If anyone caught my thirty-second appearance on “The National” last Monday, it would have seemed as if I gave a glowing review of the federal Liberals’ decision to open up their leadership election to non-members of the party. Indeed, it is a remarkable thing for a party to grant the public access to what is perhaps its most important internal decision – even to members of the public whom might not necessarily be supporters of that party. Even more outstanding was their decision to allow voting for anyone over the age of 14. The whole sentiment rings with values of inclusion and engagement which ought to become more commonplace across all politics. This was the view I expressed in a brief clip of an interview I did with a CBC reporter at a recent Justin Trudeau visit to Nanaimo. That, however, was not all I had come to Trudeau’s rally to say about him and the Liberal Party.
It all began when I got a call on Tuesday, March 12th from someone at the Nanaimo-Alberni Liberal Association, who told me that CBC television wanted to do a story about young people getting involved in the leadership campaign, and that the Nanaimo Liberals had picked me out of their list of local supporters because of my age. I said okay to this, and a few hours later I got a call from someone at the CBC in Ottawa.
As it turned out, as it was explained to me, the CBC was really looking for someone who had not been interested in politics before, but who was getting involved now because he or she had been so “inspired” by Justin Trudeau and his apparently amazing ability to connect with young people. They figured that, because I was 18 years old and signed up as a supporter of the Liberal party, I must be a perfect fit for an interview at the Trudeau rally on Friday March 15th at the Port Theatre.
In fact, as I explained to the producer I was talking to, I had been interested in politics already, and was only singed up as a supporter of the Liberals so that I could vote for their leader. I explained that this did not necessarily mean that I was going to vote Liberal in 2015, nor did it mean that I was necessarily going to vote for Trudeau for leader. I continued by saying that, the way I saw it, whether or not I vote for the Liberals, they are one of the major parties, and therefore their choice of leader does have some impact on the country.
This didn’t seem to impress the CBC journalist very much, for he said that I “wasn’t really what they were looking for,” and that was the end of the call. A few minutes later, however, he called back and asked if I had any friends who might fit his description. I told him that I did not because, in my opinion, such people do not exist.
I went on to say that there is a very slim chance that an 18-year-old who previously had no interest in politics at all would be in any way involved in this particular leadership campaign because such people probably had no idea that this leadership race was happening in the first place. To that he admitted that he was finding it difficult to locate such young people. I told him that the fact that these starry-eyed young Trudeauites were so hard to find was probably due to the fact that the people at the CBC, most of whom are old enough to remember Mr. Trudeau’s father as prime minister, had overestimated Justin Trudeau’s reach into the consciousness of Canada’s youth, probably as a result of assuming that the Trudeaumania of the 1960’s would carry over into 2013. I pointed out that, from a journalistic perspective, such a story could easily be perceived to be a contribution, on the part of the CBC, to the cult of personality which surrounds Justin Trudeau, rather than making an attempt to penetrate deeper into what Justin himself actually stands for.
To my surprise, after I basically told him that their idea was terrible, the CBC producer called me back the next day and said that they had decided to “change their story a little bit,” and that they still wanted ask me a few quick questions on the Friday.
I went into the interview with a desire to express my concern about what I understand to be a cult of personality being created around someone who has done little to earn it other than to look nice and speak well. In talking to the CBC reporter, I mentioned that it has been Mr. Trudeau’s claim so far that putting out a policy platform is too much of a “top-down” exercise, and that somehow he was going to get ordinary people to come together and decide what the Liberal Party should stand for. This is a nice idea in theory, but it is a little vague. How does he plan to put such a thing into practice? Why, at a point where only a month remains in this six month campaign, have we not seen any results from such a practice? Where are all the policies that ordinary people are supposedly coming up with? These were questions that I raised in the majority of my interview, yet to my disappointment, none of it made the air. The news story’s narrator did make a brief point of saying that many people are skeptical of Justin Trudeau’s political substance, yet not one of the people they interviewed said anything to this effect – unless, of course, their criticisms of Trudeau were omitted as well.
In watching myself speak on television, I came to understand two things: the first was that in journalism, when a reporter has a story in mind, he will sometimes try to fit into that story the information which he finds, rather than create a story based on that information. I suppose that if I continue with this field I may find myself in a similar position some day.
The second thing I learned from speaking to the camera was that to communicate a political position effectively requires a certain set of precisely honed oratorial and publicity skills – skills which Justin Trudeau has in spades and which have been his greatest assets in this campaign. Even I have to admit that, when listening to him speak at the Port Theatre, I realized that he does indeed have a very engaging presence. The trouble is that the actual political positions appear to be missing from this equation. He has given an opinion or two on various political issues of the day, and at his rally in Nanaimo he gave a very good speech about the importance of Canadians sticking together, but I have yet to witness him put forward any policy ideas of his own.
This begs the question, therefore, as to what exactly this great communicator is selling us. Hope? Optimism? A salvation for progressive politics? These are all great things to talk about, but they are meaningless words without substantial plans of action by which they can be put into practice.
Despite these shortcomings on policy, the prevailing attitude of Trudeau supporters, and, it would seem, of the media, appears to be that putting the Liberals back on the map is the highest priority for the party right now. Such an approach may be helpful to the party in the short term, but sooner or later it will be again realized, as it was in 2011, that such an ambiguous platform will render it representative of essentially nothing at all, which is something that all the hope and optimism in the world cannot correct.
Progress is not something which can simply be wished for; it requires some tangible vehicle by which it can be achieved. We will not hope our way to better leadership and a better country; we must instead take it upon ourselves to seek out leaders for which we can provide some kind of mandate. But by electing leaders without demanding of then an outline of what they intend to do, we give them license to do either whatever they want, or to do nothing at all.