Opinion-Policy Nexus

Published Feb. 19, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

What to make of the federal Liberal leadership race?

To start with, it is not so much a race as a promenade, a restrained afternoon stroll in the park. There are nine – count them, nine – candidates (or strollers), six of whom have yet to acknowledge they are doomed to be embarrassed when the vote is announced in Ottawa on April 14. Common sense suggests the doomed six get out of the way to permit Liberal supporters to concentrate on the three who actually matter: Justin Trudeau, Martha Hall Findlay and Marc Garneau.

That’s not likely to happen. The nine will carry on, being polite to one another (and boring everyone else) for the next eight weeks.

It was mildly interesting, I thought, when the nine met in a genteel encounter (not a genuine debate) in Mississauga last Saturday – interesting because both Garneau and Hall Findlay tried to get into Trudeau’s face just a little bit. But civility was quickly restored. Minutes after attacking Trudeau, Garneau defended him, and the crowd applauded. The next day, Hall Findlay posted a public apology to Trudeau for suggesting he might be a wealthy elitist who is out of touch with the middle class – which, even if true, is scarcely the most devastating critique ever offered of a candidate for national leadership (remember last fall’s U.S. presidential election?)

There are reasons for all this politeness. There’s a desire among Liberals to protect the Liberal brand or what is left of it. The party is in third place, struggling to redeem itself and revive its electoral prospects. A divisive leadership campaign would not assist the cause.

Another reason. The other eight candidates are well aware that, barring the inconceivable, Justin Trudeau is going to be their leader on April 14. He’s already their best fund-raiser. Attacking him now will not advance their leadership campaigns; it will simply supply ammunition to the viciously efficient Conservative propaganda machine. Watch for the first Tory attack ads on April 15, if not sooner.

A third thought. The Liberals think they see a glimmer of hope in recent polling numbers. Three national polls this month all put the Conservatives in the lead, but two made the Liberals a close second or in a virtual tie for second with the NDP. The Liberals are in flux, with numbers in the three polls ranging from a low of 21 per cent to a high of 30 per cent.

One thing seems clear. The Liberals’ numbers improve and their prospects brighten when Trudeau is factored in. In one poll, Liberal support jumped 11 points, to 41 per cent (and first place) when respondents were asked how they would vote if Trudeau became leader.

Among Liberal supporters, the issue is not whether Trudeau is the best candidate for leader (which he may or may not be) but whether he is the only candidate in this large but thin field who Grits think has a realistic chance of leading the party back to power. The answer to that appears to be Yes.

“Whether or not a Trudeau-led party would actually get 41 per cent is a little beside the point,” writes poll analyst Eric Grenier. “That such a large proportion of Canadians are willing to ditch their current party of choice easily is more significant.”

Canadians are looking for change in 2013. This is certainly not a new phenomenon. It was desire for change that filled Jack Layton’s sails and produced the “Orange Surge” that made the New Democrats the official opposition. It was desire for change that brought on the Ontario Liberal government’s near-death experience in October 2011. And federal Liberals with long memories have not forgotten another Ottawa April 45 years ago when desire for change propelled an earlier Trudeau into the Liberal leadership (and into 24 Sussex Drive with a majority government).

Like father like son? Hope springs eternal, even in the battered, besieged Liberal Party of Canada.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 16:00