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Liberal leadership not much of a prize Add to ...

Who would not wish Justin Trudeau well as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada?

He has taken on a job shunned by Liberals of much more seniority and achievement, who have opted for lucrative sinecures outside politics. The perception out there – think about the other candidates – is that the Liberal leadership isn’t much of a prize. Who in his right mind wants to spend years trying to turn around a crippled, nearly moribund organization?

It’s like trying to save the old Eaton’s department stores, once a great and apparently impregnable national institution. There were young Eatons who tried to follow in Timothy’s footsteps. They found that history, and their industry, had passed them by. They couldn’t compete with more nimble opponents schooled in the best American approaches to retailing. Ultimately, the family name counted for little – and now it survives mostly in Canadian history books and museums. Maybe Stephen Harper’s hidden agenda with the new Canadian Museum of History is to create a mausoleum for the Liberal Party.

Which is to say that it’s unlikely Mr. Harper is quaking in his boots at the changing of the Liberal guard. The real meaning of polls this season is that support for the government is holding up better than most prime ministers could expect after seven years of governing in difficult times. The Conservatives have a fiercely loyal base that extends across the country, are the best fundraisers in Canadian politics and have a leader now widely acknowledged, even by his enemies, to be the most capable politician of this decade. Mr. Harper leads a seasoned cabinet, does not lack for potential successors and has a B-team of MPs being nicely seasoned for promotion. Their restlessness is probably a sign of health and energy on the back benches.

High hopes, a friendly press gallery and bumps in the polls greeted Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff as virginal Liberal leaders. Each seemed to be the kind of person around whom thoughtful Canadians would surely rally. Each would surely best the wicked Mr. Harper in Parliament and on the hustings.

Then the honeymoons end. Election campaigns require real supporters, not virtual ones. The Liberal reality is that the party barely exists west of the Great Lakes; it can’t come close to matching the Conservatives in fundraising; no one knows what it or Mr. Trudeau stand for. He hasn’t attracted prominent new faces to the Liberal cause. Most of the 30 new ridings to be contested in the next election will go Conservative. The NDP is still alive and kicking.

Canadian elections are usually contests to win the opportunity to form a government. Recent exceptions came in 1997 and 2000, when the opposition was so divided that no one seriously believed the Chrétien government could be toppled. The main struggle was for second place.

This will characterize our national politics in the first few years of the Justin Trudeau area: not Mr. Trudeau versus Mr. Harper, but Mr. Trudeau versus Thomas Mulcair – the elimination round that has to be settled before we have a meaningful title fight. The fiercest battles, especially in Quebec, will be between Liberals and New Democrats. Once there’s a clear victor, or an agreement to merge, the real challenge to the Tories will begin.

Goodwill for Justin Trudeau has a lot to do with a sense that he’s not so much exploiting his name as trying to modernize and maintain the organization that so many of his father’s successors, and even to a degree the patriarch himself, did so much to damage. It would be nice if we still had the option of shopping at Eaton’s.

Not only is Mr. Trudeau hard-working, free-spirited and telegenic, but there will be no knives out for him – not for a long time. No matter what happens to the Liberals in the next election, his leadership will not be challenged. He will have at least two, maybe three, opportunities to win his spurs.

It took Canada’s conservatives many years, many elections, to learn there was no magic formula for dislodging a well-entrenched governing power. You have to be disciplined, canny, opportunistically principled, ruthless, relentless and in it for the long haul. For Justin Trudeau, the exemplary politician to guide him along the hard road he faces is probably not Pierre Trudeau, who lived in a different Canadian political world. The more important model for a Liberal leader in this century and in the party’s current predicament is Stephen Harper.

Michael Bliss is a historian, author and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

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