Let the Justin Trudeau scandal be a lesson: seemingly pristine leaders will always let us down

We need to be clear about our red lines. The Canadian prime minister's treatment of his whistle-blowing colleagues shouldn't be glossed over just because we like the way he stands up to Trump

Emma Burnell
Wednesday 03 April 2019 17:57 BST
Justin Trudeau kicked out two former ministers whose accusations of political meddling have jeopardised his re-election bid.
Justin Trudeau kicked out two former ministers whose accusations of political meddling have jeopardised his re-election bid.

Must our politicians disappoint? That is the question that is keeping some of us on the liberal left up at night.

The latest let down is Justin Trudeau. He of the bilingual social media, refugee welcoming press stunts and (somewhat performative) feminism. While Trudeau was never as left wing as many of us economically, his leadership style on social issues did seem like a breath of fresh air. He appeared to be willing to take action that went against the narrative of the day, making genuinely tough decisions on issues like immigration where the easy option would have been to turn people away.

Trudeau had transformed his party from within rebuilding it in his younger, cooler image. Now, he stands accused by two female former cabinet colleagues of corruption. His response? To throw these whistle-blowers out of the Liberal Party. The disappointment is profound.

So Trudeau is human after all. His once fleet feet are made of clay. Yes another hero falls from their perch.

You think we would be used to this by now. It’s hardly the first time that a liberal leader has let down the highest values of the people they represent.

Take Tony Blair for example. It’s sometimes hard to remember now, after Iraq or the questionable private sector work of his post-premiership years, but Blair was once nicknamed "Teflon Tony" because he was seen to be able to do no wrong.

New Labour’s first big scandal was as early as 1997 over a donation from the head of Formula One and a subsequent allegation that the government had exempted the sport from a ban on tobacco advertising as a result.

Blair’s defence was that he was “A pretty straight sort of a guy.” And this largely worked because, at the time, the left of all but the most extreme hues were still caught up in the euphoria of defeating the Tories for the first time in 18 years.

Fast forward a few years, and many of the same people who had been cheering Blair outside the Albert Hall on the dawn of his election were among those now marching down Whitehall in their hundreds of thousands calling for his resignation over Iraq. His relationship with the majority of his former supporters never recovered and indeed deteriorated ever further.

For those of us who believe that those in public service working for a better state are doing something we passionately believe is a good thing to do, there is a real danger of falling into the trap of believing that these ideals can only be delivered by ideal people. But the truth is they are delivered by people as flawed as the rest of us.

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We expect a lot from our political leaders. So much so that they are bound to disappoint. But should we expect a kind of perfection from them we could never deliver ourselves? Is there a refugee whose life has been changed by Trudeau’s policies that would exchange that for this scandal not happening? Should Labour disown the minimum wage because it was introduced by a leader that let them down so badly elsewhere?

We do need to be clear about what our red lines are. We shouldn’t forgive Blair for the bloodshed of the Iraq War nor of the chaos and loss of trust in politics that followed it just because we think he’s right over Europe. Trudeau’s imperious treatment of his whistle-blowing colleagues should not be glossed over as if it meant nothing just because we like the way he stands up to Trump.

For public service to be the unalloyed good the liberal left believe it should be, we have to learn to be more grown up about those that deliver it. Both the hero worship and the demonisation come from a desire to believe that politicians are different from the rest of us. But we don’t just get the politicians we deserve, we get the politicians we are: weak, strong, courageous, stupid, clever and human.

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