Liberal insiders insist it’s not the time for leadership plans. And yet several people who have worked closely with Joly don’t deny the job is among her ultimate ambitions.
Joly, said one senior advisor, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about a sensitive topic, is a “true Justin Trudeau team player,” suggesting she has every intention of waiting for her boss to decide on his future.
“Now, do I think she’s a leader? Absolutely,” said the insider, who has been close to Joly for almost a decade. “She has a lot of the qualities that we’d be looking for.”
Joly may not be the obvious choice to lead the Liberals, but then neither was Trudeau. Before taking over the party in 2013, he was widely viewed as too inexperienced to be prime ministerial material — no matter his lineage.
Her name is not the only one that comes up in chatter about Trudeau’s eventual replacement. It’s rarely the first one, either.
Prospect lists usually include Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Defense Minister Anita Anand, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne and former central banker Mark Carney.
Joly’s profiles at home and on the world scene are still developing. On Monday, she’ll deliver Canada’s address — and her first — to the United Nations General Assembly.
Gauging Joly’s leadership interest
Joly has traits that might endear her to members of the Liberal Party.
She’s an Oxford-educated lawyer and a seasoned political organizer. Joly is also a woman, a francophone and has a high profile in Quebec, a province that has long been key to the party’s electoral success.
In 2013, she established her own political party and emerged as a rising star during the mayoral election in Montreal, Canada’s second-biggest city.
Joly, a 34-year-old communications consultant at the time, gave former federal Liberal Cabinet minister Denis Coderre a serious challenge, coming about 5 points short.
A day or so after the Montreal vote, Trudeau called and urged Joly to run for the federal Liberals.
“I said to him, ‘Listen, I can’t, I’m in municipal politics. … He would periodically call me to say, ‘Mélanie you need to run, we want you to run.’”
In 2015, she won a Montreal riding as Trudeau first swept into power.
Even in those days, the Liberal leader’s job was in the back of her mind, a confidant and former colleague of Joly’s told Maclean’s in a 2016 profile. “It’s not for this moment, but she’s never hidden that she’s interested in being the leader of the Liberal party,” Stéphanie Raymond-Bougie said.
If ever she were to launch a leadership bid, Joly has significant campaign experience. “The political machinery around her is very well-endowed,” said a senior source who has worked closely with Joly. “She’s an organizer at heart.”
But the 43-year-old’s political aspirations are competing with her desire to have children.
“My goal is to represent, in the best possible way, Canada, around the world,” she said. “But meanwhile trying to do, through that, my [in vitro fertilization] cycles. I’m now in my ninth cycle.”
Joly has been public about her challenges in starting a family. It’s something she juggles with an intense international schedule that regularly keeps her outside of the country.
“I’ve had miscarriages and all of that [while] being a minister. … There’s never been a foreign minister that has been pregnant. I think it’s a huge challenge. But I hope I will be able to do both.”
Frank McKenna, a former New Brunswick premier and regular counselor to Joly, told POLITICO “she clearly has the gravitas and the energy” to be a prime minister.
“But, having said that, that is not what preoccupies her, at least in the conversations I have with her,” McKenna said. “She’s focused on being a really good foreign affairs minister and a good Cabinet colleague.”
A high profile demotion
To one day become Liberal leader, Joly would have to demonstrate she’s bounced back from a crisis that derailed her first Cabinet job.
In 2018, Trudeau handed Joly a significant demotion from the senior Heritage portfolio. The downgrade followed major controversies over how she handled and communicated the government’s cultural policies, particularly in her home province of Quebec.
Joly describes her time at Heritage as “intense and sometimes difficult.” She insists she learned from it, including what she says is the importance of getting out of the “Ottawa bubble” to connect with people on the ground.
After Heritage, Trudeau tasked Joly to oversee the far more junior Cabinet files of tourism, economic development, official languages and la Francophonie.