Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s return to federal politics in 2002 was as leader of the fractious, dysfunctional Canadian Alliance. Under the leadership of Stockwell Day the party had suffered through several rebellions, and a sizable contingent of its MPs had defected.
As the new leader, Harper brought all but two of the defector MPs back to the fold and swiftly imposed order on the other rambunctious Alliance MPs. Seemingly overnight, the Alliance transformed from an unruly rabble into a disciplined, formidable parliamentary force. There was little doubt about who was imposing this discipline, and Harper began referring to the Alliance as "my party."
Following the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives into the Conservative Party, Harper clinched the leadership of the new party and began the process of imposing order once again. In particular, Harper was able to bring the party’s national council and its fundraising arm, Conservative Fund Canada, effectively under his control. He went on to win three elections under this arrangement, all of which were characterized by tight discipline over his cabinet and caucus.
But by 2015, Harper’s act had worn thin with voters, especially when compared with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s positive "sunny ways" campaign. Harper’s closed, sometimes authoritative approach to governance came up for mockery from his opponents. In turning away from the tightly disciplined Harper Conservatives, Canadians opted for Trudeau, a leader who was seen to be more open and willing to tolerate dissent and disagreement.
Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson recently shared an observation from "a wise mind": politicians often both rise and fall as a result of the same quality. This was certainly true of Harper. While discipline and tight control were essential to his early career in politics, by 2015 they had become liabilities.
But Ibbitson was writing about Trudeau, not Harper. While I doubt anyone thinks the problems plaguing the prime minister (in particular, his recent trip to India) will sink his career, they do provide clues as to what may eventually lead to Trudeau’s fall from power. As with Harper, those clues have been there since Trudeau entered politics in 2008.
In particular, Trudeau’s youth, showmanship, charisma and openness contrasted well with Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s tired grumpiness in the 2015 election campaign. Trudeau subsequently charmed international audiences, especially when contrasted with U.S. President Donald Trump. His frequent exhibition of his colourful decorative socks — one pair featuring Chewbacca, another celebrating Ramadan — projected a sense of youthful light-heartedness.
But in India, these qualities turned against Trudeau as both he and his family donned a series of expensive, glamorous traditional Indian outfits for their public appearances. These outfits were widely and often hilariously panned in both social media and the Indian press, with observations that Trudeau was auditioning to be either best man at a traditional Indian wedding or Bollywood’s newest campy movie star.
Trudeau capped off the visit with an impromptu, short display of his Bhangra dance skills. CTV unkindly referred to Trudeau’s dancing as "cringe-worthy" and "pedestrian." As a non-expert on traditional Indian dance, it’s difficult for me to judge the prime minister’s moves. But after previous criticism of his over-embrace of Indian culture, Trudeau’s dancing struck me as politically tone-deaf.
Conservatives have always grumbled that Trudeau’s light-hearted public persona signals that he is not serious on matters of public policy. In India, those accusations gained traction. Journalists immediately noted that the agenda for Trudeau’s lengthy subcontintental sojourn was heavy on photo opportunities but light on substantive meetings with Indian officials. And the jaw-dropping revelation that a convicted Khalistani terrorist was included on the guest list for an official dinner with the prime minister while in India seriously threatened to undermine any real progress made by Trudeau on the trip.
So Trudeau’s Indian expedition suggests that the same attractive personal qualities he has used to successfully build his public profile may eventually turn against him. But it also suggests something more ominous for the Liberal party: their leader does not learn from his mistakes.
The prime minister recently had his knuckles rapped by the federal ethics commissioner for accepting an invitation for his family and him to travel to and stay at the Aga Khan’s private island. It boggles the mind that a prime minister who had just been dragged through the mud for a luxurious vacation on a private Caribbean island would plan a visit to India that is heavy on costumes and photo-ops rather than serious engagement on behalf of the Canadian government.
Trudeau has constantly been underestimated during his time in politics, and has more often than not risen to the occasion when confronting new challenges.
He needs to grow beyond the appealing personal characteristics that helped get him elected, and which might hinder rather than enhance public support in the future.
Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.