Justin Trudeau could hardly have picked a worse day to publicly reinvent himself. Though that might not have been such a bad thing.
With Canada's not-terribly-stunning gold medal hockey win occurring mere hours after J-Tru's keynote address to the 2014 Liberal convention, the Grit leader's battle to control the weekend headlines was doomed to be a losing one. While the popularity of hockey in Canada has always been somewhat exaggerated (about half the country watched our gold medal win in 2010 -- which is really just another way of saying half the country didn't), few would deny that even on its worst day, the sport is still vastly more compelling than the liveliest political speech.
Which Justin's wasn't.
So pity Canada's poor political journalists who didn't get to enjoy the luxury of choice. They had to politely sit through Trudeau's entire 40-minute monologue on Saturday, no doubt fighting constant temptation to squeeze in a little shut-eye before our 7 a.m. finals with Sweden. Certainly not the only explanation for the crankiness of the ensuing reviews, but not a bad one, either.
The National Post's Jon Ivision didn't do much to hide his distaste for the JT sermon in a column unambiguously entitled "Trudeau faithful eat up his bland repast and ignore hints he may be cavalier with public debt."
The Liberal leader's keynote, says Jon, was "platitudinous, at times cloying" in tone, and revealed little of the man's priorities, other than he plans to "do many of the same things as Stephen Harper, but do them with a smile on his face," while simultaneously blowing untold piles of public cash on "massive new public works projects and no new tax hikes." (Hence the d-word.)
Postmedia syndicate columnist Michael Den Tandt concluded basically the same. On issues ranging from job training to international trade to oil, he writes, Justin's supposed differences with the Prime Minister more closely resemble a man wanting to "crank the volume ... to eleven" than a guy interested in toning anything down.
Except when it comes to curbing spending. On that Trudeau seems perfectly willing to twist the knob to whisper, since over the weekend his party repeatedly reaffirmed that "a grand national strategy, followed by a grand national spending program, is the solution to all problems great and small." AKA: "a party for which balanced budgets were once a sine qua non, now places itself to the fiscal left of a party that has not managed a surplus since 2008." Out-lefting the Conservatives on fiscal policy. Welcome to Canadian politics circa 2014.
Anyway, Justin's gotta be careful about this kinda stuff, agrees the normally sympathetic Tim Harper at the Toronto Star. After all, "in the absence of a specific economic policy, his opponents will now paint him as a big spender who will take this country back into deep deficit" -- and, er, we didn't get a specific economic policy.
'Course, if J-Tru is narrowing the differences between himself and Harper, it doesn't automatically follow that that's a bad thing, counters Paul Wells in Maclean's. Harper's won three back-to-back elections, lest we forget, so presumably any Liberal path to power has to involve some element of the strategy Paul appetizingly describes as "peeling the party base off the leader."
Thus, Trudeau's Saturday speech featured a lengthy digression on why Stephen Harper is a bad conservative, decrying the prime minister's abject surrender on right-wing pet causes from senate reform to income splitting. Which is an unusual line of criticism for a lefty leader to employ, says Paul -- implying "not that Harper is too conservative, but that he is not many conservatives' idea of a proper leader for their movement." Not that it any more automatically follows that Justin is their movement's most sensible successor, mind you.
Since you asked, I didn't think much of the speech either. Though what struck me in particular was the sheer disingenuousness of so much of it.
During the Harper-is-a-bad-conservative bit, for instance, Trudeau bemoaned the fact that the PM has to date appointed 57 senators despite promising not to during the 2006 campaign. It was a true statement, but also one that conveniently ignored the fact that Harper only began appointing in explicit response to a vastly more serious campaign betrayal -- Stephane Dion's 2008 attempt to seize power through a "coalition government" coup d'etat, despite assurances on the stump he had absolutely no interest in doing so. As long as we're talking about cynicism.
Trudeau's defense of his own senate reform plan, meanwhile -- you know, that regressive at worst, irrelevant at best scheme to kinda-sorta de-Liberalize his party's senators and outsource future appointments to some unelected "expert panel" -- was airy, opaque, and unspecific, brags of "bold and ambitious" notwithstanding.
There were lesser infractions too; a faux-populist slur near the beginning that Harper "lives in a bigger house" (as if anyone believes Justin is hard done by), the historical revisionism that "Mike Duffy is not worth another Meech Lake," even though the Liberal Party supported Meech (and its even more disastrous successor, Charlottetown), the unironic celebration of free trade despite the fact that the Liberals hysterically opposed the most important free trade agreement in this country's history.
Most grating of all, however, was Justin's smug parting swipe at his Conservative critics -- "for some reason I make them nutty."
The reason, of course, that Justin makes some people "nutty" is that he's a fundamentally nutty character himself: a vain and presumptuous child of privilege, an embarrassingly thoughtless, clumsy speaker on issues for which ignorance is inexcusable, and a distressingly under-qualified wannabe manager of a G7 economy. A smidgeon of self-awareness would have been nice.
Justin's polling well at the moment, but there's ample reason to be skeptical of surveys that tout giant margins of approval for the man's "vision" or "values" at a time when his formal agenda still remains unknown to so many.
Saturday was an attempt to correct that, and if early reviews are any indication, it didn't go well.
Luckily for Trudeau, not many Canadians saw it. But now the gold's been won.