Trudeau now all but certain to become Liberal leader in Canada


While everyone was watching to the Vatican City on Wednesday, another potential world leader took a step toward his own elevation — Justin Trudeau, whose chief rival for the Liberal Party leadership in Canada dropped out and endorsed him in advance of what’s now likely to be a mere formality on April 14. Canada Flag Icon

Like the new Pope Francis, Trudeau will assume control of a once-powerful organization that has had difficulty finding its purpose in a vastly changing world — the world of 21st century Canadian governance.  He’ll do so having risen to the leadership as the son of a beloved former prime minister on a campaign that’s little more substantive than rewarmed platitudes of what’s been orthodox Liberal policy of the past two decades and his airy good looks.

Right now, Canadians love him, though — they say that they would overwhelmingly support the Trudeau-led Liberals in the next election.  Today, however, with his election as leader all but certain, the Liberals remain mired in third place behind the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party.  So it’s worth taking caution in reading polls that seem to show a Trudeau landslide in the next election — those polls suggest to me the upper limit of what Trudeau might achieve in a best-case scenario in 2015, when the next federal election is likely to be held.

As the leadership race approaches, though, the central question of Canadian politics has now become whether, on the one hand, Trudeau’s rock-star quality and popularity will wear thin after his coronation (dooming the Liberals to what must certainly be oblivion) or, on the other hand, Trudeau will rise to the occasion by navigating the top echelons of federal politics sufficient to bring the Liberals back into power by following in the footsteps of his father.

The future of Canadian politics — and Canadian policy in the next decade — rests on the answer to that question.

His chief rival Marc Garneau exited the race on Wednesday after releasing a survey that showed he would win just 15% of Liberal voter support to 72% for Trudeau, who he also endorsed.

As the first Canadian in outer space, Garneau is somewhat the John Glenn of Canada — he served as the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2006, and then moved into electoral politics, winning a seat in the 2008 election in the Québécois riding of Westmount in the Montréal area.  He’s thoughtful, articulate, and he hasn’t been unwilling to take on Trudeau — taking advantage of several debates to challenge Trudeau directly for running a campaign of ’empty words’ as an untested rookie.

Garneau, ironically, would have been a better candidate than any of the past three Liberal Party leaders — former prime minister Paul Martin, who lost the 2006 federal election to Stephen Harper’s ascendant Conservative Party; former environment minister Stéphane Dion, who won just 26% in the 2008 federal election; and former author and academic Michael Ignatieff, who won just 19% and 34 seats in the 2011 federal election, well behind the more progressive NDP that’s now Canada’s official opposition. He may well have even been a better Liberal leader than Bob Rae, who ruled out a run himself last year, despite receiving high marks for his performance as interim leader.

If Trudeau becomes prime minister in 2015, Garneau will obviously be at the top of the list to fill an important ministry.

But Trudeau fils has always been the frontrunner in the race, and it was never likely that anyone would be able to dislodge what the Liberals believe is their last shot at returning to electoral viability.  Sure, six additional candidate remain in the race — including former justice minister Martin Cauchon, former leadership contender Martha Hall Findlay and British Columbia MP Joyce Murray, who has called for center-left unity with both the NDP and Canada’s Green Party.

Nonetheless, it seems ever more likely that Trudeau will now overwhelmingly win the Liberal leadership and, sure, he probably seems like the best chance that Liberals have to retake power, even if they would need to quintuple their current 35 seats in the House of Ridings in order to win a majority.  We still don’t know if Trudeau’s breezy success in politics to date will continue after he wins the Liberal leadership, though even former prime minister Jean Chrétien, the last Liberal to have widespread electoral success, agrees that the race — and, implicitly, Trudeau’s energetic campaign — has boosted Liberal fortunes.

Either way, the Liberal Party in 2013 is a far cry from the Liberal Party that governed Canada for 69 years in the 20th century — a party dominated by elites from Montréal, Toronto and Ottawa — and personified by Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, prime minister in the 1970s and 1980s. 

But Justin Trudeau will face in Harper the dominant figure of the past decade of Canadian political life and a seasoned and a wily, adept and surprisingly moderate prime minister who’s avoided the constitutional tumult that afflicted the last Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney (and Trudeau pere as well).

He’ll face in NDP leader Thomas Mulcair a figure who’s done a very well since becoming NDP leader last year in defining himself as a solid alternative to Harper.  Mulcair doesn’t have Trudeau’s electricity, but he has built a brand as an intelligent and competent opposition leader.  Given the greenness of his NDP caucus and given that he was always going to be compared to his predecessor — the late, now beloved, Jack Layton — Mulcair has shown some impressive skill.

Despite polls that show Trudeau could magically transform the electoral landscape, today’s polls show the Liberals, even on the cusp of elevating the wildly popular Trudeau to the leadership, is still in third place (25.5%), behind both the Conservatives (31.5%) and the NDP (27.5%) nationally, according to ThreeHundredEight‘s February 2013 poll averages:

  • In Québec, the home of Trudeau pere and where Justin represents the Papineau riding, the NDP and the separatist Bloc québécois nonetheless still outpace the Liberals.
  • In Ontario, the Liberals (29.9%) have moved into second place narrowly over the NDP (25.9%), but remain behind the Tories (35.4%) in what once was the Liberal heartland — as recently as 2004, the Liberals won 75 out of 106 ridings in Canada’s largest province.
  • In the rapidly growing West, the Liberals are far behind in third place (19.3%) in British Columbia, where the Tories (33.7%) and NDP (33.0%) are neck-in-neck, in advance of a May 2013 provincial election that is essentially also a Tory-NDP contest.
  • The only region where the Liberals have a lead is their last stronghold, Atlantic Canada — a lovely region, but not one that’s exactly full of economic vitality these days.

That, of course, is as we approach the height of Trudeaumania — the Liberals polling may, in fact, increase over the next two months as Justin marches toward the leadership.  But soon thereafter, Trudeau’s sky-high popularity may well come crashing to the ground, with Harper certainly willing and able to take aim at his new rival, and with Mulcair also poised to defend his position as the best prime ministerial alternative to Harper, splitting the center-left electorate in Canada between the Liberals and NDP.  They’ll have two years to do so — Harper’s majority means that the next election will not likely be called earlier than 2015.

So despite what’s been a very successful rollout for a very attractive Liberal leader, an editorial in the Toronto Sun makes clear just how much ground Trudeau will have to recover — both in the weeks until the leadership election and thereafter:

Mostly he has run as a cautious front-runner would, as a fiscal conservative with socially progressive leanings. He would give students a break by making it easier to repay debt. He favours electoral reform, in the form of preferential voting. He’d give Members of Parliament more freedom in voting, and would shun abusive omnibus legislation. He would protect the social safety net.

This thin program leaves many questions unanswered, including how Trudeau would get the economy moving again, how he would balance energy development and green policies, and where he would let the tax burden fall.

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