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Notes on the Liberal leadership races

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A veritable orgy of Liberal leadership races have transfixed Canadians. Well, three, anyway. In Quebec, Dr. Phillippe Couillard will be the easy winner, which curbs the enthusiasm somewhat. But in Ontario and the Dominion at large, the thrill is palpable.

The Ontario Liberal Party is about to choose a woman as leader and, at least for a moment, the province's premier. But far more remarkable than their sex, the two frontrunners, Kathleen Wynne and Sandra Pupatello, offer an unusually stark contrast in policy, personality and prospects.

A Pupatello government would offer a major challenge to Tim Hudak and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, now in full Tea Party mode. Premier Pupatello would run a business-oriented government with occasional perfunctory nods to the Liberals' liberal wing. She comes directly from Bay Street (although she presents herself as still a Windsor girl) and to Bay Street she will promptly return if defeated.

But as premier she would come out fighting in that macho Windsor style she has perfected over the years: an attack dog armed with brass knuckles, as TVO's Steve Paikin described her hard-earned reputation. Many conservative Ontarians would feel very much at home under a Pupatello government, giving the NDP a huge swath of the centre-left for itself.

Kathleen Wynne would be the almost diametric opposite. As Premier, Ms. Wynne would make it difficult for the NDP to attack her government or -- more menacingly to New Democrats -- make the party somewhat superfluous at election time. She would of course genuflect to the business community, as all Ontario premiers must do, and be fiscally cautious, as every politician today must, but her heart would be on the progressive side.

Ms. Wynne says she's always been motivated by a commitment to social justice and we should believe her. A class act, she speaks thoughtfully, not bombastically, has studied conflict resolution at Harvard, and genuinely believes in bringing people together. She's shown she has the courage to consider unpopular policies, as with the GTA's mind-boggling traffic crisis, while the smooth Ms. Pupatello feigns outspokenness yet is slippery to pin down. Typically enough, Ms. Pupatello barely gave a straight answer to a single question Steve Paikin asked during their interview.

The logic is inescapable. As Ms. Pupatello threatens Tim Hudak, so does Ms. Wynne threaten Andrea Horwath. For Ontario Liberals, the choices are clear.

For Canadian Liberals, the leadership issue is of a different magnitude entirely. The question is whether anyone but Justin Trudeau will get a single vote. For Mr. Trudeau is proving all his critics dead wrong.

Mr. Trudeau began his ascension with a bad rap -- that he was nothing but an empty suit, a pretty boy with nice hair and unusual taste in clothes. As of last weekend's first Liberal leadership debate, that slur has been definitively put to rest.

We can now see that those soaring, vacuous statements that Mr. Trudeau loves, when examined with the proper rigour, prove to be full of depth. They are the very essence of the radical centre: No substance, yet somehow inspirational. Halls and living rooms crowded with cult-like devotees knows exactly what he means when he exhorts them to change the world one step at a time yet shrewdly refuses to reveal what in the world that might mean.

Not everyone would have the moxy to refuse to present a platform until he becomes leader. Not everyone would have the sheer gutsiness to declare that the new Liberal party must be "bold," and that the new leader must have a "very, very clear vision of where we're going forward" without sharing that very, very bold and clear vision.

If bereft of gravitas, Mr. Trudeau is indeed rich in charisma. Though youngish, he is yet mature enough to know that Liberal leadership races, like Liberal election campaigns, are no time for policies, and he has forthrightly refrained from offering any. Such exercises, he boldly affirms, should be about "thought processes" and "values." So the humble candidate eschews policies, focusing instead on "listening" and having "conversations." But not merely conversations. He demands nothing less than "honest, open, strong conversations," which are surely far better than the other kind.

Mr. Trudeau's commitment to listening also, I believe, helps explain an embarrassing incident that is quietly dogging his campaign. Just before Christmas, he missed a crucial parliamentary vote on an NDP motion to enable affordable generic AIDS drugs for Africa to be manufactured in Canada. It was a hugely important bill, the government was perversely opposed, the vote was expected to be extremely tight, Mr. Trudeau was firmly committed to it.

Yet he ended up missing the vote to attend a leadership meeting in Brockville, Ont. Naturally, he had to go to listen and to have conversations about values with the good folks of Brockville. Hopefully they were strong, open, honest conversations. The bill lost by seven votes. For AIDS activists, this initiative was a kind of Holy Grail. Many of them are Liberals or potential Liberals, perplexed by Mr. Trudeau's choice. I'm afraid they simply don't get it. Conversations are what the man is all about. It appears that the former Natural Governing Party believes no more is required of their next leader.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Paul Schreiber/Flickr


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