It was the kind of gift politicians fantasize about receiving.
Justin Trudeau had barely landed in British Columbia this week when one of the Conservative Party’s strongest ministers in the province, James Moore, was forced to backpedal from a weekend comment about child poverty.
Mr. Moore had been asked by a reporter about B.C.’s embarrassingly high child poverty rate, to which he suggested it wasn’t altogether the government’s responsibility to fix the problem. “Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child?” the Industry Minister asked. “I don’t think so.”
Reaction was instant, fierce and condemnatory. For Mr. Moore, one of Stephen Harper’s ablest ministers and not known for such spectacular acts of political tone deafness, it was an embarrassing slip-up.
For Mr. Trudeau, on the minister’s turf looking for votes, it played perfectly into the narrative he’s been crafting about the Conservatives: that they represent a fundamentally mean, cynical and uncaring government. The young Grit leader, on the other hand, promises an administration with soul and heart.
Given that Mr. Moore apologized unreservedly for the callous remark, Mr. Trudeau didn’t milk the incident to the extent he might have. (He could hardly continue to chant about ending the “politics of negativity,” then kick a guy while he was down.) But you can bet it will be used by the Liberals in some guise down the road, in the same way that the Conservatives will exploit any number of the bizarre, ill-advised comments Mr. Trudeau himself has made over the past couple of years.
Mr. Trudeau has been buoyed by the reception he has received in B.C. since claiming the federal Liberal leadership last spring. His three-day visit this week follows up on the summer family RV tour he made through the belly of the province. He’s been to the West Coast five times in 2013 alone. There’s little question he has a connection to B.C. that’s real and profound.
As a young man, he lived and worked here for six years, part of that time as a teacher. His mother is from West Vancouver, of course, and his brother Michel was killed here when an avalanche swept him into Kokanee Lake in 1998.
These provincial credentials are certainly more impressive than any recent federal Liberal leader, and Mr. Trudeau believes they will help him establish a connection with voters that pays off in the next election.
The Liberals believe Vancouver, in particular, is filled with potential Trudeau voters. These are the same young urban professionals who support the city’s progressive-minded mayor, Gregor Robertson – a politician with whom Mr. Trudeau has much in common. They’re both in their 40s, both highly telegenic with primary appeal that seems to stem more from charisma than intellect.
Right now, polls indicate that B.C.’s voting public likes what it sees; since the spring, the Liberals have polled stronger than they have in years. They have alternated in first place with the New Democrats and Conservatives. If an election were held tomorrow, the Liberals would make major gains over their showing in 2011, when they won just two seats in B.C. (The Conservatives took 21, the NDP took 12 and the Greens took one.)
On Tuesday night, nearly 1,000 federal Liberal supporters showed up at the Victoria convention centre to hear Mr. Trudeau say a few words. Predecessors Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff could have only dreamed of attracting that number. It speaks to this candidate’s undeniable star power, which must drive New Democrats and Conservatives mad. He doesn’t have to say much of substance right now; it’s all about establishing a bond with the public.
But the pressure on Mr. Trudeau is going to intensify. He will soon have to start explaining to the country precisely how he intends to build this utopian universe of his. How he plans to address issues such as income inequality, for instance, in a way that differentiates him from the Conservatives and NDP.
For now, he sails through political life on a great smile and a famous last name. But at some point, that won’t be enough.
Follow me on Twitter:@garymasonglobe