Wednesday, 19 December 2012

On Justin Trudeau's (Contested) Liberal Leadership

Much of the response, of late, to Justin Trudeau is a testament to the complete lack of complexity in Canadian political discourse. Already we have been subjected to several polls telling us that Trudeau will be Prime Minister in three years. As Rex Murphy pointed out on the National a few weeks back, the absurdity inherent in these polls should be an embarrassment to the firms who conducted them and the media outlets that reported them as “news”. Trudeau has not even become leader of the federal Liberals yet. Nor has he faced any real test of his leadership. Most importantly, the election is three years away. For all we know we could have a new Prime Minister before then. Or a new leader of the opposition. The point is, three years is a long time in politics and to try and gauge how voter's are going to vote three years out is an exercise in futility. The excitement amongst the liberal establishment was palpable upon Trudeau's announcement and the speculation has not ceased since then. Canada's liberal media was nuanced --as it usually is in regards to inherent bias-- in its gaiety. Nonetheless, one senses a level of excitement around Trudeau that certainly has not existed since at least, well, Micheal Ignatieff. There is a strong cult of personality surrounding Trudeau, largely based not on his own personality but that of his deceased father's, that seems familiar ground for federal Liberals and indicates a vast problem within the Liberal party.

Apparently their are corners of this country where the name Trudeau invokes emotions of nostalgia. The name elicits a positive reaction and familiarity amongst younger generations that do not have first hand experience of his leadership; undoubtedly high school teachers have successfully glorified the name. And that is what all the hoopla comes down to. A name. Because there is very little else Canadians have to judge Mr. Trudeau by. The limited amount of time Mr. Trudeau has spent in the political arena has been accompanied by a whole lot of style and very little substance. What's worse is that the moments of substance should be moments of pause for Liberals who wish to bring their party back to prominence. Mr. Trudeau has been extremely gaffe prone. One can be sure, particularly with the strategies that the Conservatives have been employing lately, that there is a bank of ridiculous, divisive statements just waiting for the 'right time' to be released. Trudeau is already known as behaving childishly in the House of Commons, for saying things he later has to clarify or apologize for; he's an amateur. Yet again, however, the Liberal Party have found a poster boy and they're going to run with him. Forget about the rebuilding, the soul-searching that every MP was saying they had to do after the last election. Justin Trudeau, with his pretty face, and his pretty hair, and ... those nice eyes? Is going to single handedly revive the Liberal brand.

We have been witnessing the slow and painful death of the Liberal party for many years now. The question of when it began is a difficult one but warning signs easily appeared in the Chretien days. The Liberal Party is a party built on “big ideas”. When is the last big idea you heard come out of the Liberal Party? The party became so successfully branded that Liberals came to rely on only that brand, neglecting all of the ideas and grass-root supporters behind that brand. Now it's an empty shell of what it once was. Trudeau's dad wrecked the party out west. Now that the west is “in”, the same attitudes that alienated the Liberals from wide swaths of Western and Prairie Canadians also alienates them from even wider swaths in these regions as well as Canadians in Ontario who, rightly, see their interests as aligned with the West. In 2011 the Liberals were elected in only 4 seats west of the GTA. There own leader was given the boot. That is not just terrible it is abysmal. It was their fourth straight federal election where they lost seats. You would think after all this, after becoming increasingly irrelevant to an increasing number of Canadians, the party would be due for some soul-searching. For some big ideas. For some substance. Instead they continue to stress branding over substance. Problem is, guys, you don't really have much of a brand anymore.

Trudeau is not going to save this party. My worry is that he may be the nail in the coffin. Liberals cannot pin all their hopes for their party on this guy. It's not fair and it's not right. They need to be focusing on re-branding themselves, creating a new electoral path to success, crunching numbers, reaching out to new voters, building up new fund-raising apparatus; they need to take a page out of the Conservative handbook circa 2004. If the Liberals can do that then maybe they can revive their brand and for the first time in decades, make real political inroads. Doing the same thing they did with Ignatieff though –placing all their hopes on a one-man strategy-- is a surefire way to increase their irrelevance.

Maybe one day Trudeau could make a great leader –I personally will not hold my breath-- and this leadership contest will surely give him some much needed experience. But for him to get what he needs out of it, for the party to get what it needs out of it, it needs to be a real contest. And, if Liberals really know what is best for them, it should be a contest that he ultimately loses. In another several years then maybe, just maybe, Justin Trudeau might be ready for prime-time.

I hope for the sake of a healthy Canadian democracy, that Liberals make the smart choice. Not the obvious one. Not the easy one. Justin Trudeau is not ready for prime-time and the Liberal Party is not ready for Justin Trudeau as leader. If Liberals really want to fulfill the prophesy of a resurrected Liberal Party with another Trudeau at the helm they need a lot more time and hard-work because otherwise what they're asking for is a miracle.   


  1. Much as your analysis is correct, I'm afraid most of the "powers that be" in the LPC have been blinded by the lust for power and easy solutions that any serious consideration of issues, sustainability , platform, grassroots outreach etc. have been left in the dust.

    The real danger is the death of the LPC means that one day, when the CPC becomes tired or complacent, the NDP will become Canada's governing party.

  2. I unfortunately find myself agreeing 100%. And that end result is scary.