The presence of Justin Trudeau represents a disturbing new trend in Canadian politics that risks damaging the long-term viability of our democratic system.
|The media makes the man
Whoa! What an overstatement! Isn’t it Stephen Harper, after all, who muzzles scientists, suppresses votes, prorogues Parliament, and passes grotesque omnibus bills? Indeed, Harper is an aggressive politician who, it often seems, would rather run the country like a dictator.
But the dismay and disappointment is in Harper the person. If he is kicked out of office (as he can be), that’s the end of him. He has done lasting damage, but as a person he does not represent a larger cultural transformation in the political landscape.
That is not the case with Justin Trudeau. He is a man who, by any rational measure, would not be vying to be Prime Minister had his father not held the same office. His only occupation of any substance was as a school teacher. He used his friendship with Liberal Senator Jacques Hébert to gain access, and provide influence, on the Board of the youth charity Katimavik. When he wanted to enter politics, he ran in Papineau, which his supporters claim was a long shot. But it wasn’t. Since 1943 Papineau had been Liberal but for two years (2006-2008), when it was held by the Bloc Québécois. In other words, 63 years of continuous Liberal rule, with one brief interlude. But that is not the narrative dynasties use.
Once in the House of Commons, Trudeau initially had one of the lowest attendance records of any member. He still has the worst record of any of the leaders. What was he doing all that time, while raking in $160,000 in salary? He was moonlighting as a public speaker. He set up a shell company to take in the money, thus benefiting from the lower corporate tax rate.
While a Member of Parliament, Trudeau was regularly charging $20,000 a pop to charities and non-profits. Shamed, he was forced to give some of it back. He even claimed $840 in MP travel and living expenses for one of his private gigs. All told, since 2006 Trudeau has earned more than $1.3-million on the public speaking circuit.
This is a man cashing in on a name, not building public trust. And that’s the problem with political dynasties. They are a class of people for whom name recognition translates into personal reward, sometimes from public monies. This is accomplished, of course, despite any evidence of outstanding personal merit, because that is a lesser requirement.
It is true that political children can dazzle. They have been surrounded by power, and have a degree of well-founded self-confidence that makes them comfortable in the spotlight. Should they want to take a shot at the podium, they’ll be given the inside track. After Trudeau was elected in Papineau in 2008, Edward Greenspon, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, wrote that Trudeau would "be viewed as few other rookie MPs are—as a potential future prime minister—and scrutinized through that lens." Weird, that.
The long term negative effect of such a dynasty at the highest levels of office in Canada should not be underestimated. Countries that have gone down this route have rarely recovered, and the effect on the voting public can be fatal. Desperate hope soon turns to cynicism. In the United States, the Bushes and the Clintons are well-oiled machines, using their knowledge of the system, and their considerable influence, to ensure they are never far from the levers of power. Politics has become the family business. The meritocracy, such as it is, is sidelined, and entire governments are beholden to oligarchs.
But in a proper democracy like ours, these folks still have to get elected, which is what is so dismaying about Trudeau’s popularity. A man who might have otherwise risen to be principal of a prep school (maybe), or coach of his kids’ ball team, is now a candidate for Prime Minister. Chalk it up to the Liberal brand, sullied as it is, and an electorate as inclined to vote for a Canadian Idol as for a national leader.
It is worth noting that the strongest democracies in the world (France, the UK, Germany, Australia), while having political families at the subnational level, have never let this unfortunate phenomenon poison the vote to the extent that two members of the same family claim the top job.
Indeed, the lack of a dynasty represents an uncommon degree of political maturity. Dynasties are the norm in much of the world, where the kids have been tearing up the place for some time. Suffice to say that Canada might not want to find itself in the same company as Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that beacon of dynastic possibility, North Korea.