LIBERALS

Inside Justin Trudeau's war room

The Globe and Mail

Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau and executive assistant Louis-Alexandre Lanthier during a campaign stop in St-Bruno, Quebec, February 21, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

Justin Trudeau is in a black Mercedes compact SUV, on the road between a seniors’ residence in Victoriaville, Que., and a food court in Sherbrooke. At the wheel is a young organizer named Marie-Laurence Lapointe, whose dad was a major fundraiser for Mr. Trudeau’s own father.

The Liberal scion is just beginning a conference call with his senior aides, who are scattered around central Canada. On the line are his close friend and senior strategist Gerald Butts, his policy advisers Mike McNair and Robert Asselin, and his press secretary Kate Monfette.

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The 41-year-old son of Canada’s 15th prime minister is still learning the finer arts of his craft. But the Liberal leadership race – in which, six weeks before the April 14 vote, he is running ahead of all seven of his rivals – offers the perfect opportunity to hone his skills and nurture an organization to bring his badly hobbled, third-place party into the next election.

His ultimate goal is to retool the machinery of power in Ottawa to respond to both the communication styles and practical needs of a new generation. But on this Friday morning he is checking in to get his team’s read on the day’s news, put out any immediate fires and prepare for what might come his way at the midday media scrum.

The mood is light: Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts lament the Habs’ overtime loss the previous night, while Mr. McNair revels in a Maple Leafs victory. At one point, however, Mr. Asselin urges Mr. Trudeau to stop talking about what percentages would give Quebec sovereigntists a referendum victory.

The party’s policy has long been that 50 per cent plus one would not be enough, without further specifics. But in a question-and-answer session earlier in the week, Mr. Trudeau suddenly said his threshold would be over 66 per cent, angering some Quebeckers and creating a commotion in the media.

“We are giving oxygen to this story,” says Mr. Asselin, an academic and former junior-hockey player, quietly but forcefully.

He doesn’t need to belabour his point. “They are trying to milk my comments as much as they can,” Mr. Trudeau agrees. “If I’m asked about it … I’ll say that is not what people are talking to me about on the ground – that people are focused on the future, their jobs and those issues. …”

The group also assesses what’s coming out of the other leadership-campaign camps.

Ms. Monfette (in French): “I guess you’ve heard Marc Garneau [the former astronaut and current Liberal contender] in the news this morning about your comments on the 66-per cent and everything that followed. Also, [Liberal MP] Joyce Murray is in the news, given that she has won the support of [scientist and TV host] David Suzuki.”

Mr. Trudeau (in French): “Listen, regarding Marc, I’ll stick to the high road. I had a small question on that this morning, and I repeated the lines about the fact we have differences of opinion, which has always been a strength of the Liberal Party, and that at the end of the day, we will be a very strong, united team to face off against Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper.”

(He switches to English.)

“To reinforce that, and I wanted to check with you guys, but I’m thinking, like I said yesterday, that it’s a good thing that David is supporting Joyce. What we need to do is highlight the fact that he is supporting a Liberal candidate, and that’s a positive piece of message, that he sees a space and a role for us.

“Secondly, he is highlighting the ‘supporter’ class” – the new arrangement that allows non-party-members to sign up to vote for the leadership, a key to Mr. Trudeau’s strategy – “and if we can jump on his bandwagon a bit, or at least use him as an encouragement to make sure we get more and more supporters for the Liberal Party, that’s great. So I’m thinking of tweeting out something later on that this afternoon.”

Mr. Butts: “Yeah, I agree, the key message there, and this references what you just said about Garneau, is that positive campaigns work, right? Joyce is running a positive campaign and she is attracting support because of it.”

(Ms. Murray has been advocating that the Liberals join forces with the NDP and the Green Party in the next election, and she has avoided direct attacks on other candidates.)

Mr. Trudeau: “Do I want to be that pointed, to talk about positive campaigns? Because in this context, people might see this as a dig at Marc [Garneau, who has been critical of Mr. Trudeau’s lack of experience], and I don’t necessarily want to highlight that. I don’t want to necessarily even engage – I don’t think I need to.”

The Pierre paradox

It’s an undeniable plus for a politician when much of the country literally remembers the day you were born. It was Christmas day, 1971; Pierre Trudeau was still Prime Minister, still married to Margaret Sinclair, and they were both global media darlings. To many Canadians, the Trudeau boys – Justin, Alexandre and Michel – were something like family.

After getting his education degree and teaching at West Point Grey Academy in B.C., Justin Trudeau leapt back into the public eye in the fall of 2000, when he gave a stirring eulogy at his father’s funeral.

The moment was a bit like Barack Obama’s at the 2008 Democratic Party convention – a single speech that creates great expectations – and Mr. Trudeau is not unaware of the parallel: In many ways he wants to do for the Liberals what Mr. Obama did for his own party.

But in Mr. Trudeau’s case it also gave the sense that he was inheriting his father’s mantle, a legacy about which Canadians – especially in Quebec and the Western provinces – are sharply divided.

The question is whether the reinvention of the broken Liberals as a 21st-century party really can be led by the golden child of its past.

Anyone who wants to vote for the leadership, party member or not, has to sign up by the end of this weekend. When the figures are released showing how many supporters each campaign has collected, it might reveal whether Mr. Trudeau really is unstoppable.

Downplaying the sense of dynasty, he likes to portray himself as an underdog, saying the Liberal brass didn’t really want him in Ottawa and didn’t help him become the party’s candidate in the riding of Papineau in 2008.

In 2011, he held on in the face of the NDP’s Orange Wave. On the road, he tells the grim joke that at least the Liberals, now down to 35 MPs in Ottawa, are guaranteed at least one seat – “because I won’t lose my riding of Papineau.”

Brand Gen X wants no squabbles

Mr. Trudeau has distanced himself from the fights that undermined the Liberal Party over the past decade. His campaign team is basically stripped of veterans of the Jean Chrétien-Paul Martin wars, including Liberal stalwarts who had wanted to be front and centre.

Instead, its core are people in their 30s and 40s whom Mr. Trudeau touts as friends, chief among them Mr. Butts and his campaign organizer, Katie Telford. It’s not a coincidence that they both got their political grooming not in Ottawa but at Queen’s Park in Ontario.

Mr. Trudeau’s political career basically began when he was 19 and met Mr. Butts at McGill University – they had height (over six feet) and Habs fandom in common, but very different backgrounds, since Mr. Butts was the son of a coal miner from Cape Breton.

“Gerry is my best friend,” Mr. Trudeau says in an interview at the Champlain Mall in Brossard, Que. “He and I have been talking about the possibility and the potential of politics all my life.”

Mr. Butts left his position as Canadian president of the World Wildlife Fund to work on the race. “Justin and I are both very traditional philosophical liberals,” he says in an interview, “in that the individual is paramount and government ought to be in the business of expanding opportunities for individuals.”

Politically, they draw their lessons from the victories of Mr. Obama, who came to power at the age of 47, and Tony Blair, who took over at 10 Downing St. at 43. Those campaigns show, Mr. Butts says, that the traditional levers of government have become ineffective and the only way to make change is to “develop and maintain a national, grassroots, volunteer movement.”

They know that Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has built up a powerful organization. But they believe much of the country feels the Harper government is overly centralized, leaving citizens disengaged.

“Organization is key,” Mr. Trudeau says. “To me, it means creating a structure in which every single citizen can connect directly and easily if they want.”

Reaching beyond his pedigree

Mr. Trudeau certainly makes connections when he’s out campaigning. He particularly likes to drop by food courts at lunch hour, going from table to table. Most people recognize him instantly, and many ask to take pictures with him. A few women get him to sign their address books and seem slightly disappointed when he doesn’t leave a phone number.

Mr. Trudeau’s plan to hook Canadians back into the political process combines personal contact with heavy use of social media. They have an army of 7,000 volunteers and data on tens of thousands of supporters.

“This is them, this is us – this is what we are a part of in our democracy,” he says.

This democratic populism can be a bit of an awkward fit with his pedigree.

“He’s royalty,” says Clarice Glaude-Mullin, who was born in Ontario but has lived in Quebec for 50 years, after a quick encounter in Brossard. “He gives me goosebumps.”

France Roy-Portant, a retired nurse from Granby, Que., says, “I remember Trudeaumania” – but she does not have entirely fond memories of it, especially Pierre Trudeau’s final term in office, when he controversially repatriated the Constitution without Quebec’s assent. Still, she says seeing Justin on the campaign trail “makes me feel young again.”

Perhaps to counter any perceptions of elitism (the Conservatives already paint him as a “left-wing dreamer”), Mr. Trudeau has tried to make himself an open book: He laid out his entire financial situation to the Ottawa Citizen, including his six-figure income as a public speaker before he entered politics and his $1.2-million inheritance.

There remains a sense of glamour around his private life with his equally photogenic wife Sophie Grégoire and their two young children, Xavier (born in 2007) and Ella-Grace (2009).

He confides to a table of retirees at the Galeries de St-Hyacinthe that the couple are actually thinking of going for another baby – though that would mean “I’d have to spend the night at home once in a while,” he says, to a round of laughter.

In fact, Mr. Trudeau says he tries never to spend more than four or five days away – and that he’s sworn to avoid the kind of break-up that hit his family when he was a six-year-old living at 24 Sussex Dr. – but the intensity of his drive for victory now and in the next federal election could be a challenge to those priorities.

A new kind of Liberal machine

Wherever he goes, Mr. Trudeau is followed by volunteers who carry clipboards and registration forms to sign up supporters from outside the party. If he speaks to someone in a restaurant or on the street, the workers follow up with an invitation to endorse his campaign.

Mr. Trudeau feels that the approach can open a whole new chapter in Liberal history. “There is no ‘Big Red Machine’ any more,” he says, “and it couldn’t have happened at a better time, because we are in a moment in the lives of our democracies across the world where we do have to renew, we have to think very differently about representative democracy and what it looks like in the 21st century.”

He says that the Internet generation forces him to engage in “old-fashioned politics” – town halls and public meetings – while television, a medium mastered by the Conservative Party, is quickly getting outmoded.

“We’re moving away from TV, which is a broadcast and a one-way medium, into the Internet, which is multi-nodal and about two-way conversations.”

The key is the thousands of names, addresses, birth dates and e-mails being amassed on those clipboards and on the Justin.ca website. For the Liberal Party, “that gives us the bare bones of the rebuilding effort,” he says.

The other aim is to find candidates to run under the Liberal banner in 338 ridings in the next election. His campaign is gathering resumés and seeking organizers adapted to the Trudeau campaigning mode.

“It’s a big testing ground for a new way of doing politics.”

He answers criticisms about the vagueness of his platform by saying that he wants to wait for a general election before putting out all his policy planks, after having received more input from party supporters. (He reminds a crowd at Dawson College in Montreal that the Liberal Party’s famous Red Book came out for the 1993 general election, not during Jean Chrétien’s 1990 leadership campaign.)

What he will be specific about are his plans to change the rules of the political game in Ottawa. The basic concept has been bandied about by many parties in the past – decentralizing power away from the Prime Minister’s Office and back into the hands of MPs.

The way to actually make it happen this time around, according to Mr. Trudeau, is to ensure that all Liberal candidates in the next election are chosen through open nomination contests.

Then, if he wins the election, Mr. Trudeau vows to give all of his MPs the ability to vote freely according to the wishes of their constituents, except on confidence measures.

“I want to set things up right away so that, regardless of what I might want to do once I attain power … like everyone else, I have bound my hands by bringing in a group of people who are deeply responsible and responsive to people in their ridings, and freer to disagree with the executive branch of government as legislators.”

He is convinced that his approach offers a refreshing contrast to the Harper government’s “politics of division” and a growing cynicism in the country. He even feels that his views are set to attract support out West, where the populist visions of the old Reform Party remain a part of the popular culture.

While he welcomes comparisons between his strategies and Mr. Obama’s emphasis on citizen engagement, he vows to learn from the U.S. President’s struggles in his first mandate: “Obama’s big mistake, or the big challenge he faced following the 2008 election, was … keeping mobilized these millions of people who came out to vote for him in the first place.”

To say he can do better certainly demonstrates Mr. Trudeau’s growing self-confidence. But it’s also, he says, the way that his leadership campaign can be the model for an eventual Liberal government.

“It’s a hugely idealistic approach, and it flies exactly in the face of everything that we have gotten to believe of politics recently,” he says.

“It’s a gamble, but it’s a gamble that is predicated on everything that I have seen and lived across the country.”

In a few days, Canadians will get a clue of how well his first bet is paying off – not only if Mr. Trudeau talks as good a game as his surname promises, but whether he can start winning at it, too.

THE TRUDEAU TEAM

Gerald Butts

Position: Senior strategist

Past job: Former principal secretary to ex-Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, former president of WWF-Canada

Tasks: Develops policy, prepares debates and speeches, oversees daily briefings

Katie Telford

Position: Campaign manager

Past job: Senior official in the offices of former Ontario minister Gerard Kennedy and former federal Liberal leader Stéphane Dion

Tasks: Oversees the entire campaign organization, including schedules, tours and volunteers

Mike McNair

Position: Policy adviser

Past job: Senior adviser to former Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff

Tasks: Policy adviser, conducts daily briefings with an emphasis on English-language media

Robert Asselin

Position: Strategist and policy adviser

Past job: Senior official in the offices of former prime minister Paul Martin and various Liberal ministers

Tasks: Debate preparation, policy development, conducts daily media briefings and writes French-language speeches

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