Justin Trudeau aims to show steak, as well as sizzle, in leadership launch

OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau is launching his leadership campaign Tuesday with an evening rally designed to demonstrate he’s got the steak, as well as the sizzle, needed to resuscitate the once-mighty federal Liberal party.

OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau is launching his leadership campaign Tuesday with an evening rally designed to demonstrate he’s got the steak, as well as the sizzle, needed to resuscitate the once-mighty federal Liberal party.

As many as 500 supporters are expected to attend the launch at a community centre in Trudeau’s Montreal riding of Papineau.

In opting for an evening rally over the more traditional news conference to kick off his campaign, the eldest son of late prime minister Pierre Trudeau will be showcasing his biggest asset: his undisputed talent for drawing a crowd and creating a buzz.

“We’re trying to show people that … over the course of his political career, he’s been able to gather the support of people around him,” one insider said Monday.

“It shows people who he is, as opposed to who they think he is.”

However, the speech Trudeau intends to deliver at the rally is also aimed at addressing his biggest perceived liability — that he’s all flash, no substance.

It’s intended to be “meaty,” according to the insider, designed to demonstrate the 40-year-old MP has “a mature and thoughtful perspective on the country.” It won’t spell out any specific policy pronouncements but it will lay out Trudeau’s “values, objectives and methods” of achieving them.

And it will include a blunt assessment of what ails the Liberal party. Trudeau’s diagnosis: Liberals have lost touch with middle-class Canadians who used to be the party’s bulwark.

He will offer his prescription for reconnecting with the middle class and rebuilding the party, which was reduced to a third-party rump in the 2011 election.

Trudeau will set out across the country immediately after his launch, hitting Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday and a rally in Mississauga, Ont., on Thursday, hosted by former MPs Navdeep Bains and Omar Alghabra.

He is expected to announce a raft of endorsements from fellow Liberal MPs and senators within 10 days.

Trudeau has been in the public eye since he was born on Christmas Day, 1971. As a child, he travelled the country and the world with his famous father, then prime minister.

He was a school teacher before jumping into politics in 2008. He eschewed offers to run in Montreal’s Outremont riding — then considered a safe Liberal seat, now held by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair — choosing instead to fight a contested nomination in Papineau, once a Bloc Quebecois stronghold and among the poorest ridings in the country.

He defeated a star Bloquiste in 2008 and bucked the NDP tide that swept Quebec in 2011, increasing his margin of victory.

In Liberal circles, he is an undisputed rock star, the party’s biggest draw at fundraisers.

For all that, Trudeau remains an unknown quantity in many respects. In his various shadow cabinet posts — youth, amateur sport, immigration — he’s had little to say about the big issues of the day, virtually nothing about the economy.

When he’s ventured into meatier issues, he’s created controversy — criticizing the government’s use of the word “barbaric” to describe female genital mutilation, suggesting he’d support Quebec secession if he thought Canadians shared Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s values.

His choice of campaign team suggests Trudeau is well aware he needs to demonstrate more depth and substance.

Among his key supporters is Gerald Butts, longtime friend and former head of policy for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and a raft of key organizers from policy-wonkish Gerard Kennedy’s 2006 leadership bid, including campaign director Katie Telford, Bains and Alghabra.

Kennedy himself is still pondering whether he’ll take a second run at becoming federal Liberal leader. He insisted Monday he won’t be put off by the fact that his old team seems to have moved, almost en masse, to Trudeau, who endorsed Kennedy in 2006.

“I think Justin has a lot to offer the country,” Kennedy said.

But he added: “There’ve been prohibitive favourites before. Sometimes they’ve won and sometimes they haven’t.”

Toronto-based constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, the mother of Trudeau’s half-sister, has already announced her candidacy, as has Manitoba paramedic Shane Geschiere. A host of others, including Montreal MP Marc Garneau and New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc, are still mulling over their chances.

The contest doesn’t officially begin until Nov. 14 and culminates on April 14.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.