Justin Trudeau’s coronation-like victory, combined with a few encouraging polls, has infused Liberals with hope for better days ahead. They forget the internal contradictions of their own party.
This callow youth inherits a tarnished crown. In the last election, fewer than one voter in five supported a Liberal candidate. The party itself estimates that about a third of all ridings are moribund, with no effective organization in place. Vast swaths of the nation have abandoned the Liberals – in some cases for decades.
If Mr. Trudeau is to restore the once-mighty Liberal brand to respectability, he must win them back. And yet, convincing one tranche to return risks further alienating another.
In some cases, the new leader will be courting progressive voters who had abandoned the party of the so-called radical centre for the New Democrats. In other cases, economically prudent voters who once trusted Liberals on the economy now count on Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to mind the store.
How can any party or leader appeal to both groups at the same time? The easy answer is: govern. That is how Liberals brokered their uneasy coalition for decades.
Mr. Trudeau is not yet able to credibly offer the promise of government. And yet he must rebuild the party.
Here are five groups of Canadians essential to that reconstruction.
Quebeckers haven’t supported the Liberal Party since Justin Trudeau’s father was prime minister. Anyone else would do: Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s, the Bloc Québécois after that, and most recently Jack Layton’s NDP. Each election Liberals convinced themselves that this time things would be different for them in Quebec. Each time Quebec broke their heart.
Is Justin Trudeau finally The One? André Pratte thinks not – or at least, not yet.
“I would say there is a polite curiosity about him,” says the editor-in-chief of La Presse. Quebeckers are far from enamoured of a young leader with little experience and fewer policies. “But they’re willing to take a look at him.”
Mr. Pratte suspects the time might be right for the Liberals to make gains in Quebec. Yes, some still seethe at the memory of Mr. Trudeau’s father repatriating the Constitution without Quebec’s signature, but they are a diminishing minority.
The taint of the sponsorship scandal is finally fading, overwhelmed by the stench of municipal corruption. The NDP has yet to sink deep roots in the province, despite having a preponderance of MPs. And separatist impulses are at a low ebb.
“We’re at a period now where Quebeckers simply want good government, both at the provincial level and at the federal level,” Mr. Pratte believes. If Mr. Trudeau can put together a package of economic and environmental policies that are (a) credible, and (b) contrast with the deeply unpopular Conservatives under Mr. Harper, “then they have a chance,” he believes.
Over the past two decades, Canada has imported nearly two Torontos-worth of immigrants, most of them from Asian and Pacific nations, profoundly altering both the demographic and political landscape. Many of them now live in the sprawling suburban cities that surround Toronto. While new Canadians used to support the Liberals – traditionally the party identified with multiculturalism and open immigration – polls show this generation of new arrivals is more economically and culturally conservative than those who came over from Europe in the last century. They worry about the economy and safe streets and are inclined to believe that activist governments make things worse instead of better. In the last election, middle-class, suburban voters in Ontario – including middle-class, immigrant voters – strongly supported the Harper Conservatives. Justin Trudeau’s single greatest priority must be to win them back.
The problem, observes John Wright of Ipsos Public Affairs, is that the sort of pitch Mr. Trudeau must make to take supporters from the NDP in Quebec and Atlantic Canada – the Liberals will provide a strong national government that expands postsecondary education and protects the environment, among other things – is likely to turn off those suburban, immigrant voters in Ontario and elsewhere who currently support the Conservatives.
Mr. Wright predicts that economic concerns will continue to trump all other issues for at least a decade. For middle-class immigrant voters living in suburbs in such an environment, he believes, “hope is one thing, but having a fatter wallet is more important.”
According to Elections Canada, 61 per cent of eligible Canadians voted in the last general election. But only 39 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 and 45 per cent of those 25 to 34 cast a ballot. The so-called millennials are more disengaged from politics than any previous generation.
Samara, a non-profit that advocates for greater democratic participation, has tracked these non-voters. Some don’t ever vote – saying they don’t know anything about politics and aren’t interested in finding out – and some are “intermittent non-voters,” who only vote now and then.
But in the United States, Barack Obama galvanized millennials in ways never before seen. They were a vital cohort in both his 2008 and 2012 victories. And here in Canada, Justin Trudeau brings young people out by the hundreds whenever he visits a school or campus.
Is Mr. Trudeau the new Obama, able to finally galvanize the millennial vote? If he or any other politician wants to be, says Alison Loat, Samara’s executive director, then the key is direct communication.
“The engagement imperative is high” is how she puts it. A reluctant voter is more likely to come out if a friend or other peer encourages her. Success, then, depends on building a broad and deep voter contact network specifically targeted to millennials – reaching them through social media and direct contact.
And it has to begin now. Depth and breadth of engagement over time matters more than last-minute intensity, when recruiting reluctant voters, Ms. Loat says.
Since the days of Lester Pearson, the Liberals have believed, and proven, that they could govern without much support from the West. But no one can write the West off anymore.
The 2011 census revealed that there are now more Canadians living in the four Western provinces than in Quebec and Atlantic Canada combined. British Columbia and Alberta will each get six additional seats in the next Parliament. You want a quick and easy answer for why the Liberals are now the third party in the House of Commons? They hold only four seats west of Ontario.
Anne McLellan, the former Liberal cabinet minister who held her Edmonton riding through four elections before being finally swept away by the Conservatives in 2006, has high hopes that Mr. Trudeau will revive the party in the West, or at least parts of it.
Yes, the Trudeau name draws few votes in Alberta – the memory of the National Energy Program still rankles – and Mr. Trudeau’s comments in 2010 that “Canada isn’t doing well right now because it’s Albertans who control our community and socio-democratic agenda” didn’t help.
But the Sinclair name – his mother Margaret came from a storied political family – still means something in British Columbia, she observes. And Mr. Trudeau himself lived and worked in the province.
“I think British Columbia might be different than the three Prairie provinces,” she believes.
As for those Prairie provinces, success depends on convincing voters that Mr. Trudeau is more committed to resource development than the NDP, while being more environmentally responsible than the Conservatives.
The Liberal Western strategy is to take all that, add the Trudeau charisma, and hope for the best.
NEW BRUNSWICK RESIDENTS
Think of New Brunswick as the bellwether province.
Atlantic Canada, with its strongly consensual political tradition, remains the last bastion for the Liberal Party, which took three of Prince Edward Island’s four seats, four of seven in Newfoundland and Labrador (with a by-election win in Labrador expected in a few weeks) and four of 11 (the Tories took four and the NDP three) in Nova Scotia.
But in New Brunswick, the Liberals took only one of 10 seats, with the Conservatives sweeping eight and the NDP grabbing one.
Donald Wright, a political scientist at University of New Brunswick, doesn’t think there is anything that special about the province. The Liberals, he believes, simply had weak candidates and bad luck with vote splits.
“Clearly, if the Liberals are to have any luck in this province, they are going to have to find high-profile local notables” to run for the party, he says.
But Mr. Trudeau has vowed that all 338 ridings will have open nomination contests. Incumbents will have to defend their own seats, and there will be no more of the old practice of imposing high-profile candidates on reluctant riding associations. (Not that high-profile candidates are in an abundance in any case.) If the Liberals attract strong candidates to run in New Brunswick’s nine unheld seats, backed by well-organized and well-funded riding associations that are able to mobilize large teams of volunteers who are able to effectively target and get out the vote, then the Liberals will do well in that province in the next election.
And if they are able to do all that in New Brunswick, then it probably signals that the party is on the rebound elsewhere.
For the Liberals, as New Brunswick goes, so goes the nation.