The Liberal Party of Canada has two main faces in Quebec: idealist Justin Trudeau and pragmatist Denis Coderre.
The two Montreal MPs represent the values that made their party an unavoidable political presence in Quebec up until the middle of the past decade. However, whether either of them joins the race to become the next Liberal leader, their party faces a Herculean task in their home province. Having a leader from Quebec is no longer a guarantee of success for the Liberals, as shown by the recent tenures of Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion.
“The situation of the Liberal Party of Canada in Quebec is such that we have to build a Quebec wing rather than rebuild one,” said Dennis Dawson, a Liberal senator and backroom veteran. “The situation hasn’t been interesting for us in the last few years.”
Polls are disastrous for Liberals in the province that remains key to their hopes of one day winning enough seats to form a government. CROP pollster Youri Rivest said Liberal support has fallen substantially since the NDP picked Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair as its leader last March, going from 20 per cent in February to 14 per cent in the latest poll.
“Everything fell apart for them,” Mr. Rivest said.
As it stands, he said, the Liberals are doing relatively well only among “upper-crust non-francophones” in comparison to the New Democrats. The numbers don’t bode well for the Liberal Party, which won only seven Montreal-area ridings in Quebec last year, as part of a steady decline since the 2004 sponsorship scandal.
Liberals are counting on a strong field of Quebec candidates in the leadership race to get back into the game. Mr. Trudeau is seen as a possible front-runner as he confirmed this week that he will reconsider his decision to concentrate on his family instead of a leadership bid.
While Mr. Trudeau is not unanimously loved in Quebec, he is charismatic, enjoys a high profile and embodies the social-justice values that Liberals feel are dear to the hearts of Quebeckers.
Westmount MP Marc Garneau, a former astronaut, is also well known in the province, while MP Dominic LeBlanc of New Brunswick is perfectly at ease in French. Both are said to be mulling a leadership bid.
Odds are lower, however, that Mr. Coderre will run. He angered many Liberals in 2009 when he quit as the party’s Quebec lieutenant and launched an attack on the “Toronto” entourage of then-leader Michael Ignatieff. In fact, many Liberals believe that Mr. Coderre will launch a bid later this year to become mayor of Montreal.
If that is the case, the party will lose an excellent on-the-ground organizer, and a well-known face in the Quebec media.
As he decides on his future, Mr. Coderre will continue to push for a Liberal revival, which would have to come at the expense of the NDP’s 58 seats across Quebec.
“The Liberal Party can and must become again the party of francophones,” he said. “We have to show that we are the alternative to Stephen Harper.”
Lots of Liberals are meeting in small groups these days to map the road ahead. One of the participants in these discussions is Marcel Proulx, who held the traditional Liberal stronghold of Hull-Aylmer until it fell to the NDP in last year’s Orange Wave.
The key is to rebuild at the riding level, and to come up with a clear and simple message focusing on traditional Liberal values of moderation, modernity and social progress, he said.
“We have always been close to political centre, that’s where we have to go back,” Mr. Proulx said. “And we have to stop with the infighting.”
The next leader will have a challenge to develop a platform that appeals to Quebeckers, who have been more likely to support the Bloc Québécois or the NDP than the Liberal Party in recent elections.
“We have to be present and to understand and accept the reality of Quebec,” Mr. Coderre said. “We have to develop a sensitivity to Quebec issues.”