Justin Trudeau: Let’s not crown him emperor until we see his new clothes

Any wow factor for the April 14 Liberal Party finale vanished on March 13th with the exit of retired astronaut Marc Garneau, setting the stage for Justin Trudeau to accept the party’s crown.

The question now, of course, is whether the Liberals will be able to muster even mild interest in the leadership contest through to its inevitable conclusion. Because there isn’t a traditional convention, April 14th is being billed as a “results announcement event.” Don’t be surprised if the streets of Ottawa are empty for the non-event.

Garneau decided to withdraw his candidacy after an internal poll of 50,000 Liberals — to which just 6,000 had responded — gave Trudeau 72% support, Garneau 15%, Joyce Murray 7.4% and Martha Hall Findlay 5.2%. With Garneau gone, the mantle of challenger now falls to B.C. MP Joyce Murray, whose spirited campaign to unite the centre-left (even though Tom Mulcair is dead-set against electoral co-operation) has made her a sentimental favourite among Harper critics.

Because third-place contender Martha Hall Findlay believes in evidence-based policies and is against divisive ideological politics, the businesswoman, entrepreneur, lawyer and former MP for the Toronto riding of Willowdale is seen by her supporters as the voice of the centre of the political spectrum, standing for fiscally pragmatic and socially responsible policies. If given the opportunity, she would like to put the backbone into the Liberal party by bringing the hope and substance that it needs.

Why is it that so many Liberals and supporters have decided that Justin Trudeau should become the next Liberal leader? Baby-boomers remember his father. A number of younger Canadians see someone with whom they can identify — someone who looks and sounds different from the usual politician.

“People are excited to be around him” extols Ottawa journalist Althia Raj. “No other Liberal candidate can revive the federal Grits like Trudeau, despite his light record.” Vancouver Sun journalist Barbara Yaffe adds, “It’s a factor that may well prompt voters to overlook the 41-year old’s lack of political and management experience and transform him into a powerful contender for high office. ... (He) has 192,000 Twitter followers. This is powerful stuff in politics, and surely gives the willies to Stephen Harper. Just imagine the negative ads the Harper team will be crafting … Getting people excited about being around you is certainly a magic trick both NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Prime Minister Harper might like to be able to pull off.”

Supported by more than 10,000 volunteers, Trudeau has run a campaign which has steered clear of substantive issues and focused on its first priority of engaging the voters, particularly young voters. Polls confirm that if he were the leader of the party, the Liberals would win a minority government. That’s undoubtedly a powerful asset.

Jean Chrétien said recently that Trudeau has “a very big policy” that is fundamental to Canada. “He wants to replace the Tories. ...You know (he) will be fiscally responsible and will be socially preoccupied like a Liberal is. And he will want Canada to be what we were in the world under Pearson, under his father, and under myself.”

Polls confirm that if Justin Trudeau were the leader of the party, the Liberals would win a minority government. That’s undoubtedly a powerful asset, but Warren Buffett states correctly, “A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought.” Since the new leader must set the policies and the tone on which the Liberal party will base its future appeals to the electorate, voters need to be reflective. Those registered to vote should still listen to the other contenders and pay close attention to the final debate in Montreal on March 23rd.

Not everyone is swept into the vortex of the Trudeau campaign. Canada’s largest seniors’ advocacy group feels snubbed by Trudeau, the lone candidate not attending its leadership forum on March 20. Susan Eng, CARP’s vice-president of advocacy, admonishes Trudeau directly “It’s a sense of entitlement. ...You might think you will run away with the leadership, but, you know what? You are still the third party. And if you want to become government again, you are going to need our people and do you really want to blow us off?”

Trudeau’s team is intent on getting him through to April 14th without any further stumbles. While consolidating their hold on the party, they are also trying to heal divisions, intent on avoiding anything similar to the decade-long Martin-Chrétien feud which almost destroyed the Liberal party. Most importantly, they are trying to drill Trudeau in Commons standup so that he can step forth in April as a competent successor to Bob Rae - a difficult task.

[ Last week's D vs. D: Religion and Politics: Diversity makes better policy-making ]

The April vote could make or break the Liberal party as a force in Canadian politics. A failed leader could seal its position as a moribund third-place party, lacking both money and volunteers to operate effectively as a national institution. Columnist Michael Den Tandt states, “The Liberals are desperate for a resurrection and know they have just one more opportunity before a shotgun wedding with the NDP becomes inevitable.” The Party of Laurier has a lot of work to do in preparation for the 42nd Canadian federal election, tentatively scheduled for October 19, 2015.

Luisa D’Amato, a Waterloo Region Record columnist, cautions, “For the sake of a healthy democracy, Canadians need a strong Liberal party with a clearly defined point of view.”

The race for the Liberal leadership is over — or is it?

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.