The Canadian punditry was too quick to call the Liberal Party down and out for the count in 2011. It made the mistake of over-reading the last two weeks of a tough campaign, and then going from there to predicting the demise of the Liberal Party.
The New Democrats, whose meteoric rise in those same two weeks had convinced them that their dream of replacing the Liberals had suddenly come true, almost choked on their own hubris, as did a Conservative Party only too happy to pretend the political landscape had changed for all time. But the convenient thought that the centre was irrelevant, and that Canadians want nothing more than a fight between left and right, is simply not true.
When I became the interim leader of the Liberal Party, now reduced to 34 seats in the far corner of the House of Commons, I was in fact in familiar territory, and I knew, to quote Kipling’s words, that triumph and disaster were both impostors. While the thrill of official opposition status seemed to mean the world to the NDP, the reality is that in a multi-party house in a majority parliament, titles mean very little (apart from a nice house in Rockcliffe), and success is measured in ability to gain attention and focus in the House, and keep working in the country. We kept the party in the game, and Canadians were more than open to our message.
Justin Trudeau has neither been anointed nor crowned. He has won a hard-fought campaign, elected by a massive majority of over a hundred thousand electors – the most decisive and unequivocal mandate ever received by a political leader in the history of the country. He was not chosen by a committee, or by some elite, but by people, young and old, who took the time and trouble to engage. Justin Trudeau won an eight-month campaign with a majority that was more than decisive: It was defining. Canadians liked what they heard, and they responded.
Now the work begins. The past two years are simply a prologue to a two-year march to the next election. The course ahead is clear enough: show a continuing capacity to take on the government and the NDP in the House; build the platform for support at the policy convention in 2014; and take the remarkable volunteer organization built for the leadership and turn it into a national campaign for the election of 2015.
The Conservatives, judging from their graceless press release after Mr. Trudeau’s remarkable win, will argue that the new Liberal leader is inexperienced. This sounds much like the attacks on candidate Barack Obama. It’s an attack that misses the point completely: Mr. Trudeau and his team have just organized the most successful leadership campaign in Canadian history. The snarky attacks from a tired party that can draw on nothing better than its own nastiness will no doubt need a response, but not one in kind. The New Democrats’ problems have not disappeared, nor are they to be dismissed (we made that mistake before). But three-party contests can be won.
The resilience of the Liberal idea – policies based on evidence, respecting freedom and markets but understanding that Canadians want their governments to work together; a country thirsting for a new vision and effective execution – has now been matched by a leader who clearly likes people and enjoys campaigning, whose sunny ways will indeed attract support because he is by a considerable stretch more likeable, approachable, and engaging than either Mr. Harper or Mr. Mulcair. Canadians will respond to a leader who wants to engage them, and they like the positive message.
Advice? I don’t have any. Keep doing what you’re doing, and show people who you are. The Liberals will win with the better leader, the better team, the better ideas, and the better organization. And to that we add work. The pundits and those who feed on them will have to go back to the drawing board.
Bob Rae is the former interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and former premier of Ontario