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21 Oct 2021 14:46
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  •   Home > News > International

    Justin Trudeau has a long history of high-stakes political gambles, but the risk didn't pay off this election

    He called an election two years ahead of schedule, hoping to turn the goodwill generated by his handling of the pandemic into a parliamentary majority. What went wrong for Justin Trudeau?

    Often dismissed as a political lightweight, Justin Trudeau decided the only way to rescue his burgeoning career was through a publicity stunt. 

    In 2012, he climbed into a boxing ring in Ottawa for what was ostensibly a televised charity match, but was really a fight for his political future. 

    Critics had taken to calling him everything from "the Paris Hilton of Canadian politics" to a "reed-thin, pedigreed dauphin" to the "shiny pony". 

    The then-40-year-old Liberal MP faced off against Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau, a former Canadian navy reservist who held a black belt in karate. 

    With his lanky frame and movie star looks, no-one was placing bets on Mr Trudeau. 

    And when the fight began, everyone's money looked safe. 

    Senator Brazeau knocked Mr Trudeau against the ropes with a series of blows. 

    But then something unexpected happened. 

    Mr Trudeau backed his increasingly exhausted rival into the corner and whacked him until the ref blew the whistle in the third round. 

    The lightweight fighter had won. 

    "After the fight, he became a man lauded for his toughness, strength, honour and courage who vaulted into the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada and became a legitimate contender to win the next federal election," Peter Bouisseau from the University of Toronto wrote in 2015. 

    Six years after his triumphant victory in the boxing ring, Mr Trudeau's latest high-stakes political gamble has not paid off the same dividends. 

    Born to a political dynasty

    Justin Trudeau seemed destined for fame and fortune from birth. 

    Born to Canada's serving prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, and actress Margaret Sinclair in 1971, his political rise was predicted when he was just four months old. 

    "Tonight we'll dispense with the formalities. I'd like to toast the future prime minister of Canada: To Justin Pierre Trudeau," then-US president Richard Nixon joked at a gala dinner. 

    Mr Trudeau has said he never had any intention of going into politics, and he instead studied to become a teacher. 

    "My father had once told me I should never feel compelled to run for office," he wrote in his memoir. 

    "'Our family has done enough,'" Mr Trudeau said his father told him.

    But it was during his father's televised funeral in 2000 that Canadians took notice of the younger Trudeau. 

    His stirring eulogy for his father was widely praised, and Liberal Party powerbrokers started approaching him about his political future. 

    Fifteen years after his father's death, he swept to power on a promise to give Canadians "real change". 

    An Instagram-savvy world leader

    As prime minister, Justin Trudeau continued to display a gift for staging publicity stunts. 

    Whether he was captured shirtless in the background of a beach wedding, shirtless in the Canadian wilderness, or jogging past a group of teens at their formal, the photos immediately went viral. 

    But some of Mr Trudeau's critics weren't buying the apparent spontaneity of the succession of photo ops. 

    It was a "lame vanity project" from a man who didn't know when to stop campaigning, according to Canadian political commentator Robyn Urback. 

    "Leaks are often deliberate, calculated moves. 'Spontaneous' run-ins are carefully set up. And public photobombs by politicians in their Sunday sweats usually involve some sort of prior coordination," she wrote for CBC News. 

    In between viral moments, Mr Trudeau still managed to achieve some of his policy goals. 

    An analysis of his campaign promises by two Canadian academics found he made good on roughly half of his pledges by the end of his first term. 

    He partially delivered on 40 per cent of his pledges and only failed to deliver on 10 per cent. 

    But there were scandals along the way. 

    Canadian progressives were aghast at his support for the expansion of a crude oil pipeline, which they said would devastate Indigenous communities and wildlife.

    And the man who mastered the art of the photo op saw three images from his past come back to haunt him. 

    When he was a young teacher in the early 2000s, Mr Trudeau repeatedly wore racist make-up to parties. 

    "I apologise profoundly," Mr Trudeau told reporters on board his campaign plane in 2019. 

    "I didn't think it was racist at the time but now I see it was a racist thing to do. I'm pissed off at myself. I'm disappointed in myself." 

    While the scandal prompted some to question their Prime Minister's stated commitment to diversity, enough Canadians voted for Mr Trudeau that he was able to scrape through to a second term in minority government. 

    The big election gamble 

    In August this year, Mr Trudeau called a snap election, hoping to capitalise on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

    Compared to its southern neighbour, the United States, Canada fared well through the first year of the pandemic. 

    And after a sluggish start to its vaccine rollout, the country rocketed past the US in July to have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. 

    But sending Canadians to the polls two years early, in the midst of a Delta-fuelled fourth wave of coronavirus, proved an unpopular choice. 

    "This pandemic election is vain, risky and selfish," Conservative party leader Erin O'Toole said.

    "In fact, it's un-Canadian." 

    The Prime Minister said the snap poll was essential for allowing Canadians to weigh in on who would lead the country's post-pandemic recovery. 

    But it was also a roll of the dice — a key characteristic of Mr Trudeau's political style. 

    After two years of minority government, he wanted to run the board. 

    Ultimately, the most expensive election in Canadian history appears to have ended where it started. 

    "Trudeau lost his gamble to get a majority so I would say this is a bittersweet victory for him," Daniel Beland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal said. 

    "Trudeau and the Liberals saved their skin and will stay in power, but many Canadians who didn't want this pandemic election are probably not amused about the whole situation." 



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