Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.
The airy success of Justin Trudeau, unburdened by specific policies, must be maddening for his opponents. But that vague, light touch accomplished a key goal in 2013: he's discarded baggage that's weighed down his Liberal Party for years.
Friday's arrest of a key figure in the sponsorship scandal, Jacques Corriveau, serves as a reminder of the biggest negative the Liberals long faced, their own past. But so many years later, Mr. Trudeau's caucus has only three Chrétien ministers left, none implicated in the scandal. Liberals will hold their breath and hope they're moving on.
Mr. Trudeau, their rookie leader, has managed to spend eight months waving aside calls for details on where he stands. He skated through year-end interviews, deflecting gaffes with claims he's unscripted, and absence from the Commons by arguing he gets more done by touring.
But aside from vague and light, there's also been shrewd.
He and his party will tiptoe out of 2013 without a tie to reviving the long-gun registry, a ball and chain in ridings outside cities for 20 years. And he's got a pro-pipeline, pro-resources policy in the oil patch, shedding the legacy of Stéphane Dion's Green Shift and his father's National Energy Program, which helps tell middle-Canada voters he's pro-business.
It won't be so easy in 2014. The vague environmental policies Mr. Trudeau promised to detail will complicate his resource-sector embrace, one of many fences he can't sit on forever. The Conservatives and NDP will make him their primary target.
But don't underestimate the value, in pure political terms, of what he's done already.
His novelty, famous name and charisma played a big part in his good fortune, allowing him to revive interest in the Liberal Party, revitalize fundraising and attract a few high-profile figures like retired lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie and new Toronto Centre MP Chrystia Freeland. But offloading millstones was job one.
The long-gun registry was an icon of Liberal policy since 1993, but an unpopular symbol in rural communities across the country. Mr. Trudeau, flying high in a leadership race, performed an incredible feat of political escape, managing to declare that he supported keeping the long-gun registry, but also that now it's gone, it's too divisive to bring it back. Presto, a policy that weighed down the Liberal vote in small towns and rural areas – not just in the Prairies but in northern Ontario, B.C., and Atlantic Canada – disappeared.
And then Mr. Trudeau and his strategists re-positioned the party on resources. As a leadership candidate, he supported the Chinese takeover of Nexen. As leader, he went to Calgary and Washington to declare his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, and oil-sands development.
This, too, made some Liberals nervous. But it wasn't a quixotic quest for victory in Alberta, it was a symbol for middle-income voters, worried about jobs, that Mr. Trudeau's party will be pro-business and pro-trade. It was designed to shed the legacy of the NEP and Mr. Dion's Green Shift, and the notion that grand Liberal plans might threaten growth.
Mr. Trudeau positioned his party in the middle – unlike Stephen Harper, he opposes the Northern Gateway pipeline to the B.C. coast because of an environmentally risky route. The NDP opposed Keystone, which the Liberals portray as akin to supporting a shutdown of the oil sands.
Mr. Trudeau's position rests on a vague and implausibly artful environmental-policy-to-come that will include carbon pricing, but not the Green Shift, and regulation that won't hamper the oil sands, but will persuade the world that emissions won't run amok. In the meantime, he's shed baggage.
It's certainly frustrating for opponents. The Prime Minister's father-knows-best image as a steady hand in uncertain times, in full control, puts him increasingly on the hook for the past and current scandals. The NDP's Tom Mulcair, able in Question Period and press scrums, with sharp political instincts, established himself as a leader, but hasn't yet gained. They must find the lightness of Justin Trudeau unbearable, because so far, it has worked.
Even before Mr. Trudeau, both parties had more interest in attacking Liberals than each other. Surely his vague policies are a target. They'll redouble their efforts to damage him in 2014, and pin him down. But in the meantime, he's already succeeded in ditching some weight.
Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.