OTTAWA, (Reuters) – An eloquent farewell to flamboyant former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau catapulted his son Justin Trudeau into the public eye 13 years ago, as he riveted Canadians with his emotional “Je t’aime, papa” goodbye.
Now the photogenic former drama teacher and ski instructor has all but won the leadership of the Liberal Party, the political force that ruled Canada for more years than any other before slumping to its worst-ever showing in the 2011 election. Trudeau, who is expected to be crowned Liberal leader on Sunday, has captured enough affection that the Liberals are nudging the ruling Conservatives off top spot in the polls, although a federal election is still 30 months away.
Fluently bilingual in English and French, Canada’s two official languages, Trudeau, 41, combines elements of the dashing Kennedy clan with the message of hope that propelled a relatively inexperienced Barack Obama into the U.S. presidency. He dismisses suggestions that his wavy hair and good looks outweigh his political gravitas, and even some opponents say Canadians appear ready to overlook any shortcomings.
“Justin’s a fine young man…He’s got a lot going for him,” former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, leader of the opposition for the last year of Pierre Trudeau’s time in office, told Reuters. “Anybody who takes Justin Trudeau lightly does so at his own peril.”
The Liberals have yet to put forward a platform for the 2015 election, but would likely row back on some Conservative corporate tax cuts and tighten environmental rules. The Conservatives, in power since 2006, are fighting to freshen up their team and enthuse voters about policies that include balancing the budget by 2015.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Justin’s father rode a wave of popularity and a promise of change to displace staid Liberal heavyweights and become prime minister in 1968. He wore a rose on his lapel and sometimes sandals on his feet and young women flocked to kiss him. He slid down a hotel banister, broke protocol by dancing a pirouette behind Queen Elizabeth, and gave protesters the finger.
In 1971, aged 51, he married 22-year-old Margaret Sinclair, Justin’s mother. Some years after his birth, as Margaret Trudeau detailed in her memoirs, she had an affair with U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy which contributed to the end of the marriage.
The Trudeaus divorced in 1984, but the marriage only added to the glamour surrounding Pierre.
Justin echoed his father’s sense of drama when he opened the eulogy for his dad in 2000 with the words of Mark Antony, “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, speaking to waves of applause from a packed congregation in Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica.
Five years later, after his story-book wedding to model Sophie Gregoire, the two drove off in the Mercedes convertible with which his father used to charm the crowds. The couple, who live in Montreal, have two children.
Elected member of Parliament in 2008, he has prepared the ground for a run at Liberal leader with regular tours of Canada, and last year staged a charity boxing match which he hoped would dramatize the idea that the Liberals could not be counted out.
He went into the ring the underdog against braggadocio Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, but delivered a technical knockout, registering in the minds even of Canadians who don’t follow politics.
Last month an admiring passenger slipped him a note on an airliner asking if he could beat Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the 2015 election.
“Just watch me,” Justin wrote back, echoing Pierre’s answer to a question on how far he would go to restore law and order.
ATTACKING THE DAUPHIN
But Justin is still a neophyte compared to Pierre, who had experience as academic, activist, economic policy adviser, and justice minister before running Canada.
Justin has been a teacher, a radio reporter, and a legislator with junior roles. In 2001, some years before he entered politics, he admitted: “I don’t read the newspapers, I don’t watch the news. I figure, if something important happens, someone will tell me.”
He has a number of other vulnerabilities, including a remark from February 2012 that if Canada moved too far in the direction of the Conservatives, he’d consider supporting Quebec independence, an idea that would fly in the face of both Liberal Party policy and the wishes of his fiercely federalist father.
In his campaign for the Liberal leadership, Justin talked a lot about helping the middle class. But he earned more in speaking fees from two engagements than Canada’s per capita income, and Liberal leadership rival Martha Hall Findlay asked him what he actually understood about the middle class.
She later apologized, illustrating a possible problem for opponents. How far dare they go in attacking a man almost considered the dauphin?
Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall refused to talk about the Conservative strategy to deal with Trudeau, saying dismissively: “I have no comment on the leadership race of the third party.”
The left-leaning New Democrats have more seats than the Liberals in the House of Commons.
Asked about charges that he lacks detailed policy, Trudeau points to areas where he has taken a position – he wants to legalize marijuana and he is in favor of oil sands development, including the Keystone XL pipeline that would take Canadian crude to U.S. refineries.
But Trudeau has also sought to make a virtue out of the fact that he has not worked out policy on every issue, saying that he will engage Canadians positively first.
“Canadians want to vote for something, not just against somebody,” he said on Saturday in making his final pitch to Liberal voters before a week of voting. “Hope, my friends, yes. Always hope. But more than that. Hope and hard work. ”
Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker said many Canadians appear ready to support Trudeau, even if they admit his success so far is largely based on personality and his father’s name.
“It looks like it’s built on helium, and it’s not. This is about hope, this is about change, this is about difference,” Bricker said.
Bricker and Globe and Mail reporter John Ibbitson wrote a book titled “The Big Shift”, which argues political weight has shifted from Liberal areas in eastern Canada to Conservative strongholds in suburban Toronto and rural and western Canada.
The question, says Ibbitson, is whether Trudeau can overcome that shift “by the sheer force of personality.”