With the Conservative leadership race in full swing and a Trudeau at the nation’s helm, there’s something Conservatives might bear in mind.
It is their record against Pierre and Justin Trudeau. In the eight elections in which the Conservatives have faced a Trudeau, they’ve lost no fewer than seven of them. The only time they haven’t served as a punching bag for Pierre or Justin was in 1979, when Joe Clark won a minority against the elder. The relief didn’t even last a year before the Liberals won a majority back.
Pierre and Justin Trudeau have vanquished five different Conservative leaders, enabling them to rule Canada for 21 years thus far. The number will likely extend to 24 and maybe more should Justin Trudeau decide to run again.
In addition to Mr. Clark, Pierre Trudeau beat the respected Robert Stanfield, an old-style centrist Tory, three times. Later, the Trudeau brand took down the core-right version of the party. Stephen Harper’s worst nightmare was losing to a Trudeau; he was thumped by Justin Trudeau in 2015. The Trudeau Liberals then went on to beat Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole.
That Conservatives, particularly in Western Canada, despise the Trudeaus is no small wonder. Leadership contestant Pierre Poilievre is tapping into that resentment now with his populist “freedom” campaign that is attracting huge crowds.
The crowds are almost all white in a Canada that is now almost 25 per cent non-white. But a candidate with stirring platform appeal has been something sorely lacking and very costly for the party.
The charisma quotient has been central to the success of the Trudeaus. It played an enormous role in Pierre Trudeau’s triumph in 1968 when the dour Mr. Stanfield was no match for his appeal, and a big role in Justin Trudeau’s breakthrough when the sour Mr. Harper was no match for his son.
Pierre Trudeau brought an intellectual flair to politics at a time when it wasn’t frowned upon to be erudite, unlike in today’s more populist environment. Trudeaumania was no exaggeration. Justin Trudeau didn’t possess his father’s cerebral strength, but telegenic looks and a youthful persona connected with voters at the hustings.
The charismatic allure of each Trudeau faded, but other factors carried them onward – one being their popularity in their home province. Pierre Trudeau annihilated the Tories in Quebec every single time. Justin Trudeau has had tough fights with the Bloc Québécois, but easily bested the Conservatives in the province. As has been well documented, without a strong leadership presence in Quebec, Conservatives’ chances of winning a majority are scant.
A critical element in the Trudeaus’ success has been good fortune. Horseshoes. Luck with a capital L. Pierre Trudeau was finished after his 1979 loss. He had retired from politics. But the Tories’ incomprehensible torpedoing of their own minority government brought him back from the dead. It was a pivotal moment in our political history, enabling him to defeat the separatists in the 1980 Quebec referendum, to bring in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and to make his brand legendary – one that could catapult his son to the leadership of the Liberals decades later.
Justin Trudeau has had great fortune on his side as well, as our first-past-the-post electoral system allows a party with fewer overall votes to still win the most seats. He lost the popular vote in 2019 and again in 2021 to the Conservatives, but was able to claim victory in both elections.
There was another big reason each Trudeau kept beating their rivals: They were culturally the right fit for their times. They were in the vanguard, leaders whose forward-looking agendas made their Conservative opponents look out of date.
While divisive and disappointing on many fronts, each Trudeau has modernized the Liberal Party. In contrast to Canada’s weariness during the Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker years, Pierre Trudeau arrived like a comet as the counterculture’s tribune.
Justin Trudeau pointed the way forward by banishing the party’s old guard. Most everyone over 50 was sidelined. He turned the party over to women and minorities. He was fast forward on gender rights, environmental causes, drug legalization, open-door immigration and child care.
His policies can be saluted, deplored, abhorred – whatever one’s preference. But like his father, he’s given his party a cutting edge, making the Conservatives look yesteryear in the process and unable to end their losing streak against the Trudeau brand.
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