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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 22, 2015.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

The Conservatives start their last push to pass their controversial security bill this week, but it's Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who is getting squeezed.

His decision to choose the safe, popular position on Bill C-51 has backfired and become a significant weakness.

That's not because the bill is now massively unpopular. A campaign against it has lowered its once sky-high approval ratings, but not to the floor. Many of those who really care, especially left-leaning voters, were looking for someone to oppose the bill and Mr. Trudeau didn't. The NDP's Thomas Mulcair did.

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The Liberals took the unusual position that they'd vote for a flawed bill and change it if they win government.

They faced grumblings from their own supporters. The security bill has, according to Liberal MPs and insiders, become a weakness in their rivalry with the NDP, especially in places like downtown Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal, where the two parties fight each other.

And it's not an issue that's fading away. Prime Minister Stephen Harper pushed it last week, when he went to Montreal, just after the RCMP arrested 10 people at the city's airport believed to be travelling to join foreign terror groups, to tout new spending for security agencies, as well as Bill C-51.

On Monday, the Senate starts two days of hearings on the bill, before a last vote that will pass it into law. Most members of the Liberal Senate caucus – no longer part of Mr. Trudeau's caucus – plan to vote against Bill C-51, in what they call an act of principle.

Ouch. For the Liberals, it's all been a story of political calculation and miscalculation.

The bill, unveiled in January, marks a major change to Canada's spy powers. It includes a major new role for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to disrupt perceived threats to national security – and the power to get a warrant, in secret; to break the law or Charter of Rights – as long as the threats don't entail killing, causing bodily harm or sexual assault. It doesn't include substantial oversight.

But after two homegrown terror attacks in Canada in October, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, the bill got a warm reception: An Angus Reid Institute survey in February found 82 per cent favoured it.

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The Liberals had already opposed Canada's decision to join the air strikes against Islamic State, and were feeling politically vulnerable on security issues. They decided to vote for C-51 to play it safe.

The NDP, as it turned out, acted more wisely. At first, they took no clear position. They sent out level-headed foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar to deliver what one New Democrat called a "values statement." He stressed the need for security, but argued that undermining basic rights undermines security. In the meantime, they would study the bill.

That helped the NDP avoid the appearance of knee-jerk opposition. When Mr. Mulcair eventually stated his opposition, he said that may be an unpopular position, but it was one he had to take.

It turned out to be good politics. NDP supporters were the most opposed, but there was also a constituency that wanted someone to oppose it. As activists campaigned, that constituency grew. Potential Liberal or NDP voters who really cared were mostly against it.

Just how much opposition grew is unclear, but some polls now show opposition substantially outstripping support.

Mr. Harper's Conservatives still think they've got a political winner in the bill. They probably do: People want governments to expand security measures, with no caveats, and the Conservatives have something to appeal to them. The NDP appealed to opponents.

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The Liberals, meanwhile, have had a hard time explaining themselves.

As the activists railed against C-51, Mr. Trudeau was cast as the leader who won't take a stand. David Christopher, a spokesperson for OpenMedia, one of the groups that organized campaigns against the bill, said the Liberal position alienated people, including the party's own supporters.

"It sort of reeks of political gamesmanship, and Ottawa, and inside baseball," he said. "That's just clanging with people out there."

Mr. Trudeau thought he was taking the safe, popular choice, but it sent a message that he'd ceded the job of opposing the government. And the Liberals were hoisted on their own political calculation.

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