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Justin Trudeau, Scott Brison, Dominic Leblanc (Reuters, The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail)
Justin Trudeau, Scott Brison, Dominic Leblanc (Reuters, The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

The next generation is the Liberals' salvation Add to ...

In its 14-decade history, the Liberal Party of Canada has never named a young man to become its leader. In 1919, the year he became leader, Mackenzie King turned 45. He was the youngest.

Today, as it faces its existential crisis, the party has an opportunity to change the record and bring forward a new generation to lead it. Three potential leadership candidates - Dominic Leblanc, Scott Brison and Justin Trudeau - are all younger than the captains who have come before.

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The young guns arrive at a time when Canada's post-baby-boom generation finally appears ready to assert itself. Given the veteran nature of the other party leaders, the trio presents the Grits with the potential of regeneration and relevance.

Normally, after a drubbing at the polls and a leader's resignation, it would make good sense to appoint a party elder as interim boss and then take a year or two to select a new leader.

But given the dire circumstances, the Liberals cannot afford to bide their hand-wringing time, which would give the New Democrats a chance to cement their second-place status. At an important caucus meeting Wednesday, the party would be wise to arrange for an early convention.

Many Liberals are looking to Justin Trudeau, who is 39. On the basis of name alone, they have reason to do so. A good bet would be that with the Trudeau name at the top, the Grits would overtake the NDP in the polls within a few months. Party enthusiasm would be rekindled. Desperately needed financing would start to come in.

Mr. Trudeau does have a lot of drawbacks - he would be a decidedly risky choice. He doesn't have much experience in Ottawa, he carries the baggage of his father, he is considered light on policy. There would be growing pains aplenty. The Conservatives' smear machine would have a field day.

But the upside needs to be considered. The name recognition, the youth, the charisma, the appeal to a new generation. His father's reputation is a polarizing one, but in most polls, Pierre Trudeau still ranks as Canada's best or most popular prime minister. The name is loathed in nationalist Quebec. But it is very strong in the province's federalist precincts. The name is loathed in the West, but the Liberals will be shut out there anyway.

As for suggestions that Mr. Trudeau is light on policy, it will hardly scare away voters. Liberals have just discovered what happens to erudite leaders. Conservative Stephen Harper ran a campaign in which he seemed determined to keep his intellect in check. New Democrat Jack Layton didn't soar because of policy, but because of personality.

There are those who say the Liberals must go back to the drawing board and begin a long rebuilding process. They forget how fickle political fates are. They forget that had it been Michael Ignatieff, instead of Mr. Layton, who struck a chord in the English-language debate, the Grits could well be sitting with 110 seats now.

Mr. Ignatieff worked to rebuild the party. He spent an entire summer on the buses, going to every riding imaginable. But the fresh ideas didn't come. The rebuilding didn't happen. He would have been better off spending the money on what the Conservatives regrettably have made the most important element of a party's political arsenal - personal attack ads.

Liberals need remember also that the NDP's great leap forward could soon turn to a great leap in the other direction. Canadian party allegiances built over decades don't permanently change overnight, especially if there has been no major redrawing of policy or philosophy. In the case of Mr. Layton's party, there has been no such shift.

Given the incentive, Canada's centrist voters will likely return to their centrist party. Providing the incentive isn't complicated. It starts with the awareness that politics in this country is a one-man show. It's 75-per-cent leader. If the Liberals get the leader right, their place in the pantheon will be quickly restored.

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