Justin Trudeau’s choppy waters - Macleans.ca

Justin Trudeau’s choppy waters

The Liberal leader’s conference in Montreal was a promising moment surrounded by sharks

Ryan Remiorz/CP

Ryan Remiorz/CP

Overheard conversation from a Friday-night stroll in Old Montreal:

“And are Justin and Braeden supporting your candidacy?”

“Well, not of?cially. But they’re very supportive.”

I turned into the doorway of my hotel and caught a look at the potential federal Liberal candidate from a British Columbia riding (Justin Trudeau is the party’s leader; Braeden Caley is the president of its B.C. wing). He looked youngish, earnest and impeccably scrubbed. And in his intention to run for the Liberals in the 2015 election, he has a lot of company.

The biennial convention of the Liberal party in Montreal was the first important Liberal event I’d attended in two years. After the creepy forced bonhomie of the party’s 2012 Ottawa convention, back when Bob Rae was the party’s interim leader and Liberals were quarrelling about whether he should stick around, I used my book-writing duties as a handy excuse to skip all Liberal leadership debates and the final event last April where Trudeau became the leader on the first ballot. But almost a year later, the Liberals consistently lead in national polls, so I thought I should catch up with them.

The most striking thing about the weekend wasn’t anything Trudeau did. It was the truly extraordinary number of Liberals I met who are planning to seek their party’s nomination as 2015 election candidates.

A few played high-profile roles at the convention. Andrew Leslie, who used to command the army. William Morneau, who runs the country’s largest human-resources firm. Chima Nkemdirim, chief of staff to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Jim Carr, who ran the Manitoba Business Council.

I met half a dozen others and had little trouble coming up with the names of dozens more. In many cases they’ll have to beat other Liberals before they get to run as candidates. In Ville-Marie in downtown Montreal, Liberal organizer Brigitte Legault is running against two prominent lawyers, Marc Miller and Bernard Amyot, for the nomination. Amyot is a former president of the Canadian Bar Association. Jean Chrétien had a fundraiser for him. According to Amyot, the former PM later told him, “T’es ben mieux de gagner, tabarnak.” It translates as, “You had better win now, for goodness’ sake.” More or less.

Of course every party always finds candidates to run in almost every riding, but it’s usually much more of a last-minute rush. I’ve never seen this much candidate activity among Liberals this long before an election. For a decade, it’s been much easier to find Liberals sitting back, wishing somebody in Ottawa would fix the party. Now a generation of Liberals is jumping in.

They must hope there will be water in the pool when they land. Enthusiasm is great, but New Democrats and Conservatives are enthusiastic too, and in the real world, elected members of those parties still have Liberals far outnumbered. I haven’t seen Liberals this excited since 1993. But they went into that election with more than twice as many seats as Trudeau will, against a governing party half as popular as Stephen Harper’s is today. Chrétien held nine different ministerial portfolios in previous governments. Trudeau taped a talk show before the Montreal convention and couldn’t figure out when would be the right time to make a hockey joke. He picked the moment he was asked to comment about the situation in Ukraine. After the show aired on Sunday he spent Monday watching his MPs on TV insist he had nothing to apologize for. And he spent Tuesday apologizing to assorted Ukrainians.

The Liberal weekend in Montreal was a promising moment surrounded by sharks. The moment was Trudeau’s keynote speech on Saturday afternoon. He was poised, understated, often funny. The crowd loved it. He built his speech around the economic plight of an imaginary Montreal woman, Nathalie. Economists spent the next few days debating whether Nathalie’s plight was made up, too. This would land Trudeau’s speech squarely in a great tradition. His father won the 1974 campaign by campaigning against wage and price controls he later introduced. Chrétien in 1993 promised to scrap the GST. Harper ran in 2006 against a congeries of straw men: income-trust taxation, health care wait times, an appointed Senate and the “?scal imbalance.”

But while shaky logic and a highly approximate command of the facts can clearly help you win a Canadian election, they offer no guarantee. You also need some message discipline and a bit of luck. The Liberals remain short on the former at least.

Trudeau recruited Andrew Leslie to beef up the Liberals’ credibility on military issues. A week before the convention, news leaked of Leslie’s $72,000 relocation settlement for an in-town move after he retired from the military. Somebody decided to use Leslie’s convention speech as a chance to reveal that the Conservatives had talked to him about running for them, before he decided to advise Trudeau. This raised a lot of questions, which Leslie spectacularly couldn’t answer during an endless press conference after his speech. Leslie’s job was to raise questions about Harper’s competence on military procurement and veterans’ benefits. He ended up raising questions about Andrew Leslie’s job search.

Meanwhile the convention passed resolutions calling for a future Liberal government to implement national strategies on transportation, energy, housing and more. There was much talk of an infrastructure deficit. Jim Carr, the Winnipeg candidate hopeful, put the “infrastructure deficit” at $7 billion for his city alone. Filling that hole, and treating the rest of the country equitably, would cost nearly half a trillion dollars. Of course Trudeau doesn’t plan to spend that much money. So Carr was just talking. Everybody at the convention was just talking, until Trudeau gave his speech and left without meeting reporters to take follow-up questions.

If he gets elected, he will have many of those shiny candidates helping him as newly elected MPs. Such big swings happen sometimes—in 1984 with Brian Mulroney, in 1993 with Chrétien, to some extent in 2011 when Jack Layton tripled the number of NDP MPs. Trudeau has defied gravity for close to a year. He has another year and a half to float up there before Canadians vote. Well, to float or fall.

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