"To be Prime Minister of Canada, you need the hide of a rhinoceros, the morals of St. Francis, the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the leadership of Napoleon, the magnetism of a Beatle and the subtlety of Machiavelli." – Prime Minister Lester Pearson to a Liberal rally, quoted in the Vancouver Sun, Jan. 27, 1965.
Yep, that’s about right.
To Pearson’s list, a contemporary prime minister might add a laundry list of more mundane essentials.
He or she needs to be bilingual, well organized and adequately financed with a support base that extends across the country. They need a message that, if not compelling, at least does not put their audiences to sleep. They should also possess a pinch of charisma (or a passable facsimile thereof), be seen to be virtuous in their private lives – and, of course, be lucky.
In addition, prime ministers need to be flexible, light on their feet, able to dance away from unexpected challenges, and, when necessary, to do the old Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope to escape from political peril.
Setting aside Lester Pearson’s intimidating criteria, Justin Trudeau has proven to be pretty adept in the flexibility department. He must be, because he has his Liberals, after three trying years in office, 10 percentage points ahead of the opposition Conservatives, as of last week’s Nanos Research poll.
No could have anticipated some of the challenges his government would face when it was elected in October 2015. Who would have imagined then that Trudeau’s biggest problem would be dealing with, or navigating around, the president of the United States – with Donald Trump, who treats Canada as a friend one day and as a threat to American national security the next, and whose early fondness for Trudeau proved to be only tweet-deep.
If Trump is the biggest surprise, there are others closer to home. To start with, there is the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from Alberta to the British Columbia coast, which had received final government approval in 2016.
How could any prime minister have anticipated that he would have to dig into the treasury for $4.5 billion (since raised to an estimated $6.4 billion) to buy the pipeline from its corporate owners after the Federal Court of Appeal upset the government’s approval?
Now he finds himself at loggerheads with the premier of Alberta, an erstwhile ally, who is threatening – if the feds do not get the pipeline built – to buy hundreds of railway tank cars to haul her province’s bitumen over the mountains to port. That’s not an attractive political proposition for Trudeau, especially not in light of the 2013 Lac Mégantic rail disaster in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
More trouble is heading his way from the realignment of political power at the provincial level. Three years ago, the alignment was all in the Liberals’ favour. The Trudeau government could count all provincial governments, with the possible exception of Saskatchewan, as allies on key national issues, including climate change and carbon pricing.
The pan-Canadian consensus has fallen apart as provincial electors are turning to the right, and a coalition of conservative leaders, led by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, stands ready to contest the federal government’s authority on several fronts in battles to be fought in the courts and, ultimately, at the ballot box.
Ottawa can win the battle over its carbon tax, but Trudeau will have to settle for compromises on other issues dear to the premiers’ hearts. Some of the issues may be anticipated. Others are bound to emerge appear out of the blue, and Trudeau may have to dance around them.
No one ever said Canada was easy to govern. It survives by dint of compromise, accommodation and consensus.
Or as Tommy Douglas, the saint of the Canadian left, put it: “Canada is like an old cow. The West feeds it. Ontario and Quebec milk it. And you can well imagine what it’s doing down in the Maritimes.”