Justin Trudeau and why political leadership doesn't matter

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Just how embarrassing is it that Justin Trudeau is about to become leader of Canada's formerly dominant political party? He's been reproached for having a "thin resumé" beyond his family pedigree. Tom Axworthy, who worked for Justin's dad, laments the general absence of big ideas and "thinkers" like those summoned by Liberals to Kingston back in 1960 to "discuss the great issues of the day." From that fount came great policies like medicare. Or maybe not.

Personally I think the whole emphasis on leadership in our politics is embarrassing. If we were democratically more evolved, leadership would hardly matter. Things have slid backwards since ancient Athens where leaders were chosen by lot (except in wartime) on the assumption that the citizens' assembly made key decisions together and required leaders merely to implement them. Anyone would do. Leaders hardly led, much less dominated.

So start with that resumé question. Jean Chrétien had a thick one when he became PM. But in 10 years he accomplished exactly one thing: a negative. He avoided the Iraq War. (His electoral finance reform got dismantled by Stephen Harper.) Paul Martin had a massive business and politics resumé; he was a wretched leader. As for Harper, he has no real-world resumé. He has an unused MA in economics, which today might get you a callback from McDonalds.

What about Justin? Aside from his dad and his wealth, he got a degree in education and taught a bit in private or public schools in B.C. What's not to like? It's better than being a hedgie; you're working, literally, with the future. And that thin resumé is a generational badge for many in his 30-45 age range: well-trained but they found their elders in business and government had destroyed their futures with outsourcing, public spending cuts, etc. Think of all the PhDs in the last two decades who've had to grub for sessional university jobs, making goals like family a huge struggle. Trudeau's in tune with their fate, if spared it himself. They're a big demographic with a right to feel bitter, who might identify with him and aren't young enough to disdain voting, like 20-somethings.

Policy and big ideas? Overrated. Poor Stéphane Dion had policy up the wazoo. When Tom Axworthy prattles about Kingston, it mostly shows how rare actual mental activity was in his crowd; they still recall lighting up the night sky once in 1960. When Bill Davis was Ontario premier, he scoffed that he could find an academic to endorse any policy. No leader ever spoke truer words. Medicare was born from the sordid experience of Canadians without it, not from somebody's big brain. In Canada, it came out of Saskatchewan, not Kingston. Imperial Germany had it 80 years before we did.

What might Justin have with which to compensate? Here's a checklist:

-  Horseshoes. He should never have risked that boxing match with Patrick Brazeau. But he won. Luck matters in politics, as in life. Plus Brazeau, in the aftermath, turned out to have been an ideal Tory villain to engage. More luck.

-  Gut, contact with. As when he blurted at Peter Kent in the House: "You piece of (excrement)." True, unfabricated, emotion is rare in politics and voters value it. Trudeau aimed well there too. Of all the Harperoid ministers who regurgitate PMO talking points, Kent is one who should really know better.

-  Hard knocks. Mom in sexual scandal (with Rolling Stones) when he's 6. Parents split when he's 8. Brother dies in avalanche. Dad dies shortly after. This kind of thing is a staple in the lives of privileged people who go on to lead.

-  Aplomb. How weird was it that he and Deborah Coyne, mother of his half-sister, both ran for Liberal leader and neither (nor the media) seemed to notice?

-  Ability to grow. After his frothy eulogy for his dad, I'd have been glad to never hear from him again. But that was 13 years ago. Last weekend, dealing with being his dad's son, he seemed genuinely pensive. He's not the same guy.

Final provisional judgment? His party could do worse, and often has. If I was Stephen Harper or Tom Mulcair, I'd be nervous.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Adam Scotti/Justin Trudeau/Flickr

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