think of and not an easy job by any stretch. No one should begrudge him his oratory career, either -- it's a job, after all, and if people were willing to pay him to speechify, more power to him. And he doesn't appear to flaunt his wealth, that is an encouraging sign of humility.
Still, he has much more than most of us can ever dream of having, a monetary cushion that has allowed him to pursue whatever path he chooses, be it backpacking through Europe, a mid-$40K teaching job or politicking, without any financial burdens. He is one of the lucky few blessed with that opportunity, and for that, fairly or not, he will be viewed with some suspicion by those who slave at jobs they don't like and for their efforts are paid unsatisfactorily. These people will question how Trudeau can claim to understand middle- and lower-class problems, especially among young people, when he has never experienced them and never will.
The short answer is, he can't. But he can significantly limit the backlash by addressing the other, far more damaging, limitation he has displayed thus far in the leadership campaign -- namely, his inability and/or refusal to spell out his vision of Canada and how he intends to make life better for Canadians. If he begins telling voters what exactly he has in mind for this country, instead of relying on the maddening vagaries he has gotten away with thus far, his fat bank account will start to matter less. And if his plan sounds convincing to enough people, the money won't matter at all.
The question is whether Trudeau is ready to take that step, whether he has the guts to cancel the coronation and turn the Liberal leadership campaign into an actual exchange of ideas that gives Canadians something to chew on. His response to Hall Findlay on Saturday suggests not -- it was filled with the same moronic babble about "identity," "service" and "community" that has rendered this leadership contest, and the Liberal party, a farce.
Justin can keep dodging Hall Findlay and Marc Garneau all the way to victory at the Liberal convention -- nobody can stop him from winning there. But after that, if he still doesn't give people something to think about, and when the Conservatives and NDP start in on him, that trust fund is going to come into play very quickly. The only way for Trudeau to convince voters, especially the younger ones, he's not just a playboy cashing in on his father's legacy and grandfather's investments is to prove to them there's more to him than that.
Otherwise, money will talk.