Liberals hoping celebrity appeal revives the party

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It is an open secret that Liberal partisans want Justin Trudeau to lead the party. The only other serious contenders stepped aside. Interim leader Bob Rae opted not to run, and New Brunswick MP Dominique LeBlanc decided he would support his friend since childhood, Justin.

Yet, eight other candidates showed up to the first Liberal Party of Canada leaders' debate in Vancouver Sunday afternoon. Some want to increase their stature in the party. Others have ideas they want to see debated.

Justin Trudeau is in the race to win, obviously, while MP Marc Garneau expects to win, only if Justin falters badly.

Of the nine officially in the race, three (David Bertschi, Karen McCrimmon, George Takach) are paying the $75,000 required fee for each candidate to secure a riding nomination, or even a seat in the House of Commons. Brave citizens, they stand out as futile leadership candidates. Surely, for the good of the party, and the sanity of debate organizers, all three will leave the race before it is over April 14, if only because they run out of funds. None are going to come near the spending limit per candidate of $950,000.

Two candidates, Martin Cauchon, and Martha Hall Findlay, are former MPs who lost last time, and hope the race will help them regain lost stature within the party. In the first formal leadership event, both came out chiding and testing the leading candidate in direct debate.

When she announced her 2013 bid, Hall Findlay had barely finished paying off her debts from her last leadership try, six years ago, when she finished last. She may well see herself the next leader; few others are likely to share this perspective.

Cauchon has the advantage of being a former cabinet minister, and the disadvantage of being a former cabinet minister in the Chrétien government responsible for Quebec patronage around the time of the sponsorship scandal. He was dropped from cabinet by Paul Martin when he took office, which may or may not be a plus.

Candidate Deborah Coyne has an impressive policy package (summary with footnoted links to 20 policy papers she has prepared) featured on her website. Her work could serve the Liberal party well, when it prepares its platform for the next election.

With a background as law professor, constitutional activist, federal Liberal caucus researcher, and author, Coyne is a one-person think tank. Many of her ideas would represent a distinct improvement over the present government, or of Liberal governments since the 1990s.

Coyne ran for Parliament in 2006, losing to Jack Layton, and has not run again. As with five others in the race, the lack of a House of Commons seat makes her candidacy easy to dismiss, despite in her case the seriousness of purpose she brings to the race.

Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray entered the race with an important proposal to offer the party membership. She is asking Liberals to recognize that beating Stephen Harper in 2015 is so important to Canada that the party must prepare the ground by adopting a plan for electoral co-operation.

Murray wants Liberals to ask Canadians from the opposition parties to co-operate to defeat Conservatives in ridings where the Conservatives won with less than 50 per cent of the votes, by choosing to support the opposition candidate with the best chance to win.

Interestingly, at the Vancouver event, a questioner from the floor pointed out that electoral co-operation was nothing new. In the 1926 election, the Liberals had electoral pacts with the Progressives and the Liberal-Progressives which helped them to defeat the Conservatives.

In B.C. provincial politics, coalition candidates and coalition parties have often been used to block CCF and NDP candidates.

Murray could have an impact on the race if she signs up enough people in the "supporters" category the Liberals introduced to attract new blood to the party. These supporters can vote without being a party member.

However, for Murray to mobilize extensive extra-parliamentary opposition to the Harper regime to back her proposal, and her candidacy, seems like a step too far at this point in the race. In Vancouver, no other leadership candidates warmed to the idea of electoral co-operation, betting Liberal partisans want to rebuild the party first, and think about beating Harper later.

Two candidates have a status with the public that transcends politics. Former astronaut Marc Garneau (I circulated the Earth 450 times, do not ask me if I get the environment) and Justin Trudeau are both legitimate Canadian celebrities. Justin Trudeau has more name recognition than the Governor-General or any cabinet minister, and is as well known as the prime minister.

Those Canadians over 50 remember when Justin was born, and even more saw him grow up. For a cover story on his candidacy, Maclean's produced a gigantic Justin photo spread. Half the photos portrayed him as child, and the other half showed him with his wife and children. No regular political figure gets this treatment.

As a celebrity candidate, Trudeau just has to show up. Saying little is the best strategy, and so far he is following it. There is no denying Liberals want to see him, meet him, talk to him, and hand him advice. In sharp contrast with Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau is easy to like, and friendly. Since his boxing triumph, there is less talk of him being a goof-off.

Justin Trudeau does not have to be an intellectual like his father to lead his party. But his party is strapped for funds, has lost its historic base in Quebec, and all Trudeau is offering is to protect the middle class.

Liberals are counting on the Harper Conservatives to self-destruct, much like the Mulroney Conservatives did in 1993 (behind Kim Campbell), and for Canadians to see them as government-in-waiting thanks to their young new leader with charismatic appeal.


Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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