National AffairsPolitics

Author’s support for Trudeau waned while writing his book

By Susan Delacourt

Justin Trudeau may be wishing that Stephen Maher, author of a new book on the prime minister, was a faster writer.

The book, titled “The Prince,” is laced with some significant praise for Trudeau, but also some unflinching criticism, particularly as the story winds to its conclusion and the tale of the past year or so.

“If I had finished the book when I started it, it would have been more positive and cheerier,” Maher said in an interview with me this week.

Maher hands Trudeau credit for his handling of Donald Trump’s threats to the North American Free Trade Agreement and for the COVID pandemic in a way that certainly helped save Canadian lives.

But Maher clearly believes the Trudeau government has been foundering on two issues that have dominated the political headlines since late 2022: foreign policy and foreign interference in elections. “On both those files, I did not feel they were inspiring confidence.”

He has come to the conclusion, and it feels like it comes more from regret than anger, that it’s time for Trudeau to step aside.
It’s evident Maher received lots of co-operation from former principal secretary Gerald Butts for this tale, especially around events leading up to 2019, when Butts left the Prime Minister’s Office in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

Now a vice-chairperson with the Eurasia Group, Butts has kept a lower profile in recent years. Maher, who first came to Ottawa as a correspondent for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, said he believes that Butts, a Cape Bretoner, helped him because of their Nova Scotia connection. Butts echoed that, telling me he assisted with this book because of “N.S. solidarity,” but also because he was assured it wouldn’t be a hagiography.

It is definitely not the story of a saint, but Maher has made a compelling case to see Trudeau in the frame of a prince, with all the good and bad connotations attached to it.

Maher shines a light at many points on an aspect of Trudeau’s personality not well understood by those who only observe him from afar – the introvert, great at glad-handing in a room full of strangers, but aloof and distant, even with some in his own caucus. A few years ago, Trudeau confessed to being an introvert during an interview with me and his critics howled with disbelief.

But Maher, who talked to a lot of people on and off the record for this book, picks up on the recurrent accusations of princely distance, probably acquired after a lifetime in the spotlight as the son of a famous prime minister.

Maher, in talking to me, said it’s remarkable, when you think about it, how many former insiders are out there, writing their own books or talking to authors like him for “The Prince.”

“A lot of the people who I talked to had more ambiguous feelings, in that they were glad that they worked there, they’re happy with what they got to do, but have some sort of mixed feelings about Trudeau,” Maher says. “I don’t remember Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper or Jean Chrétien having so many former insiders who ended up on the outs.”

When you’re out with Trudeau, you’re really out. This surfaced early in his leadership, when he expelled Liberal senators from caucus, and has punctuated his time at the top, whether it’s swiftly cutting ties with errant MPs or bloodlessly rotating ministers out of his cabinet.

“I don’t mean to be particularly harsh. But there’s a sense in which it’s a celebrity operation,” Maher says. “And the celebrity is the key to the success of the whole thing … It is how they got into a majority, though.”

That’s very much the tone of the book – unafraid to point out what he sees as Trudeau’s flaws, but peppering the tale with ways in which Trudeau’s leadership has accrued some major accomplishments, whether that’s national child care, the child tax credit, and maybe most importantly, pulling Canada back from the polarized left-right division where it seemed headed as the 2015 election began.

“Reassembling a progressive coalition, establishing Canada again as a sort of progressive society, in contrast to Harper – I think that was an important thing, at least for those Canadians who see themselves as progressives,” Maher says.

While the book winds to a critical conclusion, Maher has refrained from any of the gratuitous, intensely personal insults that Trudeau seems to attract. “Why can’t people hate him in a normal way,” one of Trudeau’s team joked with me earlier this year.

Trudeau did sit down with Maher for an interview for this book and appears to have fielded the critical questions without rancour.

I’m told the PMO, collectively, is not aggrieved by the book and respects Maher’s right to hold an opinion.

The longer anyone is in power, the more criticism and even adversaries will accumulate, one aide said to me, philosophically.

In all, the book is a solid tale of how Trudeau navigated some extraordinary times in the life of this country. And it is, as Gerald Butts hoped, definitely not the story of a saint.

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