Justin Trudeau's election as Liberal leader has breathed new life into a Liberal Party that was demoralized by a third place finish in 2011. Of course, a newly elected leader usually enjoys a honeymoon period, and politics ultimately consists of good and bad news cycles. Justin Trudeau himself was cautious about his party's prospects in a recent interview with Peter Mansbridge. When asked about Liberals who felt a return to government was a real possibility in 2015, Trudeau managed expectations, talking about hard work ahead and indicating a process that could stretch over several election cycles.
Nonetheless, 2015 has become more interesting, with the potential of a genuine three-party race where the NDP, Liberals, and Conservatives can all claim to be serious contenders for 24 Sussex Drive.
Justin Trudeau ran a policy-light leadership campaign, but it would be hard to say he is someone without substance or convictions. During the leadership race, Trudeau took a strong stand for multiculturalism when he addressed the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference despite attempts to create controversy. Furthermore, Trudeau was an early supporter of the Idle No More movement, meeting with Chief Theresa Spence during her fast.
National unity is another issue where Trudeau has firmly staked his ground. The Mansbridge interview featured a video of Trudeau from his college days, arguing as part of a debate club the case for national unity when this was unpopular at his Quebec school. When interviewed, the young Justin Trudeau said it did not matter if his position was unpopular, it was about doing what was right.
It is worth noting that Justin Trudeau -- as a strong federalist -- would become MP by winning in a riding that had been held by the Bloc Quebecois.
An unusual stance is on free trade, where Trudeau has sought to distinguish his party from the NDP -- portraying them as anti-free trade and not understanding the economy even though, under Mulcair, the NDP showed more support for free trade deals. It is interesting to note that in the 1988 federal election, it was the Liberals who made opposition to Mulroney's Canada U.S. Free Trade agreement a centrepiece of their campaign; it figured less prominently in the NDP campaign. That election was credited with reviving Liberal fortunes after the devastating 1984 defeat, and with paving the way for a Liberal return to power in 1993.
While there has been opposition to a Chinese state-owned enterprise buying stakes in the tar sands -- the CNOOC-Nexen deal -- Trudeau supported this move during his leadership campaign. Trudeau's Liberals have since voted against an NDP motion to stop the Canada-China FIPA deal, despite serious concerns about the terms of the agreement. Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom took issue with Trudeau's first question as leader to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on tariffs increasing the price of toys -- "little red wagons." Walkom wrote, "In most countries most politicians would ask why the little red wagons are no longer manufactured at home."
International trade is important, but it is important to consider whether Canada's interests are being served, and to acknowledge that certain trade agreements may not be good for Canada.
It is a challenge for the federal Liberals to carve a distinct political niche for themselves, especially where the NDP are not only serious contenders for power, but also quickly moving to the centre ground the Liberals once dominated.
The last Ontario provincial election -- while tainted by the politically motivated cancellation of gas power plant constructions -- offers an illustrative example for Liberals. Where Dalton McGuinty was initially pegged as set for a major electoral loss, he ultimately won re-election despite facing tough competition from both Tories and the NDP. In large part, the Liberals won by outflanking a surging NDP on the left on key issues, notably environmental conservation.
The McGuinty government had been closing polluting coal power plants and promoting sustainable forms of energy such as wind. As well, the McGuinty government had established a Greenbelt conservation area to preserve forests and farmlands and contain sprawl around the Greater Toronto Area and urbanized western Lake Ontario.
These policies earned Liberals an endorsement from David Suzuki, establishing the Liberals as the party that was taking seriously the challenges of climate change and the need to build a green economy.
Innovative public policy is also key. Ontario's current Liberal premier, Kathleen Wynne, has re-introduced the Local Foods Act, which would promote local foods through measures such as requiring government facilities -- such as hospitals -- to serve at least 25% local food. This legislation would also promote educational initiatives encouraging local food consumption as well as provide funding for local food projects. These are key measures in supporting Ontario's agricultural industry and in strengthening economic links between cities and rural areas.
There is real potential -- with a new leader -- for the federal Liberals to carve a distinct niche, to be the party of progressive and innovative ideas, to tackle concerns such as building a sustainable economy -- a key challenge in the 21st century. On issues like immigration and multiculturalism, Trudeau can be seen as already having outflanked the NDP; he should seek to do this on issues of environmental sustainability as well. Justin Trudeau can present a Liberal party that is stridently progressive on environmental and social policy, and on human rights and multiculturalism, while maintaining a strong commitment to entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth.
Innovative ideas are key. A genuine three-party race in 2015 can potentially offer great opportunities for the Liberals to showcase their strengths in these respects -- and offer real choices for Canadians.