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April 12, 2013

Justin Trudeau just might be a contender

Geoffrey Stevens

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A week from now Justin Trudeau will slip on his father's old shoes (sandals perhaps) as the new national leader of the Liberal party. Everything will change. Or will it?

Will it be a watershed moment in Canadian politics — a fresh beginning for the proud Liberals? Or just a last kick at the can by a tired third-place party running on the fumes of nostalgia as it struggles to stave off irrelevancy?

The Liberals themselves don’t know, which makes this transition especially intriguing. They very much hope it is a new beginning. That hope was on display in Toronto on Saturday at their “national showcase” (a fancy label for an afternoon of political speechifying). It was especially evident the faces of the young people who have been drawn to the party in large numbers by Justin’s candidacy.

One would like to believe in that hope. One would like to believe that this time it will be different, that the party has moved on and learned from the false hopes and failed leaderships of Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. One would like to believe that Justin is the real deal, that he actually can bring a younger generation of idealists and activists into the political mainstream. One would like to think the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson was missing something when he dismissed Justin’s Saturday speech, sourly, as “a barn-burner of a speech utterly devoid of substance.”

(I wonder many leadership speeches over the years, barnburners or no, could honestly be described as being chock full of substance. They tend to be safe, predictable and formulaic. Judged by that modest yardstick, Justin’s speech was better than most, I thought. But I digress.)

What can safely be said is that Justin has come some distance since he entered the leadership contest last October. He has progressed from being an attractive, articulate novice with a famous parent to a serious politician and a capable performer in his own right. His name helps, of course, but there is more to him than the Trudeau name.

His detractors find him light on policy. That judgment can be made of many opposition politicians. Why should any new leader lay out his ideas a full 30 months before the next election? That would give the Harper Conservatives far too much time to nuke them in attack ads. For the moment, Trudeau is better served by attacking Tory government policy. He does that with conviction.

Some veteran observers admit they are more impressed than they expected to be. Columnist Chantal Hébert assessed Justin’s performance during a two-hour session with the Toronto Star editorial board last Friday, comparing it to similar appearances she had witnessed by Jean Charest, Lucien Bouchard, Jean Chrétien, and Dion and Ignatieff.

“As measured on the scale of the editorial board performances of his Liberal predecessors, his [Trudeau’s] was substantively more solid,” Hébert wrote. “That suggests that by the time the 2015 election comes around some 30 months from now, Trudeau might have grown into a formidable contender.”

He possesses some of his father’s eloquence. “The truth is, Canadians want to vote for something, not just against somebody,” he said in his Toronto speech. “They want to vote for a long term vision that embodies our values, our dreams and our aspirations.”

No, he doesn’t offer much substance to that vision. But he does inspire hope — and that’s been a rare commodity in the Liberal party in recent years. Rare and precious.

Trudeau will succeed or fail on his ability to sustain that hope and to use it to inspire students and other young voters.

His ability to connect with young people is special. Pierre Trudeau had it. Jack Layton had it. Stephen Harper certainly doesn’t have it. That alone will make the Trudeau-Harper confrontation in the next election fascinating to observe. If Chantal Hébert is right and Justin develops into a “formidable contender,” it will be an election to remember.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

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