A new chapter in the history of the Liberal Party, and Canadian politics, is about to open. By the end of this weekend, barring a historically shocking upset, Justin Trudeau will be the Liberal Leader. He will excite and energize public life, breathe hope into the often cynical pursuit of politics, and at once rattle the cages of Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair. His is a confident voice for federalism, a reasonable if somewhat fuzzy champion of progressivism, an infectious spirit for all.
At last weekend's party convention in Toronto, he gave perhaps the best speech of his career. Rare is the public figure these days who can electrify a room the way he does. Some Canadians will always dislike him. Most will take to his personality, charm, warmth and, above all, his obvious passion for the country. "With me as your leader," he promised the crowd, "you will get a clear, positive vision for Canada."
Canadians aspire to something better, for themselves, their government, and their country. In that respect, positivity is a good thing. Clarity, on the other hand, will be a challenge for the Liberals. For too long it has been unclear what they stand for, ceding support in the process to the more defined Conservatives and NDP. What is Liberalism in 2013? In recent years they have offered little more than a promise of managerial competency, as if the party of Laurier, Pearson and Pierre Trudeau was applying to do the nation's taxes.
Starting Sunday, Mr. Trudeau can change course. The first step will be organizational. Interim Leader Bob Rae has proved to be an able leader during very trying times. He has steadied and strengthened the party internally. He has also performed strongly in Parliament, giving the Liberals a weight and attention that their numbers would not merit. It is thanks to Mr. Rae that the idea of a Liberal comeback is believable. Mr. Trudeau will need to spend the next year crisscrossing the country, restoring riding associations, raising money and recruiting candidates for 2015, at the same time as he continues the process of rebuilding the national organization. That will be a challenge because Mr. Trudeau is not an organizational thinker, not in the vein of Stephen Harper, Jean Chrétien or Brian Mulroney.
Organization is critical, but so too is policy. The Liberals have called a policy convention next year that will set a course for the 2015 election. It is clear the party must define itself around two central themes – the economy and the environment.
The environment is a challenge for Mr. Trudeau. The Joyce Murray wing wants to infuse the party with a sustainability agenda more aligned with the Greens. Mr. Trudeau has been wise to position himself more as a concerned conservationist than as an ecowarrior. He's against Northern Gateway and for Keystone. His test will come over a carbon tax – a generally good idea that is cursed by its unavoidable details, as Stéphane Dion discovered. Mr. Trudeau is committed to such a tax, and has two years to devise a proposal that doesn't risk jobs, anger the carbon-rich provinces or confuse voters. Still, the Tories' record on the environment is not strong, and a healthy environment is not an ideological issue except to those on the fringes. It is an important issue to voters in the political centre, even centre-right.
The daunting economic agenda is the Liberals' best hope and greatest danger. If he is to make a play for government, Mr. Trudeau needs to convince Canadians that, above all, he has sound economic ideas and is ready to take the wheel of a challenged economy. The Liberal narrative can be simple: When Stephen Harper became prime minister, unemployment was 6.4 per cent. It is now at 7.2 per cent. The budget has gone from a surplus of $13.8-billion to a projected deficit for 2013-14 of $19-billion. Those figures speak volumes to voters who are weary of stagnation.
The furor this week over temporary foreign workers is clear evidence that the public – employed or not – is uneasy and easily embittered by any sour turn. "Are you better off today?" is all the party need ask, that is, if an election were held today. It is not. Two years from now, a U.S. rebound may be enough to set up the Conservatives for an easy win.
For that eventuality, Mr. Trudeau needs to school himself in the politics of economics, and recruit a front bench of credible economic thinkers to dismantle the Conservative record on budget deficits, economic growth, job creation and income inequality. Nothing will dispel questions about Mr. Trudeau's readiness for power more than a clear, confident stand on the economy.
Over the next 700 days, he and his Liberals have a lot of convincing to do. He has the skills of persuasion, and may in a Reaganesque way connect with ordinary people struggling with extraordinary times. His passion for Canada – and belief that this country can be better – will open hearts and chequebooks. But the party should never forget a lesson from that other Trudeau, that on election day we can be sure that reason almost always trumps passion.