Trudeau in Montreal: He's a Liberal -

Trudeau in Montreal: He’s a Liberal

Paul Wells explains why things just got interesting


Why did Patrick Muttart lose his job on the Conservative campaign in 2011 for leaking this photo to Sun News?

Exhibit A

First of all, because it was a really lousy hoax. It was not at all a photo of Michael Ignatieff in Iraq, as Sun News had been told. But why did Muttart want it to be a photo of Michael Ignatieff in Iraq? Because it has been a central element of Conservative strategy, since the day Stephen Harper formed the modern Conservative party, to set Liberals against themselves and Liberals against New Democrats. And to the extent voters could be reminded Ignatieff was a key supporter of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, he would lose all credibility among voters who were proud of Jean Chrétien’s decision to stay out of that war.

That’s also the reason the main voice in the Conservative attack ads against Stéphane Dion was Ignatieff’s. Liberal division cost them power and has cost them 80% of the seats they held in 2000. Liberal unity is trouble for Conservatives. A truly unified left-of-Conservative vote would be the end of Conservative power.

Much of that is beyond the control of any Liberal leader as long as the Liberals and NDP remain discrete and competitive parties. But Ignatieff, and Stéphane Dion, and to a great extent Paul Martin before that, could not even succeed at job one: they did not unify and motivate Liberal party members and traditional Liberal voters. With Martin, it was the manner of his accession to the party’s top job, the nasty scandal Jean Chrétien left on his front porch, and a bad strategic decision to reach out to voters who’d never voted Liberal before without cementing base support. With Dion it was a failure to consolidate support after he became the first leader in the party’s history to rank lower than first place on the first convention ballot. With Ignatieff it was a long history of estrangement from the country and the party’s core principles on foreign policy and Quebec. The Conservatives were good at finding those fissures, sticking a knife in and twisting. They had to be: when the divided recipients of the left-of-Conservative vote threatened to unite during the 2008 coalition crisis, Harper came as close as he has ever come to losing power.

Along comes Justin Trudeau. He’s the first Liberal leader since Martin at least, and I’d say since Chrétien nearly a decade earlier, to be accepted by Liberals automatically, without some effort of will, as their leader. That was obvious both in the delegates’ reception to Trudeau’s very good speech today and in the way Trudeau earned their applause: Not by hectoring them to rise up but by speaking softly and calmly in language they recognized. 

He opened with a too-cute-by-half anecdote about a fictional mother named Nathalie who works hard and plays by the rules and worries about things. Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair, he said, want to exploit her fear. He wants to solve her problems. How? “For me, it starts with the core liberal ideas of freedom and opportunity. The idea that no matter where and to whom you were born, you start free, and should have a fair shot at success.”

Freedom, of course, has been a central Conservative idea, but parties are free to nudge one another off their squares, as the Conservatives have worked diligently to do with the notion of patriotism, once so central to Liberals’ self-image. From there Trudeau added a few other notions — education as a basic right, trade as a source of prosperity — and flirted with what could be a risky notion in a Liberal room: resource exports as a key Canadian asset. But he couched in a way that revealed how sloppy the Harper government, once so careful to keep up at least the appearance of environmental virtue, has been at defending that vulnerable flank. “It is a fundamental economic responsibility for the Prime Minister of Canada to help get our resources to global markets,” Trudeau said. “More and more, the way to do that is with a robust environmental policy that gives assurances to our trading partners that those resources are being developed responsibly.”

That bland excerpt drew one of several long standing ovations. I’ve seen earlier Liberal crowds, for longer than I would ever have thought possible, haul themselves to their feet for jarring, overly laboured, awkward or barely comprehensible lines delivered by a succession of over-credentialed stumblebums. This was different. This enthusiasm came more naturally to this audience.

In interviews on my book tour I’ve used a gruesome analogy to explain Stephen Harper’s success at keeping his Conservative base long after Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark started to lose theirs (in Mulroney’s case, through the spectacular defection of thousands of militants and millions of voters to the upstart Reform Party). To people who spend their lives calling themselves conservatives, Clark and Mulroney weren’t conservative. In an early episode of the TV show Walking Dead, post-apocalyptic humans realize that if they smell like zombies they can walk among them. Stephen Harper smells like a conservative to Conservatives. They trust him and will go far with him, even when the direction seems uncertain or confusing.

Justin Trudeau is the first Liberal leader since Jean Chrétien who smells like a Liberal to Liberals. And in the most intriguing part of the speech, he set about doing to Harper what Harper has been so energetically doing to one Liberal leader after another: peeling the party base off the leader.

“Many Canadians who voted Conservative last time are beginning to cast a weary eye on this government,” he said.

“I say this to the grassroots Conservatives out there, in communities across this country. We might not agree all the time on everything. We might disagree about a great many things, but I know we can agree on this: Negativity cannot be this country’s lifeblood. It may be the way of the Conservative Party’s of Canada current leadership, but it is not the way of those Canadians who voted Conservative.”

He went on in this vein for some time. For the first time, he was suggesting, not that Harper is too conservative, but that he is not many conservatives’ idea of a proper leader for their movement. This is a tough row to hoe. The most frequent response from many Conservative partisans will be more derisive laughter. And the likelihood of Trudeau giving up before he gets very far with this strategy is probably high. Liberals are really good at dropping a strategy before it pays off. But in one recent poll, the Liberals were the second choice of 1/4 of Conservative supporters.

Harper has spent a decade collapsing the Liberal vote. He has had tremendous help from a decade’s worth of Liberal leaders. As a result of that stellar combined effort, the Liberals are the party with the most ground to make up if they are to hope to compete for power. But Justin Trudeau has put Liberals in a mood to fight, and now he is knocking at Harper’s door. Things got interesting today.

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