Trudeau and the need for leadership

With news of Justin Trudeau’s candidacy for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, some polls are suggesting that Trudeaumania is about to descend on the country, enabling the Liberals to regain control of the government, draining support from the NDP.

Justin Trudeau in 2010

Photo copyright Adam Scotti http://flic.kr/p/7z9YZt
Licensed under Creative Commons

How likely is a Liberal government now? Do they really stand a chance of winning back the support of voters who chose orange instead of red? The NDP had a strong showing in the last election, in no small part due to the efforts of the late Jack Layton. While Layton was clearly the catalyst for the so-called Orange Crush, I suspect the move towards the NDP was also due to a long-term frustration with the lack of credible Liberal policies.¬†I’m not convinced that Trudeau can swing support back from orange to red.

The Liberals have faced a number of problems over the last few elections. Neither Ignatieff nor Dion had much in the way of charisma. In RPG terms, charisma was their dump stat. Their popularity was mainly as an alternative to Stephen Harper. Before Iggy and Dion, Paul Martin was beset by scandal, and the fallout from an internal power struggle in the party. The only Liberal leader in recent memory who had charisma was Chretien, and I’m still not entirely sure how he pulled that off.

Jack Layton, however, represented the spirit of change. He was a clear choice to the direction that Harper’s Conservatives have taken, and he was a true parliamentarian. While many Canadians–particularly those who voted Conservative–may have disagreed with his policies, he was a popular figure. He was authentic, in a way that many politicians don’t seem to manage.

Thomas Mulcair may not have the charisma of Trudeau or Layton, but he’s certainly not the wet blanket that Dion or Ignatieff were. The NDP platform still resonates, in a way that the Liberal platform has failed to capture the attention of Canadians over the past several years.

Can Trudeau’s charisma bring the Liberals back to prominence? I don’t know. Trudeau as leader will revitalize the party, and attract new people. But why should Canadians put their trust back in the Liberal party now? Aside from Trudeau as a leader, what policies do the Liberals stand for, that differentiate themselves from the NDP? What policies does Trudeau himself hold?

This highlights the largest problem facing the Liberals. For Trudeau to win the leadership, and lead the Liberals back to form the government, he needs to start leading on policy, across the board. He has spoken a great deal about issues of social justice, but very rarely on matters of economic policy. In the current economic crisis, any leadership candidate needs to make their stance on economic policy clear. As journalist Andrew Coyne argues, Trudeau doesn’t really have a public stand on many issues.

Will Trudeau’s leadership of the Liberal Party bring them back to power? I rather doubt it. Until the Liberal Party can present a valid case, not just as an alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, but also to the NDP, I think the Liberals will remain a secondary opposition party.

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