Trudeau performs his best when he works without script

A prime minister’s career is built, loosely, on two types of duties: acting and reacting; dealing with the planned and the unplanned.

Skills for both are usually acquired on the job, and in public.

Justin Trudeau has been through four years of training in the top political job in Canada, and the first book-length chronicle of that learning curve is out.

Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister, by Postmedia columnist John Ivison, hit the bookstands this week.

Acting, in the Trudeau context, is a freighted term. Trudeau’s critics are fond of dismissing him as a mere drama teacher.

Ivison’s book, while not overly flattering toward the current prime minister, gives Trudeau more credit.

He is “good at understanding the feelings of others and playing on them.

He tends to be impulsive, overemotional, and at times, sanctimonious,” Ivison writes.

“But as part of his political metamorphosis, he has added conviction and discipline to his ability to know what to say, how to say it and to whom, for maximum effect.”

That’s the acting part, and Ivison’s tale casts this aspect of Trudeau’s leadership as the lesser of his skills.

In fact, the working premise of this Trudeau book is that this politician and his team are at their weakest when following the plan — in large part because the original script was neither pragmatic nor realistic and was designed by a party that was in the third-place political wilderness four years ago.

Ivison repeatedly refers to Trudeau’s governing script as a blueprint drawn up by the “anointed” — borrowed from U.S. conservative author Thomas Sowell’s 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed.

Essentially, Sowell’s argument boils down to the idea, now common in polarized politics the world over, that one’s own beliefs are fundamentally good and all critics are “not merely in error, but in sin.”

“It’s a description written 20 years before the advent of the Trudeau Liberals that perfectly captures the way they see themselves,” Ivison writes.

It’s also how the conservative right sees itself, not to mention nearly every armchair political critic of all stripes on Twitter.

But Ivison does put some meat on the bones of that premise as he describes the constant tension between Trudeau’s acting intentions and the necessity of reaction to the unexpected.

The book tracks how the best of Trudeau’s plans keep colliding with reality, not the least of which Ivison contends is the firm belief that Canada is a big-L Liberal country and that given a chance, everyone in politics would choose to get along.

That isn’t how things unfolded from 2015 to 2019, to say the least, and this is where the reacting part of Trudeau’s skills have been tested.

The 2016 election of U.S. President Donald Trump was the largest of the unforeseen events, obviously, and Ivison gives a taste of how this became a moment of reckoning for the “anointed” crew around Trudeau.

While Ivison disagrees with Trudeau’s contention that the free-trade and tariff standoff with Trump culminated in a “great day for Canada,” the book does lay out the story of a crisis averted by a government forced to change gears.

Similarly, Ivison is generous in his account of how Trudeau’s government unexpectedly found itself the owner of the Trans Mountain pipeline, a decision that made it hugely difficult for Liberals to keep claiming that modern governments could straddle the fence between the environment and the economy.

This development was not part of the 2015 script — once again, another casualty of best-laid plans — but Ivison lays out the thinking behind the decision, aided by annotated commentary throughout the book from former principal secretary Gerald Butts.

Butts’ contributions to Ivison’s tale are mostly uncontroversial, with the notable exception of Butts’s commentary on the now-infamous India trip of 2018.

As Butts tells it, this publicity disaster for Trudeau was at least partly the fault of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was “out to screw us.”

That, however, is an exception to Butts’ contributions to the book, which, like his testimony at the SNC-Lavalin committee hearings this year, mostly add nuanced context to the story.

The chronicle does include the SNC-Lavalin saga, but Ivison’s account doesn’t add much to what’s already on the public record.

It does fit with the ongoing acting/reacting tension of Trudeau’s four years of government, but it is one of the cases where the government found itself incapable of sticking to the original, intended action or dealing with the unanticipated reaction.

Ivison is a fair journalist (and I mean that in the best sense, as opposed to the “not quite good” sense) and so this first book on Trudeau’s prime ministership will not give much additional fuel to either the haters or the fans of a politician who has grown up in the public eye.

Or maybe it will — in a polarized, political world, reactions are hard to predict.

On the eve of the 2019 election, this book does offer voters a chance to go through the Trudeau record and judge for themselves whether he’ll be known as a leader better at action or reaction.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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