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Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Brian Singh

Trudeau has seduced us, but now must consummate the marriage with NDP and voters Add to ...

Justin Trudeau predictably is now the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. With 80 per cent support from an 82 per cent turnout, his victory proved that he is the party’s consensus choice.

But while his proposal and engagement to the party appear strong, there is much he and his party have to do before they can consummate any marriage with the voters of Canada.

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Mr. Trudeau’s election this weekend coincided with four related events: the NDP’s policy convention in Montreal; the campaign for the May 13 Labrador federal by-election for the seat vacated by Peter Penashue; the call by Liberal candidate Joyce Murray for collaboration among progressive parties; and another organized campaign for a one-time collaboration with the NDP.

All, in various ways, point to challenges that Mr. Trudeau will face over the next two years. And the unifying theme here is marriages of convenience.

A marriage of convenience is one contracted for reasons other than relationship or love. It is done for a strategic purpose and personal gain. The gain framed here, and called for by many, is one where Liberals and NDP form a one-time pact to win the 2015 election with a goal for electoral reform.

Let’s look at these events.

A great number of commentators in recent weeks have called for a coalition of the Liberals and NDP to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Within the parties, such collaboration has been favoured by NDP MP Nathan Cullen and Liberal MP Joyce Murray, who each finished second in their respective leadership races.

Along with a number of columnists and strategists, they crunched the numbers and surmised that 60 per cent of voters presents a real opportunity for a unified progressive party. Ms. Murray earned just over 10 per cent of the points, but also attracted support from others seeking party co-operation, including Green Party and post-partisan voters (i.e., the growing segment with no party affiliation). This notion of collaboration speaks to the quiet majority of Canada’s progressives – a group that heavily favours electoral reform, that wants its votes to matter, and that seeks representation.

This leads to the forthcoming May 13 by-election. Many are calling for the original race to play out as it did in 2011 between the Conservatives (Mr. Penashue) and Liberals (now Yvonne Jones). In the spirit of co-operation, the Green Party immediately stated that it would not be fielding a candidate. However, the reality is that it never had a chance, and Green leader Elizabeth May – who has the most to gain – was not going to miss an opportunity play politics with this event.

Meanwhile, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is adamant that the New Democrats are in the mix and stated “we have every intention of getting [candidate] Harry Borlase elected.” While be this may be a worthwhile endeavour, some may feel that this is a waste of their resources and could be a low-risk test of collaboration. This seat will likely return to the Liberals – but because of the events that precipitated the by-election, not on the strength of the Liberal brand.

This leads to the last key event: the NDP convention on the weekend. More than 2,000 delegates came to Montreal, heart of their 59-seat Quebec beachhead, their attention squarely focused on the 2015 election. But the most dramatic event of the weekend was the dropping of the word “socialism” from their constitution. This is a clear play to broaden their appeal, move to the centre and improve their electability.

This brings us back to marriages of convenience.

Justin Trudeau was always the clear choice for Liberal leadership. However, the most cynical would say that this was never a race. It was a marriage of convenience. No doubt pollsters will begin to investigate the substance and effect of Trudeau brand, and his famous last name, among the electorate amidst this dead zone between elections.

But who exactly is Justin Trudeau? A likeable character with politics in his DNA, he appears to be open to defining himself and his leadership of the Liberal Party. His performance over the last four months has generally been faultless, and he established a track record as a revenue generator. In his acceptance speech he distanced himself from his father’s past, and decried the “negative, divisive politics of Mr. Harper’s Conservatives.”

However, Justin Trudeau is no fan of party co-operation – he is “unimpressed that the NDP, under Mr. Mulcair, have decided that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.” On the subject of party marriage, Mr. Trudeau speaks only to the partisan core of Liberals.

The reality remains that, even with their similar policies and positions, a marriage between the NDP and the Liberals is hard. In my own polling over the last five years, there are noted differences between their supporters. NDP supporters are mix of highly-engaged, educated, socially active innovators and less connected older, blue-collar union-oriented types.

The Liberals, by comparison, look a lot more like the Conservatives in terms of age, education and social and political engagement. A recent poll by Abacus Data indicated that the second-choice party for over one-quarter (28 per cent) of Liberals is the Conservative Party. For Conservatives, a Liberal vote would be their second choice for over half (57 per cent). This is understandable. Liberals and Conservatives are the only parties that have led the country. Even while they hold one-third of seats of the NDP, most Liberals still view theirs as the natural party to lead Canada.

Much of this new round of dialogue about marriages of convenience emanated from the three by-elections last November – specifically, the Calgary Centre one where progressives managed to get 63 per cent of the vote and yet lost to the Conservative.

With the Liberals’ post-conference re-emergence in the polls and Mr. Mulcair moving the NDP to the centre, voters can expect more of the same for the future. This lack of consideration does not bode well for progressive voters.

Either way, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau will continue to lead their parties for a division of about 60 per cent of the electorate. Mr. Harper likes this math and continues to quietly cement his support among the remaining 40 per cent, with a hope that continued vote splitting will likely lead to another Conservative majority. The reality of electoral math is that, beyond the most faithfully partisan, the centre-left is running the risk of frustrating its base.

Of the two-thirds of Canadians voters who lie within the centre-left spectrum, Mr. Trudeau needs to convince them that the Liberal Party is the one of the future and to move them out of the doldrums of 35 seats to become Canada’s second party -- at worst. For Mr. Mulcair, the challenge is to show that the NDP is a party that can lead the country. Either way, Mr. Harper and the Conservatives are moving along with their existing strategy and will continue to stoke the fire that divides progressives.

In the absence of any resolution on cooperation, Mr. Trudeau (as Liberal Leader) and Mr. Mulcair (with a new constitution) appear to have committed their parties to another individual battle for the hearts of voters in 2015. As with any marriage they have to earn the trust of the electorate. And may they remember that a strong marriage is based on an alignment of values -- values of progressive voters that continue to be tugged two or three ways.

Brian Singh, the president of Zinc Research, is a political consultant based in Calgary.

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