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Trudeau and Ardern: The promise of an oncoming storm

Two years ago, Cass Mason was living in Toronto for the unexpected rise of Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau in Canada's federal election. Our own election is bringing back memories as 'Jacindamania' increasingly mirrors the 'Trudeaumania' that took Canada by storm. 

If “sunny ways” and “relentlessly positive” got into a fight, who would win? Some of us might succumb to nausea ahead of the verdict, but it would probably be a fair match.

Two years ago, Canadians were poised for a humdrum and predictable federal election. Despite deep-seated inner-city distress over Stephen Harper’s conservative three-term reign, his party was comfortably ahead in the polls. It was a done deal; the Tories were safe - little could touch them. Enter the son of a popular former prime minister touting feminism, positivity and something to say about the refugee crisis.

It was the longest election period in Canadian history - 70 days - and had been called early by Harper in a misjudgment equal to that of Theresa May.

Canada’s federal system differs in that it’s still FPP, and three-party: the Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party. A late crash and burn from the NDP left the contest one of blue and red.

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau ran on an oath of change, a pledge of fairness, and a view to reinvigorate Canada’s stale presence on the world stage. It was as intoxicating as it seemed unlikely.

The turnaround in the polls was swift and unexpected.

‘Trudeaumania’ was first popularised by Trudeau’s charismatic father, Pierre, a former Canadian prime minister widely remembered - among other things - as the man behind that terrific maple leaf flag, and for doing pirouettes behind the Queen. 

Both father and son swept to power on their own brand of ‘Trudeaumania’, and the way things are looking, the ‘Jacindamaina’ that blindsided us on August 1 could well take Ardern to the top on September 23.

Having since moved home from Canada, this feels like similar territory - in more ways than one.  

Firstly, Trudeau had the advantage of his political family, but he was fresh: he had worked as a bouncer, a ski bum, and had even lost his shirt for some kind of charity boxing match.

Harper used it every chance he got. Trudeau became just “Justin”. “Justin isn’t ready yet. He’s just not ready.” Photos of his mop-like hair and ruddy grin popped up at opportune moments, but if anything this worked against Harper. Most young people are allergic to condescension and the tactic backfired.

Ardern differs in not having the political family, but she’s young - and lacks Bill English’s experience. There were murmurs about this when she first took over from Andrew Little, but the line of criticism has evolved into a cry that her policies are just not well thought-out. Condescending? A little. Did it backfire? Ask Steven Joyce. However, her reluctance to commit to tax changes is proving difficult to defend against accusations of not having thought things through. 

The two also share a promise of diversity. Trudeau’s quip “Because it’s 2016” when asked about gender equality in his cabinet ricocheted across the news and social media, reverberating with the promise of a new playing field for women. 

As a woman running with a Māori deputy, diversity is implicit. Ardern has said she can't promise 50/50 men and women in her own cabinet - likely due to the limitations of MMP - but promised a gender-equal caucus.

Most recently, Labour’s media policy - a $38 million pledge to expand RNZ and NZ on Air - is reminiscent of Trudeau’s vow to revive the ailing CBC, which had suffered not just a funding freeze under Harper’s government, but drastic cutbacks to almost all of its programmes.

Trudeau also enjoyed the support of staunchly liberal Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne who has comparable clout in that province to that of Phil Goff in Auckland. New Zealand doesn’t get quite as excited about formal endorsements, but having Goff in the mayoralty in our biggest city can only help Ardern.

Ultimately, Trudeau and Ardern share a platform of ‘change’. Not unusual for the Opposition, but in both cases, said change seemed more urgent than before. This might have something to do with the challengers themselves - both clearly different from their predecessors and with an inexplicable energy we might even call “stardust”.

This wouldn’t be a complete comparison without a look at the incumbents. Both older, white men at the heads of governments which had lost momentum after three terms at the helm, Bill English and Stephen Harper are similar, if not in character, then in being faced with a last-minute fight neither saw coming.

To be fair, English and the National Party have dealt with the turn of events with more grace than their Canadian counterparts. Just weeks out from the 2015 election, grasping for points, Harper did the unthinkable: he enlisted Toronto punchline, former mayor Rob Ford.

The late Ford gained notoriety as the star of a series of tapes showing him smoking crack, threatening to kill, and rattling off a long list of racist and homophobic slurs. Ford had already endorsed Harper, but images of their joint event in Toronto was a step too far. It wasn’t a scrape of the barrel - the bottom of the barrel collapsed, spilling its crude contents for all the world to see. It’s understandable why Harper would want to harness the 'Ford Nation' voter base - Ford had an enormous amount of support in the Greater Toronto Area - but the mayor’s fall from grace had been so spectacular, the alliance stank of death. 

Then Harper suffered a crushing defeat. MMP means things could still go a number of ways in our own election, but should Ardern triumph, we can only wait to see if she will be in a position to keep her word.

Trudeau is still popular globally. He cuts an almost celebrity figure, and his bromance with Barack Obama is the stuff dreams are made of. But his longest and most fervent supporters - the Canadian labour unions - were ultimately let down by the young leader’s optimistic promises. 

Among these, Trudeau campaigned on the unfairness of the country’s Temporary Foreign Workers Programme, and promised to repeal key anti-union legislation. 

The Liberals failed to change the foreign workers laws, actually using exemptions to extend them, and despite a strong start repealing some anti-union legislation, momentum slowed considerably.

So for now, ‘relentlessly positive’ and ‘sunny ways’ are the antidote to a growing disgruntlement with the status quo. It’s easy to be positive at the outset, but should Ardern win this, it might be best if the similarities stop there. 

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