Trudeau will seek leadership of Canada’s Liberal Party

For better or worse, Justin Trudeau is expected to announce next Tuesday that he will seek the leadership of the beleaguered Liberal Party in Canada.

Trudeau, the son of beloved former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, is the last, perhaps best, hope of an endangered party.  As John Ibbitson noted in The Globe and Mail yesterday, Trudeau’s assets make him an almost prohibitive favorite.

At age 40, however, the Montréal-area MP has been a member of the House of Commons since just 2008, and he will face doubts that he’s seasoned enough to become prime minister.

If he wins the leadership, he’ll first face the task of winning back supporters from the New Democratic Party, who made such incredible inroads in the 2011 election under the late Jack Layton that they far eclipsed the Liberals to become the Official Opposition and the main alternative to prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party.

Currently, polls show the NDP, under new leader Thomas Mulcair, within striking distance of the Tories and Liberals trailing in distant third place.  But a National Post poll today shows that the Trudeau-led Liberals would win 39% to just 32% for Harper and 20% for the NDP.  Those numbers, I believe, represent a best-case scenario for Trudeau — when he really represents nothing more than nostalgia for his father and before he’s had to contend through a long leadership fight and go head-to-head against not only Harper, but Mulcair as well.  Trudeau will have to sideline the NDP (or otherwise engineer a merger or alliance with the NDP) and then win not only a sizeable number of ridings in Quebéc, but also in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada.

There will be much more to say in the months leading up to the leadership race — it doesn’t start until November 14 and it won’t end until April 14, 2013.  Since the 2011 election that saw the Liberals reduced to just 34 seats, former (NDP) Ontario premier Bob Rae has served as interim leader.

There will a lot of rebuilding for whomever wins the leadership — and since Rae himself ruled out running for the leadership in a permanent capacity earlier in June, it’s seemed like the leadership is Trudeau’s for the taking, despite a number of candidates also expected to run — the most serious potential challengers to Trudeau include Dominic LeBlanc, a New Brunswick MP since 2000 and currently the party’s foreign affairs critic and, perhaps more intriguingly, Marc Garneau, a retired astronaut and former president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2006, who has served as an MP since 2008, also from Montréal, and is the current Liberal House Leader.  Each candidate will pay a $75,000 entry fee — it’s thought the steep price will limit the number of contenders to just serious challengers, and campaign spending will be capped at $950,000.

It’s difficult to fathom just how far the Liberals have fallen in just little over a decade.

The ‘Grits’ governed Canada for nearly eight decades of the 20th century, and as recently as the 2000 election, won 172 out of the 301 seats then in the Canadian House of Commons under prime minister Jean Chrétien.  Under his successor, Paul Martin, who struggled to make the leap from finance minister to prime minister, the Liberals sunk to 135 seats (out of 308) in the 2004 election, reducing Martin to a minority government.  By 2006, Harper’s Tories defeated the Liberals for his own minority government, leaving the Liberals reduced to just 103 seats.

That’s when things got really bad.  The Liberals elected former environmental minister Stéphane Dion to succeed Martin, but the Dion-era Liberals fared even more poorly in the 2008 election, when they won just 77 seats.  After Dion, the Liberals turned to academic and author Michael Ignatieff, who oversaw the 2011 debacle, when Harper’s Tories won their first majority government, the NDP under Jack Layton became the Official Opposition and the Liberals won just 19% of the vote — the only province the Liberals won was Newfoundland.

Trudeau’s father, like Trudeau based in Montréal, served as prime minister from 1968 to 1984 (except for a nine-month period from June 1979 to March 1980), and many Canadians today — on both sides of the ideological divide — consider him Canada’s finest prime minister.  As justice minister in 1967, Trudeau worked to liberalize laws on once-taboo subjects like homosexuality, abortion and divorce.  In 1968, he took control of the Liberal Party — at 48, he represented the generational change of his own era — on the wave of what was then called ‘Trudeaumania.’

As prime minister, Trudeau’s tenure was marked by the thorny questions of federalism — he implemented bilingualism as a federal policy, went head-to-head against René Lévesque in the 1980 referendum on Quebéc sovereignty and won with 60% support, and later disappointed many Quebeckers when he patriated the Constitution in Canada in 1982, essentially locating constitutional power in Canada, not with the United Kingdom, an issue that proved controversial among Canada’s provincial premiers.  Canada’s economy had a bit of a turbulent spell during much of Trudeau’s tenure, and his government boosted Canada’s debt and alienated Western Canadians in its search to federalize the gains of Western Canada’s mineral wealth.

The former prime minister died in 2000 — and his son Justin’s eulogy was thought at the time to be the opening act in what has led to this week’s announcement that he will seek to follow in his father’s footsteps.

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