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Justin Trudeau’s Truthiness Challenge: Is This Leadership?

February 12, 2017

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“Read my lips. No new taxes.”

Do you remember who uttered those now infamous words?

George H. W. Bush, who elevated from Ronald Reagan’s vice president to president, spoke those words at the 1988 Republican National Convention (written by speechwriter, and now political analyst, Peggy Noonan). Bush proved to be a competent president, though was the butt of never-ending satire from comedians. His undoing, despite huge success with his leadership of Desert Storm in 1990, was a sinking economy. Indeed, it was Bill Clinton’s advisor James Carville who made the made the famous comment: “It’s the economy, stupid!” during the 1992 national election campaign.

And that was the end of George H.W. Bush’s one-term presidency.

Telling the truth in politics has always been an elastic concept. The public long ago came to accept the grand imaginations and promises of politicians. And now, with the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States, the whole concept of truth-telling and what’s acceptable when it comes to the promises and statements from politicians has been severely jolted. There is no “truth” anymore, if one subscribes to Donald Trump’s distorted view of the world and his “alternate facts.” Take a moment to read What’s Your Leadership Truthiness Quotient?”

Let’s take a quick tour of the past to see what mischievous statements emanated from U.S. presidents.

Richard Nixon, when serving as a congressman and later as vice-president under President Dwight Eisenhower, enjoyed telling stories of crouching in foxholes during World War II. The truth was that he had a much safer experience during the War, serving in the Navy and unloading planes on Pacific islands.

In response to the media firestorm over the Iran-Contra issue, President Ronald Reagan told Americans in 1986: “We did not, I repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else [to Iran] for hostages, nor will we.” Four months later he admitted that his administration had actually done what he had denied.

And then there’s President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein had hidden weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), thus prompting the U.S. military’s invasion of that country. WMDs were never found.


Of course, American politicians aren’t the only Western leaders to lie. Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper boldly stated during his 2015 re-election campaign that the country had a $1.4 billion surplus, when in fact the Parliamentary Budget Office later discovered that it was a $1 billion deficit.

Now Canada has a rock star prime minister, going by the name of Justin Trudeau. The 45 year-old Montrealer has only been in politics for a few years, and prime minister for only a year and a half. However, what the former snow board instructor and high school teacher lacks in political and business experience, he makes up partially for his extroverted behaviour and love for taking selfies with adoring fans.

What Prime Minister Trudeau is especially adept at is making heart-felt promises, emotionally delivered, often with hand on heart. “You have my word” is the popular refrain, such as when he stated in a live broadcast that his top priority (and that of his justice minister as well) is to right the wrongs of Canada’s indigenous peoples.

Add to the mix his beautiful wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, another uber extrovert, and you have the two of them holding a hand over their heart as they deliver more heart-felt statements.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent surprise announcement that he was canceling the government’s voting reform process stunned many people, from political observers to voters to politicians. (A parliamentary committee of MPs worked tirelessly on the Electoral reform consultation process, which cost taxpayers $4.1 million.) Trudeau’s former minister of democratic institutions Maryam Monsef dropped the ball in 2016 and was demoted in a cabinet shuffle that preceded Trudeau’s announcement to stop the process at the beginning of February 2017.

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Trudeau’s explanation for his decision came up short. He didn’t use the expected excuse that with the election of Donald Trump Trudeau’s government would be going flat out trying to keep Canada’s relationship with the United States healthy. Rather, Trudeau came up with the contrived excuse that eliminating the “first-past-the-post” system (which often delivers majority governments) could produce election outcomes where disruptive factions are elected under “proportional representation.” Trudeau’s thinking included examples of far right-wing groups that would disrupt the country’s governance.

It’s interesting that Trudeau developed this thinking when it was becoming clear that his government was not going to be able to deliver on his 2015 election campaign promise that this would be Canada’s last first-past-the-post. Indeed, his government’s 2016 Speech from the Throne later on reasserted this promise.

The point is that it’s not the breaking of a political promise that’s the issue, it’s the manner in which Justin Trudeau makes such fanfare when delivering them. It’s the underlying emotion, sincerity and conviction, conveying the impression that this young prime minister actually has integrity.


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Justin Trudeau made over 200 promises when campaigning. This trudeau metre website notes his 233 promises, which is consistent with some other websites. Determining whether a promise has been kept or in progress isn’t the easiest task. And with the tsunami-type arrival of Donald Trump as president, Trudeau is having to react and re-position himself and his cabinet very quickly.

This is all the more to note that Trudeau was indeed a dilettante when he was elected leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and not long afterwards elected as prime minister with a first-past-the-post majority government. However, his government was elected with only 39.5% of the popular vote. This reinforces the importance of why Canada desperately needs an electoral reform process.

It boils down to this: Justin Trudeau’s convincing hand-on-heart promises, whether during his election campaign, town halls or attending a First Nations’ press conference, underly his personal cynicism and dis-respect of Canadian voters and the populace at large. It’s shameful, considering his unrelenting plea that he would lead a transparent and honest government in contrast to previous governments.

Prime Minister Trudeau will have his hands full entering the next national election (October 22, 2019) with such issues as: deficit-fueled stimulus spending, NAFTA’s successor, US relations, defense and security, international trade, infrastructure, federal-provincial relations, climate change, and so forth. He may wish to reflect on the words of the late Stephen Covey:

Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, and treating people with respect.

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