How Trudeau’s leadership run set up the 2015 campaign

The new leader of the Liberals revealed more during the race than anyone expected

APRIL 6TH 2013 - TORONTO - Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau and Justin Trudeau dance to 'Hello' by Dragonette before Trudeau goes on stage to deliver his speech at the Liberal Showcase.

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau and Justin Trudeau dance to ‘Hello’ by Dragonette before Trudeau goes on stage to deliver his speech at the Liberal Showcase.

It’s hard not to think of what the Liberal leadership race might have been. If Bob Rae had sought the job, Justin Trudeau’s skills as a debater and orator would have been tested against those of a past master. If Mark Carney had heeded the blandishments of Liberals who asked him to leave central banking and run, Trudeau’s status as the campaign’s unrivaled media star would have been seriously challenged.

But even without such top-tier rivals to press him, Trudeau revealed more during the race than might have been expected from a front-runner’s campaign. It’s not that he risked mapping out anything like a full platform. In an early strategy session, a member of his core team, veteran Liberal policy adviser Mike McNair, set the tone by digging up this bit of advice from the memoirs of Brian Mulroney: “You cannot defend an entire detailed program if you want to be a serious contender for a party’s leadership. If you try, you won’t win.”

And Trudeau certainly followed the former prime minister’s advice that a leadership aspirant should offer only a “general approach,” particularly on unavoidable topics like the economy and national unity. But if he wouldn’t be pinned down on exactly what he wants to do, Trudeau left little doubt about who he is trying to reach. His target groups include middle-class voters drawn in recent elections to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s economic message; new Canadians susceptible to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s ethnic outreach efforts; younger voters who might lean NDP or Green, or not cast ballots at all; and Quebecers who abandoned the Liberals in droves over the past four elections.

Anyone watching his campaign through this lens—with an eye to which constituencies he most covets—might have briefly imagined that he’s after Albertan votes. Trudeau’s very first day of campaigning, after launching in Montreal on Oct. 2, saw him land in Calgary. And his first precise policy pronouncement came in the form of a newspaper op-ed piece supporting, before the Harper government approved it, a Chinese state-owned corporation’s controversial investment in an Alberta oil and gas company.

Related at macleans.ca: Extensive coverage of the 2013 Liberal leadership race

But that apparent focus on Alberta didn’t really signal a long-odds regional push into Harper’s heartland. Trudeau’s main point in supporting the bid from China’s CNOOC for Calgary’s Nexen—and for talking up the resource sector more broadly—was to signal a pro-investment, pro-trade economic bent. “Why is the CNOOC-Nexen deal good for Canada? Because Chinese and other foreign investors will create middle-class Canadian jobs,” he wrote in that Nov. 19 op-ed. “Foreign investment raises productivity, and hence the living standards of Canadian families.”

His aim is to set a tone that appeals to suburban voters who swung Tory, especially around Toronto in 2011, in large part because they liked Harper’s open-for-business economic stance. But Trudeau tries to differentiate his vision for economic growth from Conservative policy by stressing inequality, often referring to how the Canadian economy has doubled in the past three decades, but middle-class incomes have stagnated as new wealth flows to top earners. His plan for fixing that, though, is vague. He floats familiar ideas like better education, policies to stimulate business innovation and encourage investment. “We need inventive minds working on this, reaching out for ideas to advance the interests of the broadest group of Canadians,” he says.

Chris Ragan, a McGill University professor who was among the economists Trudeau’s campaign consulted last fall, says Trudeau hasn’t been precise enough so far on economic policy to win back those so-called Blue Liberals who have drifted to the Conservatives. “If I’m a Paul Martin Liberal, show me what you’ve got,” Ragan says. “I’m not going to vote for you because of your last name. I’m not going to do it because you’re young and schmoozy. I’m going to do it when you’ve got some better ideas than [Harper].”

If the economic outlook of the suburban middle class is a Trudeau preoccupation, the ethnic diversity of that same broad swath of voters is an equally crucial consideration. In a recent study, On the Back of Immigrants: Conservative Politics and New Canadian Voters, three University of Toronto professors note that eight of the 20 seats the Harper Conservatives gained in the 2011 election in or near Toronto have majority immigrant populations, and all have at least 30 per cent immigrant populations. Not surprisingly, they found the Tories’ immigrant-vote gains came mainly at the expense of the Liberals.

Trudeau’s most dramatic pitch to those formerly reliable Liberal voters came in a speech on Dec. 23 at a Toronto conference called Reviving Islamic Spirit. He spoke of Wilfrid Laurier’s experience bridging English vs. French and Catholic vs. Protestant divides in 19th-century Canada. “Laurier saw something clearly, perhaps more clearly than any other Canadian,” Trudeau said. “He saw that here, in this place, a new idea was taking shape. A new way of living together just might be possible.”

It was some of Trudeau’s more lofty campaign-trail rhetoric. But can those sentiments counter Kenney’s tireless outreach to ethnic communities, seen by many Conservatives as a key factor in their election breakthroughs? Trudeau has even tried to turn Kenney’s widely discussed push into multicultural communities against the Tories—charging that they view newcomers as “just employees, or a demographic to be mined for votes.” Trudeau’s core strategists profess to see Kenney’s successes as shallow rather than significant. Omar Alghabra, former Liberal MP for a suburban Toronto riding from 2006 to 2008, who lost to a Conservative in the last two federal elections, is now a Trudeau organizer. “Jason Kenney may have been able to recruit handfuls, hundreds of people, but I really don’t think he is successful in building loyalty,” Alghabra says. He contends that Harper’s success with new Canadians stemmed not from Kenney’s cultivation of multicultural communities, but from the attack ads that so badly damaged the last two Liberal leaders, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

It’s an article of faith among Trudeau’s supporters that his youthful image will help him weather negative ads. Any attacks, they predict, will backfire as the tactics of older, more cynical politicans. Youth is certainly central to Trudeau’s story. He is 12 years younger than Harper and 17 younger than Mulcair. Looked at another way, if the Liberals managed to win an election in 2015, Trudeau would be just 44—five years younger than his father, Pierre Trudeau, when he became prime minister in 1968.

And it’s not only a matter of tallying up the years. Trudeau cultivates a digital-era image. His Twitter following is legion. An emblematic moment occurred on Feb. 7, when he stared into a webcam, shirt open his customary two buttons down, and announced his campaign website’s introduction of Soapbox, an online platform for sharing ideas, developed at Toronto’s Ryerson University by student entrepreneurs.

Originally designed to give schools a way to gather and prioritize the ideas of students, or companies to listen to employees’ suggestions, Soapbox allows Trudeau’s devoted online following to connect more directly with his campaign. Typically, he posts an idea and the online community reacts through Soapbox. His opposition to proportional representation, for instance, drew 298 favourable reactions, 231 negative.

Brennan McEachran, Soapbox’s 22-year-old founder, remembers how last year, at an early meeting with Trudeau, some of his advisers worried that Soapbox might be hijacked by political opponents who would use the online forum to systematically reject and ridicule whatever he proposed. “And Justin said, ‘If people out there do that, and my supporters can’t go in there and create more support, then maybe that’s my fault, maybe the ideas are poor,’ ” McEachran says.

He says Trudeau’s instinctive confidence with Internet give-and-take combines with his accessible manner in person to make it easy for otherwise wary young people to identify with him. The obvious parallel is Barack Obama’s web-savvy, youth-oriented style. According to a Tufts University centre’s analysis, Obama ran away with the youth vote over Republican Mitt Romney, 67 per cent to 30 per cent, in last fall’s U.S. presidential election. And about half of eligible U.S. voters aged 18-29 cast a ballot, up from less than 40 per cent in the 1990s.

There’s upside potential in Canada, where just 39 per cent of people between 18-24 voted in 2011, far lower turnout than the 75 per cent of Canadians aged 65-74. Frank Graves, president of the EKOS polling firm, says his opinion research reveals a generational divide emerging as a dangerously divisive force in Canadian society and politics. In a poll last year, EKOS asked, “Do you think the government of Canada focuses more on the values and interests of younger Canada or older Canada?” Fully 39 per cent of respondents thought Ottawa focused on “older Canada,” with just 24 per cent seeing “younger Canada” as the government’s priority, and 16 per cent not sure.

Trudeau aims to tap into that sense among younger Canadians that their interests don’t count for much on Parliament Hill. “Ottawa has become a sad political circus,” he said in that video introduction to Soapbox. “It’s too partisan, too petty, and too far removed from Canadians. Most important, too few Canadians are voting.” The point, though, isn’t just to try to get more young people out to their polling station on election day. Trudeau’s campaign claims to have signed up 12,000 new volunteers, many of them young. That free election labour could be critical if the Liberals hope to close the gap between them and the better-organized Conservatives and New Democrats. As well, a senior Trudeau strategist said older progressive voters tend to be drawn to a youth-oriented atmosphere that radiates renewal. “It’s not so much a matter of young vs. old,” the strategist said, “as it is new vs. old.”

There is, however, an unavoidable whiff of the old, or at least of Liberal heritage, around Trudeau’s campaign. It comes with his surname. Most often, at least among Liberals, that’s a decided asset. Occasionally, though, he distances himself from his father’s legacy. In his early campaign foray into Calgary, for instance, he disavowed Pierre Trudeau’s notorious policy on the oil patch. “I have nothing to do with the National Energy Program,” Justin said, adding rather pleadingly, “I was 10 years old.” On Quebec, however, there’s a much closer connection between the Trudeau generations.

On March 23 in Montreal, in his closing statement at the final Liberal leadership debate, Trudeau surprised many with a forceful expression of an uncompromising stance toward Quebec. He rejected any notion of offering some sort of concessions to secure Quebec’s signature on the Constitution, which was repatriated from Britain and reformed by his father in 1982 over a separatist Quebec government’s opposition. “For far too long we’ve tried to buy Quebec,” he said, “to buy them off rather than to get them involved.”

He was taking aim at the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, who now holds 57 Quebec seats to the Liberals’ eight, and has been willing to wade into politically risky discussion on Quebec and the Constitution. As well, long-shot Liberal leadership candidate Martin Cauchon, who was once justice minister in former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s cabinet, had sharply criticized Trudeau for ruling out some future constitutional reconciliation with Quebec. But Trudeau’s team holds that most Quebec voters are sick of the whole topic, and will welcome his staunch refusal to go there.

Taken as a bundle, Trudeau’s tactical entreaties to different blocs of voters look wide-ranging and ambitious. But then, no single, straightforward solution would be nearly enough to accomplish the heavy lifting ahead for him—somehow raising the Liberals from the ignominy of third place back into contention for power. So far, he’s providing Harper and Mulcair cause for concern. The latest Ipsos Reid poll gives the Liberals, assuming Trudeau wins the party’s leadership as expected on April 14, 32 per cent of decided voters, a hair above the Tories’ 31 per cent, and well above the NDP’s 27 per cent. But the close three-way race suggested by the surface numbers only hints at the complex factors—the leanings of suburbanites and youth, the moods of immigrants and Québécois—at play deeper in the data. Trudeau has two years or so try to make his sale. What his leadership campaign has shown is who he is pitching to and the beginnings of how.

Here’s John Geddes, the Maclean’s Ottawa Bureau Chief, answering the question: Is Trudeau his father’s son?

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