Justin Trudeau might be better for business than Stephen Harper

Justin Trudeau wants to prove he’s more than just a haircut and a smile. He sat down with Canadian Business to lay out his economic vision—and Bay Street may be pleasantly surprised.

James Cowan 5 Premium content image
Justin Trudeau (Lee Towndrow)

Justin Trudeau (Lee Towndrow)

Justin Trudeau sits atop a large, regal-looking chair, an ornately gilded piece of furniture that looks faintly ridiculous in an otherwise barren hotel conference room. For a man trying to shake off the perception of being the crown prince of the Liberal Party of Canada, it’s an unfortunate seating choice, but it’s the only option. He’s arrived a few minutes late for an interview and photo shoot, having stolen a minute for a meal; it’s close to 5 p.m., and he has two more events to attend before the evening is through. Trudeau is six months into his bid for the party leadership, and it shows as he briskly shakes every available hand in the room before alighting on his throne to expound on the Conservative government’s fickle relationship with China.

He talks about the purchase of energy company Nexen by the state-owned Chinese oil company CNOOC: “We’re in a situation where the only place our continued growth is going to come from is trade—specifically trade with Asia.” He pivots to his opposition to the proposed sale of Potash Corp., “because the control of a very strategic resource was going to be completely out of our hands.” He does a quick dash into his opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline project: “There are good deals we should be approving, bad deals we shouldn’t.” All the while, he builds to a larger point on Sino-Canadian relations. Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent the first years of his mandate shunning China on human-rights grounds, but as the global economy has shifted he has become “Mr. Panda Man”—a reference to the PM’s fawning over two cuddly Chinese ambassadors. This inconsistency amounts to lost opportunity, says Trudeau, his metronomic pace accelerating as he finds his theme. “Thanks to the history of Sino-Canadian friendship…there’s an opportunity for us historically, there’s an opportunity for us geographically, there’s an opportunity for us geologically, because we have so many resources China needs right now,” Trudeau says. “For me, it’s either we set the terms now and take the lead role, or 20 years down the line, we’re the poor cousins who accept any deal thrown our way.”

Though Trudeau is frequently accused of relying on his good looks and family name, the 41-year-old member of Parliament’s answers are more meat than filler. Clearly intent on proving he has substance in addition to style, he concertedly stuffs his answers with facts (salaries in export-intensive industries are, in general, 50% higher), statistics (median family incomes have increased 13% in 30 years) and allusions (“the rise of the plutocrats—to borrow a phrase from Chrystia Freeland’s book”). Yet because there are issues he isn’t talking about—tax rates, deficit reduction—he’s customarily accused of coasting on platitudes. “I haven’t seen him articulate a business vision,” says Ralph Lean, a partner at Cassels Brock and a prominent Conservative fundraiser. “He’s a puff, a fluff—whatever word you want to use.”

But for those inclined to simply dismiss Justin Trudeau: don’t. Even in the unlikely event he’s not elected leader of the Liberal party, his recruitment of 150,000 new party supporters and collection of $1.3 million in donations unmistakably confirm him as an influential force in Canadian politics. Adore or despise him, it is time to take Justin Trudeau seriously. He supports free trade, foreign direct investment and carbon pricing, all pointing to a curious conclusion: the shaggy-haired, former whitewater guide has an agenda just as capitalist-friendly as the Conservatives. If that notion is odd, this one is heretical: Justin Trudeau might be better for business than Stephen Harper.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

There are facts every Canadian knows about Trudeau: he is the son of a famous prime minister, he was elected to Parliament in 2008, he beat the stuffing out of Sen. Patrick Brazeau in a boxing match last year and, yes, he has luxuriant hair. For the candidate, the challenge is to transcend this rough caricature, particularly in constituencies where his looks and lineage won’t charm—like Bay Street.

“For people in the business community, there are still questions,” says Kip Daechsel, the National Co-Managing Partner of Heenan Blaikie and a Trudeau backer. “The narrative has to be written.”

So, on a warm spring day a few weeks ago, he began filling in that plotline. Trudeau faced the Empire Club of Canada, the century-old forum where Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan went when they wanted to address the country’s business elite. For those seeking a discussion of taxes and trade policy, hope vanished with a question from John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star, who interviewed Trudeau onstage.

“Since we’re so close to Bay Street, sitting on its edge, I thought I better ask you some financial questions,” Cruickshank said. “But, as you know, I come from the Toronto Star, so we characterize those questions always in social justice terms…” (An audience member tittered at the awkward segue.)

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“Real popular on Bay Street,” joked Trudeau to chuckles from the crowd, before adding more seriously: “Actually, increasingly so! Which is nice!”

Trudeau easily pirouetted from Cruickshank’s question about income inequality to the central theme of his campaign—helping Canada’s middle class. “People have the sense that Canada is doing well,” he tells the audience. “But when you press them a little harder and say, ‘OK, Canada is doing well, but how are you doing?’ And they admit there are challenges as incomes have been stagnating and people haven’t had a real raise in 30 years.”

Rather than judge Canada’s success on abstract measures, which have little meaning to average folk—GDP, productivity, trade balances—Trudeau’s candidacy is built on a pragmatic mantra: “A strong economy is the one that provides the largest number of good jobs for the largest number of Canadians.”

It’s a message designed to appeal to voters, not think-tanks. And it’s a shift in the Liberals’ approach to economic policy, which had become encumbered over the past decade by vacuous buzzwords like “champion sectors” and “innovation gateways” (Both found on a single-page in the 2011 election platform). Speaking like management consultants, the Liberals hobbled themselves against the economic populism of the Conservative party.

But Trudeau contends Harper’s government has failed middle-class Canadians, even as it pandered to them.

(Creative Commons/Justin Trudeau/Adam Scotti)

(Creative Commons/Justin Trudeau/Adam Scotti)

The latest federal budget, for example, slashed tariffs for hockey gear—an idea as appealing as it is crass.

“It’s a great vote getter,” Trudeau says. “It goes straight to the hockey mom.” But the same budget contained 1,290 tariff hikes for goods from Korea, China, Brazil and 69 other countries. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty argued that low tariffs had been subsidizing trade partners that were no longer “developing countries”; others speculated it was a bid to reduce the deficit or prod free trade talks. Either way, the policy change will adversely affect the middle class, Trudeau contends: “They’re raising costs on everyday items for an awful lot of people.”

Trudeau himself has his share of such nickel-and-dime proposals—adjusting repayment of university loans based on post-graduation incomes, and a registered savings plan for workers interested in upgrading their skills—but more often his strategy involves articulating how national economic issues affect average voters. His full-throated endorsement of the Nexen deal, for instance, is based on his belief that foreign investment could lead to more, better-paying jobs, not unemployment.

“Right now, Canada’s middle class is beginning to demonstrate some protectionist tendencies,” he says “And Mr. Harper hasn’t made a case for trade.”

He delivers a potted history of the Harper government and foreign takeovers: denying bids for MacDonald Dettwiler and Potash Corp., rejecting then approving the purchase of Progress Energy and approving outright the Nexen takeover. “It’s been done on a case-by-case basis, without actually… explaining why trade is important to Canadians,” Trudeau says.

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The Conservatives’ demonization of carbon-pricing regimes and dilatory environmental policy has had the unintended consequence of stalling the United States’ approval of the Keystone XL pipeline between Alberta and the Gulf Coast, Trudeau says. “What we’re discovering is the economy is too important to neglect the environment,” he told the Empire Club, to unexpectedly enthusiastic applause.

Trudeau backs the Keystone pipeline as “an extremely important initiative…in terms of getting our raw resources to market,” which, in turn, could mean good jobs for a greater number of people. Regardless of the economic issue, Trudeau is rarely a few sentences away from jobs or the middle class.

Strangely, amid all his free-trade talk, Trudeau says he’s fine with Canada’s supplymanagement regime, which allows agricultural cartels to set the prices of milk, eggs and cheese. This, despite the system impeding trade deals with Europe and Asia while jacking up the cost of groceries for Canadians. “We’ve signed an awful lot of trade deals, including NAFTA, including others, that didn’t see supply management as an issue,” he says, and ending supply management won’t necessarily make products cheaper. Trudeau’s logic strains credulity, says Mike Moffatt, an economic professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business. “If we’re saying it’s not keeping prices high—what are we doing here?” Trudeau’s position seems, in itself, to be a rare political gambit for him— designed to keep the Liberals viable in Quebec, where even maple syrup is subject to the supply-management cartels.

More maddening than Trudeau’s inconsistent positions are his absent ones. He has stubbornly refused to offer a comprehensive platform, contending that a leadership contest is only the first step in the development of a new Liberal agenda. It makes strategic sense: the Liberals watched former leader Stéphane Dion get bludgeoned with his own carbon-tax plan, while Michael Ignatieff was hammered for opinions expressed in his former life as an academic and journalist. Staying silent on certain issues is a survival strategy. Prior to the Empire Club luncheon, Trudeau’s vague answer to a question prompted one reporter to finally sputter: “But what does that mean?”

(Creative Commons/Justin Trudeau/Adam Scotti)

(Creative Commons/Justin Trudeau/Adam Scotti)

Wait until the 2015 election, Trudeau answered. Then, he said with a hint of his own exasperation, will come the platform to “answer all of your questions.”

When Trudeau’s campaign brought him to London, Ont., a prominent Liberal was missing from the crowd. Former Ontario premier David Peterson’s 99-year-old mother simply couldn’t manage the trip. So Trudeau called her instead. After the call, Peterson followed up. “I said, ‘What do you think of him, Mom?’” Peterson recalls. “And she said, ‘That young man has something.’”

Part of Trudeau’s appeal is that old-school sense of manners, such as placing courtesy calls to nonagenarians. In an age of political cynicism, he comes across as sincere. When he stands before a crowd and declares, “It shifted from ‘I can’t run for leader because I love my kids too much’ to ‘I must run for leader because I love my kids too much,’” it is enough to grow a Grinch’s heart three sizes. Critics may dismiss Trudeau’s grandiose speeches as trite, but they may prove as important to his economic vision as the policy itself. Selling Canadians on opening their borders to foreign powers and a temperate position on energy development will take rhetorical nuance. And that, supporters say, is one of Trudeau’s strengths. “I was impressed with how he interacted with people on a one-to-one level and could talk to groups,” says Daechsel. “Not every politician has that double talent.”

If there is one constituency that may be slow to embrace Trudeau—or simply refuse— it’s Bay Street. They’re happy with the Conservative government, and Jim Flaherty in particular. In the last election, business leaders chose Stephen Harper over Michael Ignatieff by a margin of three-to-one, according to a Compas poll at the time. Further, the business community is most likely to remember the economic errors of Trudeau’s father, from soaring deficits to the National Energy Program. “I voted for Trudeau the first election—I didn’t know any better,” says Lean. “It was Trudeau Sr. that got me involved in Conservative politics.’”

But Trudeau doesn’t require Bay Street’s backing like politicians once did. Jean Chrétien banned corporate donations in 2003 and limited individuals’ contributions to $1,200. Trudeau might be the perfect candidate for this new electoral era; half his leadership campaign donors gave $50 or less.

Trudeau might yet woo the pinstriped set. There is fatigue over the Conservatives’ muddled approach to foreign investment and failure to understand the long-term implications of its environmental policy. These are areas where Trudeau has substance. Sure, he’s hustling plenty of platitudes. But they aren’t empty ones.

 

What does Bay Street really think of Justin Trudeau?

We asked some Bay Streeters for their opinion on the heir apparent—and his chances at becoming the next PM

Bay streeter

What do you think of Justin Trudeau?
I think he’s bright, he’s articulate, he’s a good worker and he’s making an honest effort.
Do you think he can win?
Yes, I do.

Bay streeter

What do you think of Justin Trudeau?
I think he’s all right, but I wouldn’t vote for him.
Do you think he can win?
Yes.

Bay streeter

What do you think of Justin Trudeau?
I think he could potentially be a good leader.
Do you think he can win?
I think the younger crowd would definitely vote for him.

Bay streeter

What do you think of Justin Trudeau?
I don’t know the man, but I do know the family and the family history.
Do you think he can win?
I think based on the name, yes.

Bay streeter

What do you think of Justin Trudeau?
I think he has prospects. If it’s in the genes, he’ll be good.
Do you think he can win?
Probably, in time. Not the first time out.

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5 comments on “Justin Trudeau might be better for business than Stephen Harper

  1. Any liberal is bad news for business unless it is one of the friends from the old boys club.

    Reply

  2. Pingback: Roundup: Policy convention discord | Routine Proceedings

  3. Obviously Cowan is a supporter – but aside from that, any wannabe politico-clown can promise anything they can dream up simply because they don’t have the opportunity to validate those promises. When the wannabes have done nothing – they have no public policy record to support their claims…
    So is it a haircut and a smile – or just a wig and wishes???

    Reply

  4. Pingback: Chrystia Freeland taking leap from media to politics? - Central Toronto News

  5. Pingback: Can we talk about inequality? | iPolitics

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