There is a whiff of wishful thinking when choosing the location of a political convention. The Republicans followed this (very) general rule to the point of delusion when party officials chose New York City as for the 2004 national convention. The thinking went something like this: we’ve got our base locked up, and if we’re not going to win over East-Coast elites, we might as well show them that we aren’t the war-mongering troglodytes perpetuated in their media.
Likewise, though with considerably less rhetoric and far lower stakes, the Liberal Party of Canada chose to host its leadership convention in Montreal in 2006. The thinking was a far more quaint take on the Republican strategy of 2004. Battered by the sponsorship scandal, out voted by the then-formidable Bloc Québécois and outflanked by the straight-up mean Conservative war room, the Liberal braintrust thought it a good idea to hold its convention in Montreal.
After all, what better place for a cheery show of force than in the party’s formerly friendly backyard? As the Republicans once dominated the northeast, the Liberal brand was once synonymous with Quebec. Just about every Liberal prime minister since Laurier could count on a shot in the arm by way of Quebec. Pierre Trudeau, we are told by Quebec nationalists, was hated in the province, yet he made a cakewalk of it every election he ran.
It didn’t go well at all in 2006. Stéphane Dion, forever the unloved son of Quebec voters, predictably failed to gain traction in his home province in the 2008 federal election. The Liberal bloodletting continued apace under subsequent leader Michael Ignatieff, under whom the Liberals were essentially reduced to a seven-seat afterthought on the Island of Montreal.
Which brings us to the current Liberal convention in Montreal. I have yet to step foot in the Palais des congrès—a sturdy ball cap and the cover of night is required for any local attending such a thing—but I can practically feel the sunshine radiating from downtown, and on Twitter, as I write these words. Justin Trudeau’s speech, as colleague Geddes pointed out, was full of familiar rhetorical flourish. And as in 2006, the downtown streets are decidedly more red this weekend, and not just because of some hockey game.
Unlike certain Liberal conventions past, however, there is likely some basis to all this Quebec-based wishful thinking. The stench is largely off the Liberal brand, for one. It will be very difficult come the next election for the Conservatives, the NDP or the surprisingly life-like Bloc Québécois to pigeonhole the party as corrupt, as they have over the last decade. Trudeau was swift, forthright and damning in his criticism of the Parti Québécois so-called “Quebec values charter,” leaving Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair belatedly copycatting in his wake. Under Trudeau, the party raised more in Quebec than the NDP or the Conservatives—and did so through a 125 per cent increase in the number of Quebec donors. With the collapse of the Bloc Québécois, the party is virtually guaranteed to increase its seat count in the province in 2015.
This perma-smile optimism goes beyond Quebec as well. The party raised $1.6 million across Canada in December alone. Though Trudeau is well past the honeymoon period as Liberal leader, and heads up the third party in Ottawa, his poll numbers continue to rise. The Liberal’s flashy gambit to kibosh its own Senators may well have been just that—certainly its opposition thinks so—yet the move has reverberated beyond Ottawa.
The government has seemingly taken notice of Trudeau, and it’s actually to the detriment of its other enemies. Everyone knows Mulcair has performed exceptionally well in Parliament—including the Conservative war room, which nonetheless forgot to include the NDP leader in its electoral attack strategy leaked to the Toronto Star. The main target? Justin Trudeau.
It isn’t all kittens and petunias. Getting young voters to support a telegenic young leader is one thing; getting them to vote for him is quite another. Ask André Boisclair. And vestiges of the old Liberal Party in Quebec, of the type that nearly scuttled the party here, remain at the organizational level. But the Liberal Party circa 2014 is far and away healthier (and more welcome) in Quebec than its 2006 incarnation.