Prime Minister envy: Why David Cameron should take a cue from Canadian PM Justin Trudeau

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One is the yoga-loving, refugee-welcoming, staunch feminist Prime Minister of Canada, the other is David Cameron. How did Canada get so lucky?

Words: Rachel Sylvester

In your Facebook feed recently you might have seen a fit, suited man balancing his entire body on two hands in a yogic ‘peacock pose’. You’ve possibly noticed an image of the same man giving out coats to refugee children, and you might even have seen a video of him stunning an audience of journalists with an off-the-cuff explanation of quantum computing. So who is he? The latest Marvel superhero, a wellbeing guru or perhaps a scientific genius? Actually, he is Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of, ahem, Canada.

In cultural and political terms, the UK traditionally regards – or disregards – Canada as our less glamorous Commonwealth cousin, yet when was the last time one of our politicians truly wowed us? The UK’s political leaders only go viral when they’ve been stranded on a zipwire (Boris Johnson), worn socks with their Crocs (Jeremy Corbyn) or told a female colleague to “calm down, dear” (David Cameron). Which makes us eager to discover who exactly Justin Trudeau is, what does he believe in and frankly, should we all be considering a move to Canada?

We’re not the only ones contemplating the new poster boy of politics. When, in March, the Liberal leader Trudeau, 44, became the first Canadian PM to be invited for a state visit to Washington in nearly 20 years, The New York Times made the outrageous – by American standards – suggestion that he had made Canada ‘hip’. Barack Obama described him as a protégé, saying he had brought “new energy and dynamism” to Canada and there was even a 350% spike in Google searches by Americans asking, ‘How can I move to Canada?’. Trudeau himself has acknowledged his surprise that every time he says he’s a feminist, “The Twitterverse explodes”. To his eternal credit, he also says, “I am going to keep saying loud and clear that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug.”

In a profession dominated by turgid discussions and grey suits, it’s no surprise this ‘lefty with the left hook’, who once boxed a Conservative senator on TV and won, has achieved star status. Married to former television presenter Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau (the pair have three children) and with a bold tribal tattoo of a raven on his upper left bicep, Trudeau breaks all the conventions of politics. He has admitted smoking marijuana without denying that he inhaled and in 2013 performed a striptease for charity (he stopped short of the full monty), raising $1,900 for the Canadian Liver Foundation. It’s hard to imagine any other world leader who could get away with all that. But although we Brits might be newcomers to the joys of Trudeaumania, Canadians have been following Justin since his birth.

Born on Christmas Day in 1971, Trudeau was the eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and former talk-show hostess Margaret Sinclair. His birth made the front pages of Canadian newspapers and, as a child, he had his own security codename – Maple 3. When he was just four months old, the then US President Richard Nixon visited Canada and proposed a toast to “the future Prime Minister of Canada: Justin Pierre Trudeau.”

Growing up at 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa – the Prime Minister’s official residence – he experienced the perks of office, visiting 50 countries with his father. Pierre Trudeau was an intellectual and flamboyant politician – former girlfriend Barbra Streisand called him a blend of “Marlon Brando and Napoleon”. Justin’s mother Margaret – almost 30 years younger than her husband – was a society beauty who used to party with Andy Warhol and The Rolling Stones. She once said that, “Justin’s been golden since early in his life. He was a bit of a bully because he was the eldest of three little boys. He was physically very good at everything. Learning to ski, no trouble; learning to swim, no trouble. [He] just sailed through easy-peasy.”

Despite his privileged background, however, Trudeau’s childhood was tinged with sadness. His mother, who suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, left when he was five. She is now back in his life but Jonathan Kay, the Canadian journalist who helped write the politician’s memoir Common Ground, believes Trudeau’s life has been defined by a “need to deal with maternal rejection”. This dark side may be the secret of his political success. “People are drawn to those who are successful but are also vulnerable,” Kay says. “It’s much more rare to have mummy walk out on you than daddy. That creates a need to connect with people around him. It wasn’t just him, it was also his dad and brothers, he felt like he had to be the glue and the connector. He still needs to be the guy who connects everybody.”

There was further tragedy when his younger brother Michel was killed in an avalanche in 1998, aged just 23. Two years later, his father also died, aged 80. The moving and inspirational eulogy that Trudeau gave, aged 29, at his father’s state funeral, which was broadcast to the nation, began his transformation from fun-loving ‘pretty boy’ to serious potential leader. “I’ll never forget how kind and warm everyone was, almost without exception,” Trudeau said in his memoir. “Not many people get to lean on more than 30 million others when their dad passes away.”

This Hollywood-sounding start meant that it felt entirely natural when, 15 years later, thousands of Canadians gathered to see Trudeau being sworn in to what many saw as his destiny. Or that, as he strolled through the cheering hordes with his wife and children, posing for selfies with adoring fans, one member of the crowd was moved enough to say: “This is our Camelot.”

Path to power

Nostalgia and social media savvy, however, aren’t enough to wholly explain Trudeau’s political appeal or electoral success. Since working his way up the Liberal Party ladder and becoming leader in 2013, Trudeau has transformed his party’s electoral fortunes – taking the Liberals from just 34 seats to 184 out of a possible 338 at last year’s election, and securing victory with 39.5% of the popular vote.

His rivals’ campaign ads attacked his youth and relative inexperience with the slogan, ‘Justin Trudeau Just Not Ready’ but the electorate decided that they’d had enough of his ageing right-wing rival Stephen Harper. In contrast to Harper’s focus on cutbacks and control, Trudeau offered a message of hope. “We won because we listened to the things Canadians were talking positively and hopefully about,” he said after his victory. Lord Mandelson, the architect of New Labour in the UK who helped secure the party’s landslide victory in 1997, says that positivity is central to Trudeau’s appeal. “His key asset is to offer radicalism with credibility. He has the sunny optimism of Tony Blair with a bit more daring.”

A lot more daring, it seems. A left-leaning liberal, Trudeau is feminist and pro-choice. Shortly after being elected, while other world leaders were talking tough on immigration, Trudeau personally went to Toronto airport to welcome a plane-load of Syrian refugees to Canada, helping them into warm coats with the words, “You’re safe at home now”. He later told the assembled press: “Tonight they step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada. With social insurance numbers. With health cards.” Images of Trudeau giving a young girl a quilted jacket instantly went viral. A social media-friendly event? For certain, but one that highlights a willingness to act on important issues and take part in politics on a global scale. Kay points out that Trudeau is a thoroughly modern leader who understands how to project himself to the world: “He realises that politics is about branding, and branding these days is about visual images. Thirty years ago, he’d have been on TV but he’s a creature of the digital age.”

In the months that followed that welcome, Trudeau tweeted that Canada had taken in more than 25,000 refugees, with the hashtag #WelcomeRefugees. Which makes last month’s vote by the UK Tory Government against taking in 3,000 orphaned child refugees all the more sobering, highlighting the growing gap between UK public opinion and the politicians who rule on our behalf.

Our own Prime Minister David Cameron and Trudeau may both have come from privileged backgrounds but their outlooks are as far apart as Marmite and maple syrup. Within Canada, Trudeau has made major progress in changing the establishment. While there are only seven women in David Cameron’s 22-strong Cabinet, his Canadian counterpart has made a point of ensuring that half the appointments to his Cabinet are women. When a journalist asked Trudeau last year why 50% of his leadership team were female, he explained simply, “It’s 2015”. His top team includes members of several ethnic groups, two people with disabilities, an openly gay politician and two members of aboriginal descent. Trudeau’s rationale was simple. He just wanted a cabinet that “looks like Canada”.

Cultural issues are high on Trudeau’s agenda, too. Like his father, who decriminalised homosexuality and legalised abortion, Trudeau has plans to modernise Canadian society. He pledges to raise taxes on the wealthiest citizens, legalise marijuana, support assisted suicide and continues to be strongly in favour of a woman’s right to choose an abortion [Canada has no restrictive laws on abortions at all]. For the first time in, well, forever, the world’s leaders are looking to Canada for ideas on how to run a country, with even President Obama admitting, “I take tips from Canada on a lot of things.” Of course, public figures who sweep to power on a wave of public enthusiasm often experience a dramatic fall from grace – just ask Tony Blair. But Kay believes that Trudeau is adequately equipped to deal with any attacks on his popularity, saying: “He is so relentlessly self aware and capable of seeing how he looks through the eyes of others, he is going to self-correct.”

So David, Boris and Jeremy, maybe it’s time to take a trip west, try a downward dog, get a tattoo and start feeling hopeful about the future. Right now, we want what Canada’s having.

Trudeau’s viral hits

Could he be the first PM to break the internet?

Charity boxing in 2012, he was 3-1 underdog but his opponent didn’t last the distance.

Explaining why his new Cabinet is so diverse: “Because it’s 2015” *MIC Drop*

March: Canada’s first panda cubs meet the PM, internet melts

April: a lesson in computing, the internet couldn’t love him any more

Additional words: Katie O’Malley
Photography: Reuters, Rex Feaures, Getty Images, PA