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If Justin Trudeau listens to old guard, he’ll lead Liberal Party to its doom

Now that Justin Trudeau has officially launched his campaign for leader of the Liberal Party, he can be assured of something other Liberal candidates would kill for: the attention, even devotion, of the Laurentian elites.

This is dangerous for him.

There are good reasons and bad for this emerging Trudeaumania 2.0. One good reason is the new-generational energy that the son of Pierre Trudeau is injecting into federal politics.

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"Some say that youth carry our future," Mr. Trudeau offered in a well-written and well-delivered speech Tuesday night. "I say youth are an essential resource for our present.

"…Their voices, their choices matter deeply, as do their actions: they are already leaders today."

Youthful dynamism could re-invigorate the moribund Liberals; it could mark the arrival of a new generation on the political scene, ultimately renewing politics across the board.

But there is another reason, a bad reason, for this tsunami of attention. For the Laurentian elites – the media, academic and cultural leadership of Central Canada – the return of a Trudeau as Liberal leader is deeply comforting.

In a political universe that has, for them, grown cold and dark, he is warmth and light.

These Laurentian elites have been living through hard times. For more than six years they have endured a Canada governed by strangers.

The Harper Conservatives don't read their books, live in their neighbourhoods or share their taste in food. They especially don't listen to, or respect, their worldview.

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This worldview – the consensual, accommodating arrangement between English and French elites that shaped Canada for so many generations – went into eclipse with the rise of the Conservatives. It is threatened with ultimate extinction unless Stephen Harper's electoral coalition of Western voters and their suburban, middle-class Ontario allies can be shattered.

For the Laurentianists, the arrival of Mr. Trudeau is literally a godsend: a new leader descended from one of their deities. He grew up in their downtowns, he is of their class, and he is running for the leadership of their house party.

For the only people who matter, at least to each other, Justin Trudeau is One of Us.

Suddenly, old contact lists are new again. People whose opinion really didn't matter any more can be sought out for their wisdom on what is really going on.

Journalists and professors and artists can compose columns and papers and plays about the issues that, for them, truly matter: repairing the environment; getting back to work on the Just Society; best of all, talking endlessly about Quebec.

Finally, after those six long years, that cold, dark universe will go back to unfolding as it should.

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If he is to become prime minister, Mr. Trudeau needs to close his ears to these people. He needs to shut them out of his life.

Stephen Harper is prime minister because he gets what Canada has become, and the Laurentian elites don't. A government from the West is in control because wealth and power are flowing to the West.

Immigrants are voting Conservative rather than Liberal because the nature of immigration has changed: from European to Asian. Trade is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Values are shifting, too.

If Mr. Trudeau listens to the Laurentian voices, he will lead the Liberal Party to its doom. For now, at least, he appears to understand this danger.

His first campaign stops are in Calgary, Richmond, B.C., and Mississauga. They are the three points of a triangle (admittedly, a funny-looking one) that elects governments in these times.

And he paid great attention in his first campaign speech to middle-class voters.

"A thriving middle class provides realistic hope and a ladder of opportunity for the less fortunate," he declared. "A robust market for our businesses. And a sense of common interest for all."

The paragraph could have been lifted straight out of a Stephen Harper speech. (Though Conservatives court the middle class more than actually name it.)

This may be why former Liberal strategist John Duffy, speaking on TVO's The Agenda Tuesday evening, called Mr. Trudeau "the first post-Laurentian Liberal."

To succeed, Mr. Trudeau must make inroads into the West; he must connect with acquisitive immigrant voters; he must sell himself to the suburbs.

The Laurentian elites understand none of these people or the places where they live. That is why the people from there don't listen to them any more.

Justin Trudeau, if he truly wants to lead, must not listen to them either.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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