Liberal leadership hopefuls will make their final pitch to eligible voters today but unless a surprise of epic proportions is in the works, Justin Trudeau will be announced as their new leader next weekend.
What will he need to do to bring his party back to contention?
The numbers for Trudeau are already looking good, with polls now showing the Liberals in a close race for first place —even without mention of his name. But the next election is still more than two years away, and keeping those numbers high will be no easy feat.
For Trudeau, the key to victory in 2015 will be taking advantage of the weaknesses of a nine-year-old government. But to do so he will have to demonstrate that, after nearly a decade in the wilderness, the Liberals are serious, competent, and ready to govern.
That may prove difficult for Trudeau, who is 12 and 17 years younger than Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair, respectively, and has far less experience in government. After all, Mulcair was a cabinet minister in Jean Charest’s Liberal government in Quebec before he left the party. Emphasizing the team behind him, then, will be paramount in order to counteract the perception that Trudeau is a lightweight. That stigma is one that Tories and New Democrats will do their best to instill in the public’s mind.
The ingredients of a strong team are already present. Though seriously reduced over the last few elections, the Liberal caucus still contains the likes of Scott Brison, Dominic LeBlanc, and Ralph Goodale, while Marc Garneau and Joyce Murray increased their profiles during the party’s leadership race. Trudeau’s star-power and potential to deliver electoral success at the ballot box will also make it easier for him to attract quality candidates, both fresh faces who have never before been affiliated with the Liberal Party and former MPs and provincial politicians who will bring their experience to the roster.
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As an optimistic and relatively new voice on the Canadian political scene, Trudeau will be well placed against a tired Conservative administration and the still somewhat unfamiliar New Democrats. But while Trudeau will need to position himself as a viable prime minister-in-waiting — a considerable challenge in itself — he will also have to keep the Liberals as the main alternative to Conservatives in the minds of Canadians. While that has been the party’s traditional role, it can no longer be taken for granted after the NDP’s breakthrough in 2011.
Trudeau is already trying to portray the Liberals under his leadership as a pragmatic, progressive alternative, but Mulcair has also been striving to do the same since he became NDP leader last year with some success.For many voters, however, simply being the party in the best position to defeat Harper will be enough.
Trudeau will have a leg up on the NDP from the start in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, where support for the Liberals has remained relatively strong. The east coast was the closest thing the Grits had to a bastion of support after the 2011 election and all signs point to their fortunes improving once Trudeau officially takes over.
Ontario was a Liberal fortress under Jean Chrétien but has yet to warm-up to the New Democrats under Mulcair, so Trudeau will have an easier time boosting support there. The provincial Liberals under Kathleen Wynne have, so far, proven themselves not to be the drag on the Liberal brand that Dalton McGuinty was becoming before his departure.
While Ontario and Atlantic Canada are promising for the Liberals, Quebec will be more of a challenge. The party still carries the baggage of the sponsorship scandal and the Trudeau name does not go very far in some corners of the province. Because of that, Trudeau has little potential to reduce the Bloc Québécois support (it is down to the base as it is) and it will be difficult for him to encourage the voters who swung from the Bloc to the NDP in 2011 to come over to his tent. Francophone, soft-nationalist Quebecers will not be fertile ground for the Liberals and they make up a large proportion of the electorate outside of Montreal and the Outaouais region.
The party will have an easier time among French-speaking federalists who traditionally voted Liberal if Trudeau emerges as a strong federalist voice in the province. If that happens, Liberals can start winning ridings in Greater Montreal and anglophones on the island should flock back to the party if Liberals are again seen as the best federalist vehicle in Quebec.
While there is decent potential for growth east of Manitoba, things will remain difficult for the Liberals in the west. In British Columbia, the political fight remains primarily between the Conservatives and the New Democrats, while the Liberal brand stands to take a hit due to Christy Clark’s likely defeat in May. But retaining their seats and perhaps grabbing one or two more in and around Vancouver is not unrealistic for the Trudeau Liberals. If a provincial NDP government led by Adrian Dix falters, there might be an opportunity for the party in 2015. But the polls suggest the race will not be substantially transformed by Trudeau’s arrival on the scene.
In Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, there is little sign that voters are warming up to Trudeau. The best he can hope for is to rebuild some bridges for the future, maybe steal a seat or two in Alberta, and win back a few of the ridings they have lost over the last few elections in Winnipeg. But the NDP remains better positioned in the western provinces than Liberals.
It makes for a long list of to-dos for Justin Trudeau but there is no reason to assume that the Liberals will not have a chance by 2015. Politicians are so disliked in Canada (and elsewhere) that even a moderately likable and charming leader with a hopeful style could go far. The Liberals will have an opportunity to take advantage of the interest that will surround Trudeau’s leadership.
If they don’t squander it, the long road back could begin.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.
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