Justin Trudeau took the stage and finally brought the Liberals to life.
The front-running candidate spoke fourth in the line-up of six candidates for the Liberal leadership, delivering an energetic and positive speech that didn’t reveal any new policy but took aim at the Conservative government and Stephen Harper’s politics of division.
His was the speech everyone had been anticipating Saturday at the Liberal Party’s national showcase – the final event before the new leader is announced on April 14 in Ottawa.
And he did not disappoint. But it’s not as if the bar was set very high.
Before Mr. Trudeau took to the stage, the nearly 1,500 supporters at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for Saturday’s final speeches listened politely to Deborah Coyne’s views on a united Canada and her refrain that Canada needs “bold national leadership.”
Karen McCrimmon, the tough-talking former military veteran, perked up the crowd slightly as she spoke off-the-cuff, wandering around the stage in her white pantsuit. She referred to herself as an "outlier" and said the Liberal Party needs to follow its heart.
Vancouver MP Joyce Murray is believed to be Mr. Trudeau’s main opponent. She gave a speech that did not deviate from what she has preached throughout the six-month campaign: a one-time co-operation with the NDP and Green Party to beat the Tories and a sustainable society.
Not well-known across Canada, Ms. Murray used some of her 25-minute allotment to talk about who she is and where she came from – an immigrant whose family arrived here from South Africa in the 1960s, and a mother who went back to school to get her MBA and eventually found her way into provincial and then federal politics.
Martha Hall Findlay, a former one-term MP and 2006 leadership contender, characterized herself as the “underdog” in the race, noting that Pierre Trudeau was also the underdog when he was elected leader in 1968.
She referred to the Liberal Party as the party of the Kyoto climate-change protocol and a party that said “no” to the invasion of Iraq.
“I want that party back,” she said.
Following her was Martin Cauchon, a former Chrétien cabinet minister, who also reminisced about the glory days of the Liberal Party, such as decisions to legislate same-sex marriage and also refusing to join the American-led invasion of Iraq.
And with Mr. Cauchon’s speech over, the 127,000 registered Liberals have now begun voting for their new leader. Some voting took place in Toronto but most of it will be done online or by phone over the next week.
The Liberals have chosen this new way of electing their leader – deciding against a delegated convention – as a way to rebuild the party by making the election wide open to whoever wants to declare as a Liberal supporter.
But there appears to be little contest – and it showed Saturday with Mr. Trudeau, the candidate who can out-fundraise his colleagues, having the best election swag.
A slickly-produced video featuring lots of young faces introduced him as he walked into the hall holding hands with his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau. She planted a big kiss on his lips before he jumped up on the stage.
They were surrounded by enthusiastic, sign-waving supporters. And the video invoked the image of his famous father, Pierre Trudeau, as the gunslinger as it showed just a quick shot of Justin Trudeau’s hips with his hand in the front pocket of his jeans.
“I stand before you a son of Quebec, a grandson of British Columbia and a servant of Canada,” he began his speech.
Short shrift was given to NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, whom Mr. Trudeau dismissed as emulating the Tories in the politics of division.
“Canadians are getting tired of the negative, divisive politics of the Conservatives and are disappointed that the NDP, with Mr. Mulcair, has decided that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them,” he argued.
But he saved his most aggressive attacks for the Harper Conservatives and even mocked their policies.
“You see, the biggest problem with Mr. Harper’s government is not that they’re mean-spirited. It’s that they are unambitious,” he charged. “After all, what is the Conservatives’ economic message these days? That Canadians should be happy we don’t live in Europe?”
Mr. Trudeau said his government would never “use Western resources to buy Eastern votes.” And his biggest applause came when he talked about his sense of his country and how he has toured Canada for the last six months, learning more from Canadians than Mr. Harper has learned in the “past six years.”
“I have been open to Canadians my entire life,” he said. “And because of that, I have a strong sense of this country. Where it has been, where it is, and where Canadians want it to go.”
Mr. Trudeau did not shy away from speaking about his father in his 25-minute address, noting that Saturday is the 45th anniversary of the election of his father as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
“I know there are those who say this movement we’re building is all about nostalgia. That it’s not really about me, or you, or Canada. Let’s face it: They say that it’s about my father,” he said. “Well, to them I say this: It is.”
He said it’s all about legacy and the legacy that he can now build for his children.
For the most part, Mr. Trudeau’s speech was upbeat as he repeated the words “positive,” “hope” and “optimistic” throughout.