Justin Trudeau can be exactly the leader the Liberal Party of Canada needs right now, as long as he resists the temptations that Liberals are notoriously bad at resisting.
As the Liberal Party of Canada prepares for Justin Trudeau’s coronation, there is a resurgence of optimism that Canada’s “natural governing party” is ready to return to the throne it has fallen so far from in recent years.
But has there already been too much bleeding to save the Liberals? The answer is no, but laser focus is required to stem the bleed and reverse the flow.
Years of internal fighting between factions of liberals have driven a lot of supporters away. Jack Layton was the right person at the right time and used this disenfranchised Liberal base to move the New Democrats from a fringe lefty and union party to a more centrist alternative to/competition for the Liberals. The left is now hopelessly split, as the right was in the PC/Reform days.
And while the Liberal base was fleeing, no one was planting new seeds at home, growing new constituencies. Liberals have, and will continue to, pay a mighty price for allowing the Conservatives to systematically absorb new Canadians into the Conservative Party. Jason Kenny was tactically brilliant – and unchallenged – in recruiting the immigrant vote and with it, key big city suburban ridings. These ridings, with Conservatives traditional domination of rural Canada have provided them a formula for what may be enduring electoral success.
But conservatives are very vulnerable. Their vacillations in the polls show what most of us intuitively know anyway. No one likes Stephen Harper or the Conservatives very much. We trust them to keep us safe and safeguard the economy. But they make us less, as Canadians, than we want to be. Conservatives have no ambition (aside from staying in power) and they have no interest in taking on hard issues that Canadians care about – Canada’s reputation in the world, protecting the environment for future generations, making Canada a more juste society. We hate the way Conservatives tell us it is ok to be narrow and selfish – we don’t like hearing this and we desperately do not want to believe it. But Canadians have not yet found someone they can trust with their larger ambition. Enter Justin Trudeau.
Justin Trudeau has the right instincts, and he is behaving EXACTLY as a new Liberal leader has to behave. The Liberals need someone who can (i) articulate a vision and the principles that a big tent small L liberal party can support at a deep level; (ii) mend all the riffs and bruised egos in the party so that a new party leadership can emerge that actually like one another and will work together through difficult time, (iii) get out of Ottawa and put in place the party infrastructure, funding and foot soldiers who can parley the vision, charisma and enthusiasm into new members and supporters, from all those constituencies who used to or could potentially consider the Liberals the natural governing party. This is doable; general Liberal philosophy is still most closely aligned with how Canadians like to see themselves.
Some have criticized Trudeau for his lack of policy depth. These people are wrong. The last thing the Liberal Party needs now, two years before a federal election, is another liberal policy wonk. Liberals have to learn that getting into the weeds too early results in, at best, public apathy and confusion and, at worst, a great big target for the Harper attack machine. And there is no upside. Canadians already care about the issues Liberals campaign on, and they want solutions very much in line with what Liberals propose. Liberals lose because no one trusts they can and will deliver.
Justin Trudeau will have policy when he needs it. Look at his team – Gerry Butts, Dan Gagnier… These people are experienced and brilliant. He could have all the policy he wants, whenever he wants it.
The Liberals need a charismatic leader, a visionary and a constituency builder. They need someone Canadians can get behind and feel good/confident about putting their hopes, their time and their vote behind.
At the core, they need someone they can trust with an agenda that represents their dreams, not just their basic needs (Harper can do that just fine). Liberal have this in Justin Trudeau. They are choosing well.