The Liberal Party policy convention held this week-end in Montreal had its bumps – as everything does – but it was an important moment in the renewal of the party.
If there was ever any doubt about the capacity of the team around Mr. Trudeau to put together a well-run campaign, there should be none now. It deprived journalists of ugly debate, destructive name calling, and pointless division. It was an upbeat, well-organized, well-focused event. The efforts by critics to insist that there was too much sizzle and not enough steak can be easily countered by the reality – until the election itself – that this is a slow-cooking contest, and no party’s magic recipes are going to be on display this early.
Most errors in politics are self-inflicted. Andrew Leslie’s poke at the Conservatives for having offered him a political job has its parallels in Thomas Mulcair’s similar claim. The Conservatives keep tapes and records of these things, so it’s never a good idea to tease the bear. But even that is a media storm quickly obliterated by the next daily quagmire.
The policy resolutions approved at conventions are not a political platform, and efforts by the other parties and their supporters to make them so won’t really work. They are a framework and a set of objectives that, above all, reflect to what extent Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have weakened the role of the federal government. From the environment to child care to housing and transportation, the national government has become a ghost. Don’t expect Liberals to meet and say this is a wonderful thing.
The next election will be about both style and substance, and all parties will need to remember that. The Liberal Party’s key messages are clear: Mr. Trudeau is a new, young leader who listens. Canadians want a different kind of politics. And Canada deserves a better, more compassionate, and more competent, government.
What Mr. Trudeau’s critics fail to grasp is that he is a politician. Which means he is part manager, part teacher, part speech maker, part performer, part inspirer, and all parts leader. He knows how politics works, he knows how to organize, and he knows how to win. Sarah Palin thought she scored points when she made fun of Barack Obama’s work as a “community worker.” Liberal delegates saw a wonderful Obama video where he could be seen brushing this off his suit like so much lint. Mr. Trudeau could well do the same, except that it’s a little too soon for that.
The election is a ways off yet – although I wouldn’t bet the farm on the so-called “fixed date” of fall 2015 – and it is never wise to underestimate anyone in this race. But Mr. Trudeau’s speech on Saturday – well-crafted and well delivered – shows that he has a talent and resilience that his foes should respect. He prefers the hustings to the House of Commons and Question Period, but I suspect most Canadians feel the same way. By trying to connect with Canadians at a different level he should give both Conservatives and New Democrats some concern. Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper can spar all they want in the House, and the parliamentary press gallery can tweet and comment themselves silly, but not everyone is watching. Mr. Trudeau and his advisors are aware of all this.
Mr. Trudeau’s Senate announcement showed he is determined to take charge, and is not afraid to upset some people in the process. The convention reflects the same reality. As long as the popularity of the party grows, this will work. Harold Wilson once said that the way to ensure unity on the party political train is to make sure it’s always moving forward at an acceptable speed. Neither Mr. Harper nor Mr. Mulcair are going to give the Liberals a free ride, and this is when the real contest will begin. That in turn will reveal the real depth of support of all three leaders, and all three parties. This is the national conversation that is just beginning in the build-up to the next election. But things are getting very interesting, and there’s everything to play for.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.