Justin Trudeau says he’s taking a lower-profile, more businesslike approach to being prime minister, having concluded that the focus on him and his lofty talk of values during his first mandate obscured his government’s concrete achievements on bread-and-butter issues.
Trudeau’s new approach is a big departure for a leader who vaulted the Liberal party from its apparent deathbed into government in 2015, largely on the strength of his celebrity status and “sunny ways” appeal.
It’s likely a tacit admission he is no longer the unalloyed asset for the Liberals he once was, his image tarnished by ethical lapses, misadventures on the world stage and the embarrassing revelation during this fall’s federal election campaign that he had repeatedly donned blackface in his younger days.
Canadians ultimately re-elected the Liberals but handed them a minority government that will have to work with opposition parties in order to survive.
In a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, Trudeau said the message he takes from the election is that Canadians “agree with the general direction” his government is taking but want him to take a “more respectful and collaborative” approach.
He’s also concluded the focus on him meant Canadians didn’t hear enough about his government’s accomplishments.
“Even though we did a lot of really big things, it was often hard to get that message out there,” Trudeau said.
“The place that the visuals or the role that I took on in leading this government sometimes interfered with our ability to actually talk about the really substantive things we were able to get done,” and that he thinks Canadians want the Liberals to show them more clearly what they are doing for them.
Asked if the visuals he was referring to were the photos of him in blackface or the elaborate clothing he wore during the India trip, Trudeau said there are “all sorts of different aspects to it,” but he cast the problem more broadly.
“I think a lot of the time, politics has become very leader-centric in terms of the visuals,” he said. “This has been the case in Canada for a long time, where people, yes, vote to a certain extent on their local MP but the leader of the political party takes up an awful lot of space.”
Throughout his first mandate, there was private grumbling among some Liberal MPs who felt Trudeau spent too much time talking about his high-minded pursuit of things like diversity, inclusion and gender equality — derided as “virtue signalling” by his critics — and not enough on pocketbook issues.
Trudeau, it seems, now agrees with them.
“I think the values and the themes that I was putting forward were very strong and very compelling but when you’re talking about values and themes at a high level, you’re not necessarily talking directly about, well, this community centre we just put specific money into building, or this program that helped hundreds of thousands of Canadians be lifted out of poverty,” he said.
While he does not plan to stop talking about values entirely, Trudeau said he wants to make sure they are talking more about the “concrete things” his government is doing to “make life better for Canadians.”
He also wants to share the spotlight with the ”extraordinary team of ministers who weren’t always given the attention or visibility that we would all have benefited from.”
Refocusing on the team and on “tangible deliverables” is a way to counter populism, he added, ”where people no longer feel that their institutions or their government are actually there to deliver for them.”
During the campaign, Trudeau said his biggest regret was that he’d become a polarizing figure. He got a graphic demonstration of that on election night, when voters shut out the Liberals in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the oil-producing provinces most impacted by Trudeau’s climate change and environmental policies.
In the interview, Trudeau said he believes that polarization is caused by anxiety over the transformation of the global economy due to climate change and advances in artificial intelligence and technology. He’s become a lightning rod for some of that anxiety, he posited, because he’s been “unabashed” in arguing that Canada needs to accept the transformation and invest in things like science to get in front of it and help shape it.
“I think I have become, in some ways because I am very much focused on positioning Canada for the long term, an easy element for people who say, ‘No, no, no, we can just keep the way we’ve been for a little while longer and we don’t need to disrupt everything yet and we can hunker down and hope that all this will blow over,’” he said.
“For people for whom the future is fraught with anxiety, it becomes easy to sort of point to me and say I’m trying to accelerate things rather than trying to make sure that we are going to be successful over the coming century and not just over the coming couple of years.”
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press