If there is one name that still evokes shudders in many parts of the West it is Pierre Trudeau.
While the national energy program that the Liberal prime minister introduced in 1980 targeted the oil fields of Alberta, it eventually became synonymous with attempts by Eastern political elites to shaft the West. And it's one of the central reasons that as an institution the Liberal Party has been in decline from the Ontario border to the Pacific ever since.
We mention this in light of interim federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae's surprise announcement Wednesday that he will not seek the leadership of his party. This is certain to ramp up pressure on Justin Trudeau to reconsider his decision not to run.
Many see Mr. Trudeau as the only person in the party firmament capable of mounting the kind of miraculous political resurrection it would take to make the Liberal brand relevant again – anywhere. He has that flair and chutzpah that reminds party elders of his famous papa. With Justin at the helm, they can even allow themselves to imagine a Trudeaumania II sweeping the land.
Let's hope Mr. Trudeau doesn't succumb to those types of delusional fantasies.
If he does change his mind and run, Justin Trudeau would have an enormous job in front of him. Actually, the mind boggles at the challenge. Why would he take on such a thankless and seemingly impossible task? It would be tough enough in the East and Central Canada, but in the West – where the Trudeau name is mud – odds of him making any headway are pretty much zero.
Sure, a glamourpuss city like Vancouver would likely welcome a Trudeau candidacy – they still elect the odd federal Grit. Liberal MP Ralph Goodale could probably find a coffee shop in Wascana, Sask., that would allow Mr. Trudeau to speak to party supporters. And Manitoba Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux might be able to convince a pub owner in the north part of Winnipeg to allow the young political star to press his cause there.
Beyond that it would be hard slogging. Then again, it's going to be an unappreciated assignment for any of the Liberal candidates.
Fact is, the Liberals are irrelevant in the fastest growing region of the country, where they remain viewed as the party of Ontario and Quebec. They can take direct credit for giving birth to the Western separatist movement in the early 1980s and fuelling a renewed conservatism that would eventually give us Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Much of that legacy is tied to the Trudeau name.
Successive Liberal leaders since P.E.T. have tried to make amends with the West and mostly failed. Paul Martin scored some electoral gains, particularly in B.C., but his tenure was short-lived. He was succeeded by Stéphane Dion, whose penalty-imposing green platform was a non-starter in a region of the country dependent on resource extraction.
Mr. Dion was turfed in favour of Michael Ignatieff, who tried to apologize for his predecessor's insensitivity to the importance of petroleum deposits like the oil sands to the national economy. It didn't matter. He and the Liberals were further decimated in the West in last year's election – reduced to a mere four seats.
One of the problems for the Liberals is how a progressive party reconciles the oil sands and resource development with the kind of action on the environment that their supporters demand. Mr. Trudeau's candidacy, if it were to happen, would likely be substantially underwritten by young people across the country, who are only going to demand tougher action on the environment.
The Liberal brand in Western Canada is surely a spent force, mostly due to a political tone-deafness over the years that is almost incomprehensible to imagine. Mr. Ignatieff once told me that a national party that doesn't shift with the political centre of gravity in a country does not have a future. He was right.
Justin Trudeau may be the party's best hope for some type of revival, although not in the West. But maybe at this point the Liberals don't care. After all, for years they did okay mostly worrying about Ontario and Quebec.