The Liberal convention is a risky proposition for Justin Trudeau

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.