Duncan Cameron
Justin and the hyphenated Liberals

| April 16, 2013
Photo: Adam Scotti/Justin Trudeau/Flickr

On Sunday the Liberal Party of Canada elected an untried and untested Montreal MP as leader. But there is more to the story than the Conservative Party line: " ... in a time of global economic uncertainty, he doesn't have the judgment or experience to be prime minister."

Unlike other new leaders, Justin Trudeau needs no introduction to Canadians. From the day of his birth (Christmas Day, 1971) he has been a celebrity. The 24 Sussex Drive official residence he wants Stephen Harper to pack up and leave is where he spent the first 12 years of his life. 

Justin had a significant early political education. Few young people have had the advantage of discussing politics at breakfast and dinner with Pierre Trudeau, a life-long student of public affairs, as well as being prime minister of Canada from 1968 to 1979, and again from 1980 to 1984. Not many MPs have childhood memories of world leaders acquired travelling with the prime minister on political trips abroad.

Justin does not come over as an intellectual. But intellectuals do not often make successful politicians, preferring to debate rather than converse, and win arguments, not friendly support.

Unlike his father, who notoriously disliked campaigning, Justin invests in party politics: he had to fight for a Liberal Party riding nomination, and to win his seat in 2008, and again in 2011. His six-month campaign for the Liberal leadership showed he can attract supporters. People want to meet him, get to talk to him, and tell him what they think. No political figure asks for more.

The problems facing Justin Trudeau have little to do with his experience, and a lot to do with the party he now leads. No obvious Liberal themes or policy ideas emerged in the leadership debates held across Canada, not from Justin, nor from anyone else.

Figuring out when, where, and how to define what the party stands for (other than not being the Conservatives, and not being the NDP) remains undecided. In his first speech as leader, Justin did not mention jobs, incomes, or name any economic sector.

Justin did tell Liberals gathered in Ottawa for the voting results that the party could no longer be made up of Chrétien Liberals or Martin Liberals, it had to be a party of un-hyphenated Liberals.

Historically, the Liberals have had a social welfare wing, and a big business wing. In the 1990s, while Chrétien and Martin fought about when Jean should leave, and why Paul should take over, they agreed the big business wing could prevail over the social welfare wing. Welfare state spending was undermined in the 1995 Liberal budget, and then in the 2000 budget, $100 billion in tax cuts were given to corporations and the wealthy (a.k.a. the 1 per cent).

The party Justin Trudeau inherits has a hyphen; it's a pro-business Liberal party.

The Liberal Party lost its historical base (going back to Laurier's win in 1896) in French-speaking Quebec to the Mulroney Conservatives in 1984, and later to the Bloc Québeçois. The three majority Chrétien governments were centred in Ontario, and Anglophone and Allophone Quebec.

While Canadians were surprised to see Quebec with 75 total seats -- electing 59 NDP MPs in the 2011 Orange Wave -- the Liberals acquired an unexpected adversary. In electing Justin Trudeau, the Liberals expect to get Quebec back, need it back, in order to form a government.

The Liberal Party Justin leads has trouble accepting that in Quebec, protection of the French language and culture is more important than being part of Canada. One Canada is easier to explain outside Quebec, than recognizing Quebec forms a distinct society. The easier way will not re-establish its base in Quebec for the Liberals, Justin or no Justin.

Finding a way to assure that an autonomous Quebec can be secure in the Canadian federation is a challenge to any party. It is one that until now, the Liberal Party has preferred not to recognize.

In its effort to mobilize Canadians, the Liberal Party can point to over 120,000 people who voted Sunday for its leader; and Justin can be pleased that over 80 per cent voted for him.

Turning those party members and newly signed up "supporters" (those not members of any party who considered themselves Liberal in outlook and wished to vote without actually joining the LPC) into serious party donors will be the real test.

While the Harper Conservatives can point to 110,000 loyal donors, the Liberal Party is broke. Indeed with no money, and many organizational weaknesses, PM Harper may well be tempted to provoke an early election, so as to catch the Liberals (and the NDP) off guard.

To wish Justin ill, the Harper Conservatives launched their campaign-themed website the day after his election.

New Democratic insiders say focus groups show the more people see of Justin the less they find him appealing.

The reality is that nobody knows how well Justin Trudeau will do as Liberal leader. He has to redo his party. That will be the test that tells the story.

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

Photo: Adam Scotti/Justin Trudeau/Flickr


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