It was the answer that left many of even his most ardent admirers scratching their heads.
Justin Trudeau, then running for the leadership of his party in 2013, was given a lob-ball question from a supporter at a “Ladies Night” meet-and-greet in Toronto: “Which nation, besides Canada, which nation’s administration do you most admire, and why?”
The future prime minister’s odd answer: “You know, there’s a level of admiration I actually have for China ….”
China? Why China?
“Because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say ‘we need to go green fastest…we need to start investing in solar.'”
One general election and two trips as prime minister of Canada to China later, Trudeau stood before Canadian reporters at a press conference in Beijing Tuesday and was asked if he would like a do-over on the same question. “Do you still admire China more than any other country?” I asked. “And if not, what is the country you most admire other than Canada?”
Trudeau took a big sigh.
Mine was the 14th and last question in a 30-minute press conference in which Canadian reporters had grilled him mostly about the state of discussions with Chinese leaders about the potential for formal negotiations on a Canada-China free trade deal. A couple of questions as to how he was advancing the cause of freedom of expression, human rights, and the rule of law while he was in China were also in the mix.
WATCH: Canada’s trade minister remains in Beijing, trying for agreement
And now, at the end of all that, the question which, it seemed clear from his body language, he seemed to expect was coming. And here he was in Beijing, of all places, hours before meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping — who, by just about any definition, would qualify as a “basic dictator” — being asked about his controversial four-year-old remarks.
It’s useful to remember that, back then, he was the front-runner in a race to be the leader of the third party in Parliament. The NDP was the Official Opposition. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were the government.
Here is the full answer Trudeau gave to the question put to him four years ago, in November 2013, at a “Justin Unplugged” event. It was the event organizer, Amanda Alvaro, a public relations professional and frequent Liberal pundit on political talk shows, who asked him: ““Which nation, besides Canada, which nation’s administration do you most admire, and why?”
He answered: “You know, there’s a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say ‘we need to go green fastest…we need to start investing in solar.’ I mean there is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted that I find quite interesting.
“But if I were to reach out and say which … which kind of administration I most admire, I think there’s something to be said right here in Canada for the way our territories are run. Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon are done without political parties around consensus. And are much more like a municipal government. And I think there’s a lot to be said for people pulling together to try and solve issues rather than to score points off of each other. And I think we need a little more of that.”
WATCH: Canada’s trade mission in China yields uncertainty
The back end of that answer — his admiration for the way politics are done in Canada’s territories — was largely overlooked and his opponents and many pundits took him to task for his “level of admiration” for China.
And this week in Beijing, it was clear that it was the second part of the 2013 answer that remained uppermost in Trudeau’s mind. Here is the full answer he gave this week when asked once again “what is the country you most admire other than Canada?”
Trudeau said: “I have had the opportunity to travel around the world all my life and to see a broad range of countries with strengths and weaknesses and I’ve always brought those to bear when reflecting on our own system. As we look at electoral structures, which is one of the questions that was specifically asked, we’ve had a certain level of discussions around electoral and democratic reform in Canada that leave me looking to the mother of all parliaments. Obviously, the U.K. does a significantly better job than us in programming legislation and getting that through the House. I think there is issue to admire on that.
“On the other hand, we were glad to adopt the prime minister’s question period model from the U.K. I think there’s lots to draw on when you look at our democratic structures from the mother of all parliaments.”