He has no link to Jean Chrétien appointees or the halcyon days of the high-flying Senate under Liberal rule.
But the Liberal leader has had difficulty muscling his way into the debate on the Senate spending scandal, which has largely been a battle between Opposition leader Tom Mulcair and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Trudeau is caught in the middle, appearing to advocate something too close to the status quo to be noticed in the debate.
Part of this is his own making.
As a neophyte leader he is still on a learning curve and at least twice in recent days he has bluntly weighed in on the scandal in interviews that have been unhelpful to him and his party.
But part of his approach is his bet that principle will beat political expediency when it comes to the future of the Senate.
First, the learning curve.
While no one is suggesting the Liberal leader should emulate so many others in this town and tether himself to talking points, he lacks what might be called message discipline.
He was far too enthusiastic about the possibility of welcoming Mac Harb back into his caucus when asked about the senator’s future last weekend by Global’s Tom Clark.
Instead of showing a little caution regarding a Liberal senator who could, according to one report, eventually owe taxpayers as much as $200,000 in wrongly claimed living expenses, Trudeau said he would “absolutely” welcome him back in the fold once his little spending misunderstanding was resolved.
The answer was a mistake and although likely to be forgotten in the long run, in the short run, it knocked the Liberals off their game in the Commons on the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair and clearly caused discomfort in his caucus.
Tuesday, upon his return to the Commons, Trudeau amended his Harb analysis — “If he’s innocent, he is in. If he’s guilty, he is out.’’
Trudeau also says he was just stating facts when he told La Presse “we” (Quebec) had 24 senators from that province compared to six each from Alberta and British Columbia, so “it’s to our advantage. To want to abolish it is demagoguery. We’ll have to improve it.’’
It was a statement of fact, but it was a statement that an experienced politician would have known would have backfired in the West, as it did.
Trudeau is prone to verbal meandering, something that led to his widely parsed “root causes” of terrorism remark in the hours following the Boston Marathon bombing.
Senior Liberals are certain Trudeau will learn, and are taking solace in the fact he is learning now, not a week after the election campaign begins.
Trudeau, however, needs to be more clear in belling NDP Leader Tom Muclair, who is preaching the half-century old party doctrine of “abolish, abolish, abolish” when it comes to the Senate, introducing motions to starve the Senate of its funding and riding a wave of public disgust with the spending irregularities in the Red Chamber.
Liberals maintain Mulcair, as a Quebec MP, knows he would never be able to abolish the Senate.
It is Quebec, as Trudeau has pointed out, that is disproportionately represented in the Senate and would be disproportionately hurt by its abolition.
When Mulcair shouts “abolish,’’ Canadians should hear “constitutional debate,’’ Liberals maintain. Trudeau, they say, is staying true to his promise of not inflicting another divisive constitutional debate on Canadians.
Those preaching wholesale Senate reform as a response to Wight-Duffy scandal are “pandering,’’ Trudeau says, because “they know, or ought to know,” how withering the constitutional debate on the way to reform would be.
Abolition would hurt Canadians from Ontario eastward, Trudeau says. An elected Senate would hurt the underrepresented West. Opening the Constitution to do either would hurt the country as a whole, he says. Trudeau would take the appointment of senators out of the patronage realm and give a group of Canadians “of good repute” the task of compiling a list of worthy Senate candidates from which the prime minister could choose.
That’s not the status quo, but it is awfully close.
Trudeau is correct to point out the constitutional perils of Senate reform. That is the messy part of abolition, the shiny object now drawing everyone to its light.
But sometimes, rightly or wrongly, political expediency wins the day. As he continues along his learning curve, the temptation to play the expedient game will be tough for Trudeau to resist.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.