Four years—three years and 11 months to be precise—ago, the leader of the Liberal party convened a remarkable conference in Montreal. Some of the nation’s most worldly were gathered in a nice-looking ballroom to hash out the fundamental quandaries and possible aspirations of the country. Similar convenings in 1960 and 1991 had been credited with refreshing the most successful political institution of the 20th century. At the end of those three days four years ago, the man who had brought together the thinkers looked upon them and pronounced something like success. “We changed Canadian politics this weekend,” he said, “and it will never be the same.”
A year—14 months to be precise—later, Michael Ignatieff lost his seat in the House of Commons and resigned as the leader of the Liberal party, Canadian politics having experienced a change, however lasting, but not of the sort that conference in Montreal was supposed to signal. If you go looking for the website for that gathering now, you’ll find a page with tips on home improvement.
Once again a year short of another election, the Liberals return to Montreal both better and worse off. They have about half as many incumbent MPs and they are another three years removed from government. In the House of Commons, they are the third party and the old third party (the NDP) now has a hundred seats and the title of official opposition. To get back to government the Liberals would need now to double their popular vote of 2011. That said, the Liberals are now led by a young man that people seem to like and they have led the polls, however up and down the red line, for 10 months and their fundraising is newly strong.
So what to expect of this weekend in Montreal?
The leader, Justin Trudeau, will have two speeches—one tonight and another on Saturday afternoon. Perhaps he might add some colour to the rough sketch of an agenda he’s offered so far. At the very least it will be another opportunity for amateur and professional analysts to take his measure and guess at his future.
The Conservatives, as set out in their leaked memos, might attempt to make trouble for Mr. Trudeau, in keeping with the long tradition of trolling your political rival’s attempt to have a good time (the New Democrats will also presumably be about, maybe just to roll their eyes and sigh and groan at various points).
The policies to be debated are varied and variously interesting—a national transportation strategy, democratic reform, a national energy strategy, a basic-income supplement, physician-assisted suicide and maybe legalized prostitution. Ahead of this weekend, Mr. Trudeau sent out a video to explain his thinking on the economy—see Stephen Gordon and Mike Moffatt for expert consideration—and presumably the Liberals might want to use this weekend to continue the work of demonstrating their leader’s seriousness. Unlike Montreal in 2010, this is a conventional affair, which is perhaps in keeping with the very real work the Liberal party must do.
The stage will serve as well to showcase the sorts of people a Prime Minister Trudeau would surround himself with. Newish Toronto MP Chrystia Freeland will open the convention in conversation with American worthy Lawrence Summers. Equally Newish Montreal MP Emmanuel Dubourg and retired general Andrew Leslie, the latter capping a perfectly brutal week-long introductory seminar in politics, will speak on Friday afternoon and at other points there will be the debut of even newer stars. (Mr. Leslie’s speech will, of course, coincide with the first period of the hockey semi-final between Canada and the United States, so he might end up addressing an empty room.)
One should obviously avoid putting too much stock into a single weekend. At best it will be a small step forward for a party that still has a long way to go. Whether it will be remembered as a small step toward the grand rebuilding of the Liberal party, a small step toward the ultimate death of the party or a small step in the long exile of the party will not be known for at least another year.