The Liberal convention is a risky proposition for Trudeau

Paul Wells on the weekend ahead — and the election battle to come

Justin Tang/CP

Justin Tang/CP

And so the Liberals return to Montreal, as members of all political parties often do, for a national convention. Montreal is catnip for parties seeking to show their mettle. It is stylish, bilingual, and cheap. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives gathered there in 2005 to parade their electable moderation. Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats were there last year: Quebec will be the base for the next national NDP breakthrough, if there is one. Michael Ignatieff held a Liberal thinkers’ conference in Montreal in 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, the Liberals did not then vow never again to meet in Montreal or pronounce its name. They’re back already. Toronto must content itself with money and power, Calgary with a future, Vancouver with the mountains and sea. Montreal has mystique.

It also has Justin Trudeau, whose party has led the others in national polls for 10 months. Since Trudeau has been the Liberal leader for the same length of time, he has become a figure of some fascination, not least among the members and supporters of other parties. They are convinced the coltish young man, who first set foot in 24 Sussex Drive at the same moment he first set foot anywhere at all, has been given a free ride by the press gallery. Not just a free ride: a leg up. Perhaps even a leg over. In my own case I’ve gone about it in odd fashion, by publishing a 400-page book about Stephen Harper whose thesis is that the Prime Minister is eternal, but you knew I was devious when you walked in.

The Liberals’ opponents have compensated for the gallery’s failure to give Trudeau proper scrutiny by scruting him as hard as they can. The Conservatives have spent millions of dollars on commercial radio ads—in Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin and English—warning parents that Trudeau will give their kids marijuana. The Liberals have spent large sums rebutting the Conservative ads with their own. This fight has been going on for four months and may now stand as the most sustained bout of pre-writ campaign advertising in your lifetime. Newspaper reporters, who do not listen to commercial radio and are not sure they believe it exists, have covered almost none of it.

But if the Conservatives attack Trudeau for four months on the radio—and every day in the Commons, and almost as often in email blasts to Conservative donors—and the Liberals still lead, are the Conservative attacks failing? Hard to know. Maybe the Liberals would be less popular if the Conservative back bench and Ezra Levant stopped talking about him. Or maybe they’d be riding even higher, carried aloft on the praise of complacent scribes. Politics rarely lets us test counterfactuals properly.

But if Trudeau’s big mouth reliably gets him into trouble—a proposition routinely argued by his opponents while they are on breaks from trying to get him into trouble—then the Liberals’ Montreal convention is a risky proposition for him. He has two big speeches scheduled there, one on Thursday and a second on Saturday. If his jaw is a shovel custom-built to dig his political grave, he will have two chances to dig deep.

The Conservatives I ask profess confidence that, over time, Trudeau will be his own worst enemy. By their count he makes a big gaffe every several weeks: seeking to understand the motives of terrorists after the Boston bombings; going on and on about legalizing pot; remarking, on the day of Jim Flaherty’s latest federal budget, that “the budget will balance itself.” More lie ahead. And the Conservatives expect to be joined by a powerful objective ally when the election campaign begins. Tom Mulcair takes a strip off Stephen Harper every day both men are in question period. But in a campaign the New Democrat will need to turn much of his wrath against Trudeau, in effect acting out the old joke whose punchline is, “I don’t need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you.”

It’s more and more likely the Conservative leader in that election will be named Stephen Harper. The Conservative national council met in mid-February to discuss election strategy. Every document they saw got leaked to the Toronto Star. All of it is based on the assumption Harper will lead the party in his fifth consecutive election. (As a for-instance, one suggestion in the memos is that the party “leverage” Laureen Harper’s charm in advertising.) Pierre Poilievre’s Fair Elections Act, introduced after the Conservative caucus forced an earlier minister to cancel the tabling of an earlier election-law reform, seems designed to address the sort of unfairness Conservatives are likely to perceive. Elections Canada keeps investigating Conservatives; the bill will make that harder. Calling back old donors is expensive; the bill will exempt that cost from election expenses.

What Harper wants to do is hard. Conservatives won the elections of 2006, 2008 and 2011. His goal is to win a fourth time. The last man to lead a party to four consecutive victories was Wilfrid Laurier. That’s a long time ago. Harper has advantages. Riding redistribution will put more seats where people usually vote Conservative. The Fair Elections Act will make the next campaign Conservative-fair. And millions think Stephen Harper has done great work. Millions who don’t will weigh Trudeau and Mulcair, and swing in great number toward whomever seems more convincing. No pressure.


The Liberal convention is a risky proposition for Trudeau

  1. I love the term “Conservative-fair”; indeed I suspect even the Conservatives will love it.

    • They will, but for the wrong reason.

      • exactly!

    • This piece is more about how Harper can break a previous record of a previous PM at any cost, than electing a government. Its all about Harpers Legacy of being in power the longest at any cost(does north Korea come to mind), because the only other thing Harper will be remembered for in his legacy right now is, nothing but corruption and scandal at the highest levels in the PMO and senate and robo calls,( I never heard of robo calls until the cons came to power ) and that’s all Harper will be remembered for..

      • That is one of the ten silliest comments ever made on the internet.

        • not really….Harper won’t be remembered for building anything, he will be remembered as boring and useless….

          • No, he cannot compete with you for that…lol

    • Finally Conservative-fair. It has been so far Liberal-fair.

  2. Leveraging Laureen Harper might mean she’s planning to leave Stephen and elope with Jason Kenney or whoever gets the leadership next.

    Also: “Conservative-fair” gets my vote for inclusion in dictionaries this year. Way more useful than “selfie”.

    • I see Sophie will soon divorce Justin – he is no PM material.

  3. George W. Bush… are the Conservatives trying to make him out like he’s the Canadian version? Not a good comparison because you know, he did become President.

    Never underestimate a voter’s ability to overlook a candidates “imperfections” if they simply want change.

  4. “scruting” Really? Where does that come from? Did you mean “scrutinizing”?

    • No, I meant to make up a word to see whom it would annoy. Welcome!

      • LOL

      • Paul Wells, Canada’s Jimmy Kimmel of blogs.

      • Sounds truthy.

      • I looked it up wondering if it was a real word (I knew it wasn’t a typo).
        Imagine my surprise when I saw the Urban Dictionary definition of “scrute”. Let’s just say it’s not a totally made up word :-)

      • It annoys every whom down in whomville, wiseguy.

        • it’s totally fungiolominious of him!

          • And we all know how painful that can be!

    • That’s what comes of Twitter-speak. There’s no going back.

    • I suspect PW was being inventy.

  5. Don’t you just love the cute names the Orwellian titled cabinet ministers come up with? Our Minister for Democratic Reform introduces the Fair Elections act which is fair only in the eyes of the Conservatives and is a piece of the most undemocratic reform Canada has seen in decades.

    • How about Orwellian journalism summing it up as “Conservative-fair”?

      • I guess that might make some sense if you don’t understand what “Orwellian” means.

  6. perpetuating a falicy on gaffes ” the budget will balance itself “. JT is right even if the Cons do nothing to reducing the deficit more… it will be balanced anyways. Having said that he seemed to be calling for the cons to inject some stimulus. Inceased infrastructure spending perhaps. Each dollar of infrastructure stimulus bares $ 2 dollars in benefits.

    • Tell that to Bob Rae. He’d still be in power in Ontario if that were true.

      • Try looking at actual history, not the made up crap in your head.

        • Bob Rae, as NDP Premier of Ontario, increased government spending to fight the effects of the early-1990s recession. The people of Ontario didn’t agree and threw him out at the next election. What exactly am I making up?

  7. I am in my mid 40s and I remember NDP use to do really well in polls in the 1970s/80s between elections and then crater during actual elections. NDP were protest party and the other two were considered the proper parties people actually voted for. I think Libs and NDP have traded positions now and that’s why Libs doing well between elections. Quebecers think NDP are terrific, or at least they did, and ROC think Cons are satisfactory and that means Libs are the party electorate say they will vote for to show their displeasure with top two parties but will be mostly ignored come election day.

    In UK, Labour and Cons two regular parties while Libs are collection of odd people and that’s how it is developing here in Canada. Liberalism is right wing ideology that has been taken over by progressives from Que and people don’t understand it. People like decisiveness in their leaders, they are right wing or left wing, while Libs are wishy-washy middle.

    • Disagree. People like to see themselves as middle class and normal, not extreme in any way. Not even extremists see themselves as extremists. Ask Rick or FV: they likely think themselves normal and like everyone else. But you know, they aren’t.

    • All that Trudeau needs to do is fall down the stairs and bung up his knee, and campaign with a cane. That guarantees most of the seats in Quebec.

    • If you are in your mid 40’s, that means you were between 5-15 in the 70’s. You were paying attention to the polling when you were 10?

      • Why not? Lots of political junkies here. I watched the 1968 Liberal convention (with my dad) when I was 8 and the Watergate hearings when I was 13.

        • I am with you, tobyornotoby. My mom still tells story about how I asked for Watergate books for 10th birthday and she had to return a few toys in order to get money for books.

          Also, I have a very political family. Might not remember polls exactly but I certainly remember my father telling me the NDP were going to make a break through this time, and then it wouldn’t happen, and my dad would say wait till next time. My father was big fan of Waffle movement, thought it was going to reinvent socialism.

          • I’m not claiming we aren’t strange; just the kind of strange that congregates at this blog. ;-)

          • “and she had to return a few toys in order to get money for books.”

            And this is why you are so consistently joyless?

  8. The Conservatives have spent millions of dollars on commercial radio ads—in Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin and English—warning parents that Trudeau will give their kids marijuana.

    I’ve heard they’re putting together do-it-yourself crystal radio sets/alarm clocks with pre-set frequencies depending upon city and dialect for dist’n at main cultural events.
    Still working on ironing the bugs out with minaret interference, tho.

    • The English one is playing incessantly o the stations I listen to. It’s quite the insulting piece of propagnda – a “mom” worrying about legalizing “recreational” drugs “the same as alcohol and tobacco” (as if those aren’t far more addictive and dangerous recreational drugs) while children playing and schools bell sounds are heard in the background (implication: Trudeau want elementary-aged kids to have pot).

      Pretty damn sleazy.

      I also wonder if their apparent opposition to recreational drugs means they plan a New Age of Prohibition for booze and cigs. It is the obvious conclusion, based on “concerned mom”.

      • Turn on, tune in, drop out.

        -Timothy Marconi

  9. What ever happened to this is my best legislation so judge me…PM. Instead of The other guy doesn’t know what he is doing and only wants to make me look bad so we must launch personal attacks. Now everyone on our bench cheer!

    • You said a lot there. Unfortunately for many people this has become “normal” behavior in terms of their expectations when it really should not be acceptable in Canada.

  10. I find it a little repugnant that the Conservatives are banking on Laurren Harpers image to help them. Seriously, what does she have to do with anything? Does anybody remember the rough ride that Hillary Clinton got when as an un-elected prsidential spouse she spearheaded health care reform efforts in Clintons first term? The Americans certainly deemed it very inappropriate. I hope Mrs. Harper does not have any skeletons in her closet, because if she does in fact become a CPC poster child, then her closets will likely get a good public airing.

    • Will you be saying the same thing the first time Trudeau trots out his wife? Ya, I didn’t think so.

    • Trudeau father did it, and people loved it

      • Yes, and subsequently Maggie Trudeau became a political football. That is what happens when you politicise supposedly ‘non-combatant’ family members. They become fair game. Your example is exactly apt.

    • does obama not rely on Michelle too???

    • As if they would let her anywhere near a policy.

    • During his Thursday convention speech did Justin make that phone call to his wife that he had been practicing?

    • Laureen has been the centre of some pretty nasty and outlandish rumours in Ottawa, even among some respectable press. These date back a year or two – and I would NOT expect the Federal Liberals to attack her on these personal/marital issues. NDP – well perhaps – but they are NOT quite that desperate yet to go after Harper’s family.

  11. A lot like saying the Calgary do was a risky proposition for Harper. Breathing is risky. Big deal.

  12. Trudeau will be delivering well scripted speeches that have been written weeks ago. I doubt even he’ll manage to make any gaffes doing so. It’s not like the media would report it anyway.

    As for policy, I’m sure the Liberals will debate lots of things to appear that they’re listening to the grass roots. But come campaign time, everything will be laid out by the usual back room Liberals who always dictate these things.

    This Liberal convention, like all other Liberal conventions will be about Liberals telling Liberals just how great they are. Nothing less, nothing more.

    • So, just like the Con conventions, but without the murdering of the Beatles songbook?

      • Love the reference to Harper’s non-talent – but the Media can meet delegates and are not being banned as they were by the Reform/Cons in Calgary

    • I was wondering who the leading reporters are in this campaign to cover up and not report Trudeau’s gaffes. And tell us what’s been missed.

      • Since Calgary, reporters are not allowed in party conventions. It appears the free press has a problem with being Conservative-fair. To be completely honest I don’t actually know if the Liberals have closed their convention to the press, but I am told they are the same as the Conservatives so it must be true.

        • Stewart – the hallways and gathering places in Montreal are open to Media – even “Skippy” as a Con “observer” is free to mingle :)

  13. Any guess as to why the Liberal convention is being held during the Olympics? Trudeau risks being kept out of the top headlines when the men’s hockey team has 2 more games to play in the next few days. Seems like bad timing, no?

    • I think he is giving his main speech on Saturday afternoon. Isn’t the hockey game on Sunday?

      • Given Trudeau’s performance last night , I’ll watch ANY Olympic event rather than be insulted by HIs Nothingness.
        But his cult followers will watch – and swoon once again. Pathetic.

        • You don’t seem to have a handle on how to win over traditionally Liberal voters, faris. You just keep calling us stupid. I don’t think your leader means for you to do that. Be sunnier.

          • And you should remain optimistic and hopeful , as your leader means you to be – that Canadians will not want a serious discussion of serious issues: but Trudeau will prove, once again, as out of touch.

          • Dear Leader prefers rule by decree, which is a style used primarily by dictators and absolute monarchs.

          • rfaris – One thing is for sure, National and Local Media will NOT be kept out of the hallways of the Liberal Convention as they were at the Con Calgary gathering. So Canadians will get a picture of what is going on in Montreal, and it won’t be “spun” as the Conservatives are want to do. Already the diversity (am sure that is NOT a fav word of yours!) of the Liberal crowd is impressive.

          • The paid for media will see what they are paid to see.

  14. Hi! I’m Laureen Harper and I’m here to tell you why my family deserves a big tax break and yours doesn’t! Vote for my husband and his new income splitting plan!”

  15. Fair Election Act? Hahahahaha. Harper has all of his ducks in a row, to cheat this election too. The so called Cons should have just stuck, with their robo-call election cheat.

    Thousands and thousands of Chinese have been brought to BC. They will vote for Harper. Harper has given most of BC to Communist China. Harper will also have huge donations from the Chinese. Harper will have the huge donations and votes from the Jewish people as well.

    Harper is the worst most corrupt PM, in the recorded history of this Nation. Laying off Canadians from their resource jobs and, those Canadians walked right by the foreigners taking their jobs in the oil patch. Corporations pay the foreigners at, half pay of Canadians. Same thing with the BC mines. Harper is bringing over thousands of Chinese for his, Northern BC mining plans.

    Harper is not a true Canadian. He was Policy Chief for his, Northern Foundation of 1989. Harper out and out blatantly lied. Harper is no Conservative, what-so-ever. He even lied about that.

    Harper is the one and only Canadian PM ever, to be held in contempt of Parliament. How that monster stays in office, boggles me. Why is Harper not in prison, for being a traitor to Canada?

    • Clearly we need more tin foil mines.

    • “Harper is the one and only Canadian PM ever, to be held in contempt of Parliament. ”

      and to be elected to the first majority government in 11 years (3 elections) .

      The people of Canada held the Liberals in contempt of the Canadian people. They showed their contempt by reducing the Liberals to 34 MPs. There will never ever be another Canadian PM held in contempt of Parliament. It was wrong to do so and everyone outside a few lunatic divine-right-to-rule-Liberals could see that clearly.

  16. With a large team of experienced people telling him precisely what to say, he will be just fine.
    The moment he doesn’t have a cue card, teleprompter or crib notes he will look childlike, simple and completely out of his depth (unless the topic is the best type of powder for snowboarding, in which case that dude will rock).
    I suspect for obvious reasons those unscripted moments will be almost non-existent at the convention.
    Justin shouldn’t fear the protective enclave of the Liberal convention, where his handlers can literally control everything. No, he should fear the election, the debates, and the rare occasion where the press won’t lob him softballs (though he’s done of fine job of looking foolish with even softballs – ie. converting a fourth grade level question into how communist totalitarian is pretty cool).
    Once Canadians see the boy behind the name (as the vast majority really haven’t been paying attention) watch his numbers plummet.

    • Charles, over the past 5 years I have heard Justin Trudeau speak 4 times…the last to a sold-out luncheon in my City in SE Alberta during the Liberal Leadership. Speeches – were great and well delivered (no notes) – but he was MOST impressive while answering questions from the floor at every venue. The Leadership luncheon had a slew of NDP and Conservative community leaders in attendance and they launched questions that were not scripted or controlled. I saw a few of the old time PC crowd with their cheque books after the luncheon – obviously impressed enough to donate to his campaign.
      But go ahead and believe that he has no gravitas or is NOT as intelligent as he has proven to be…and please stay tuned!

      • You’ve heard Justin speak on four separate occasions in-person, including to a “sold out” event?
        I see. You would be, what we in the industry refer to as a ….”fan”. Yes, I’m sure to you he is just marvelous. I’ll look out for that wave of Alberta conservatives flocking to Justin on election night.

  17. The Liberals have their fingers crossed that Trudeau does not stray from his two scripted convention speeches – “unplugged” Trudeau is an unguided missile.
    Mulcair’s obvious advantages of experience, accomplishment and gravitas contrast with a young man who has none – and whose weak House performance does not bode well for a dauphin who would be King.
    Trudeau’s celebrity and Liberal cult following may well wear thin sooner than later: sooner if rumours about his two Montreal speeches are true – more empty rhetoric and lack of positive, clear policies at a time when Canada faces major challenges economically. environmentally and socially – then a time of reckoning and growing disillusion may come soon.
    The recent CROP poll in Quebec shows Trudeau trailing Mulcair – especially with francophones, and with significant negatives as well, while today’s CBC Nanos poll had a 6% drop in Trudeau’s popularity: perhaps the sociology of charisma is right – it can decline as fast as it has risen.

    • More NDP spin, this is getting sad (& quite desperate)!

  18. It seems for the last 2 years, pundits and commenters have been saying Trudeau will fail..he is all fluff, nice hair and way over his head…..

    now it’s two years later …the naysayers are still saying the same thing..and Trudeau consistently proves them wrong. As Wells said..Trudeau has the Liberals leading in the polls for the past 10 months..with Harper in 3rd place…

    I believe 3 things are happening here…1. Canadians are fed up with Harper, fed up of the constant Nastiness, the lies and denials of wrong doing in both the robo calls scandal and the PMO/Duffy/Harper/Wright scandal…2. The propaganda coming out of this government in lieu of any dialogue or debate. 3. Tom Mulcair while a good interogator in QP, is another seeker of power and always seems angry..

    This makes Trudeau’s youth and optimism by contrast, appealing..and the fact that he likes people, and they actually like him and want to be around him…and the best leader to have a beer with…also presents a stark contrast to both Mulcair and Harper who are beginning to look old, grumpy and stale in comparison. As Trudeau mentioned they deal in the politics of fear. This the 21st Century and neither Mulcair nor Harper appear to have a long term vision to build and create good jobs… On the other hand, to paraphrase what Brian Mulroney said…underestimate Trudeau at your peril…as while still a bit of a mystery as suggested by Mr. Wells…he continues to he did when he ousted the Liberal Senators from his own caucus, a daring move, that Stephen Harper would never have had the political fortitude to do in fear he would lose some of his political clout and advantage…. It’s funny Wells never mentions that..or Harper’s devious ways..rather focuses on his tactical prowess as if it were a medal of honor…

    • Good to know what the latest Liberal line is. Trudeau’s opponents are :old and grumpy” in contrast to an optimistic and beer drinking fellow well met etc. ad nauseum.
      Anyone who has seen Tom Mulcair and his caucus laughing at Harper’s contradictions and cover-ups in Question Period or met him in person for a substantial discussion of substantial issues would be surprised by the Liberal propaganda about “angry Tom”..
      Trudeau’s multi-media presentation last night earned a B for presentation – his concern about camera close-ups and angles paid off – while his lack of any new ideas or policies earned another D.
      A “long term vision to create good jobs”? – like Trudeau’s support for the XL pipeline that exports raw bitumen – and good, value-added jobs to the USS – you mean?
      His cult following aside, adult Canadians wishing to hear substantial policies about substantial issues and challenges facing our nation were deeply disappointed by Trudeau’s consistent inability to address real policy questions or provide any real answers.
      Where’s the beef? The sizzle is dying in the diminishing embers of empty platitudes.

      • Good to know that the “MEAN MULCAIR” followers match the ANGRY TOM. I live in Alberta and have many card-carrying NDP friends – I am always amazed at 2 things when we discuss political and public policy issues:
        1) They (NDP) would rather be RIGHT than listen to others or reach a compromise on almost every issue; and
        2) They (NDP) hate Liberals more than they dislike the Reform/Con and Harper. Go figure. Now that Trudeau is “eating their lunch” among moderate Canadians – the NDP never miss a chance to throw insults and misrepresent everything that the Liberal Leader speaks to.
        I often thought that if I lived in a Riding where an NDP had a shot of winning and the Liberal did not – that I would support them. But after watching some of their conventions and rubbing shoulders with these NDP “progressives” in my community, I would NEVER vote NDP…guess that makes me just as bad as these hardcore NDPers. But they have begun to be very irritating and unreasonable.

        • Historic liberalism was never about reaching a compromise or triangulating some sort of centrist position on the important issues of the day.
          John Stuart Mills, who had been a Liberal, became a democratic socialist because he knew that his concern for real freedom for all -especially women – depended on greater equality for all. and on the clash of ideas – the “liberty of thought and discussion” of which he wrote.
          The internment of the Japanese-Canadians – promoted by the BC Liberal and federal governments – was opposed by the CCF alone, and in the 1942 BC provincial election the Liberal ad ” A vote for the CCF” is a vote for the Japs” played a noticeable role. Similarly the imprisonment of over 500 Quebecers through the War Measures Act was a short term, cynical action that the NDP alone opposed.
          What i am getting at is I do not think that the Liberal party reflect liberalism at time of crisis – and that it is easy to be a sunshine patriot.
          Please specify how I have misrepresented Trudeau’s stand on the XL pipeline – it would be interesting to gain insight into your policy positions rather than your deep-seated dislike of your NDP “friends”.

  19. Certainly Harper will be named as Leader of the Conservatives again. The Fraser Institute has been saying as much. On the other hand we have a right wing extreme party who is following closely if not taking orders from the US Republicans who have given him a shopping list of what they want out of Canada with precious little return.

    The conservatives have refused to make water a human right 3 times in recent history in their dealings in the UN. That means a future with Conservatives will see water as a commodity and the prices for your water will go up beyond your imagination. The Royal Bank who writes all those flowing articles on water resources owns a huge amount of water export licences. All that’s needed is a small change in constitution with the Conservatives will supply.

    Then, the argument comes forward “we” cannot charge the US more for water than we a charging Canadians so, we have to up Canadian prices to make the “market” viable.

    The Conservatives have several mountains to climb including their absolutely disastrous immigration program which opened the doors for thousands to claim citizenship with no background checks or vetting of any kind. Watch the crime rates to up and look at the origins of the criminals when apprehended. The Russian presence in the oil patch is well known as is their business practice.