Justin Trudeau’s party building is the right answer but star candidates distract from the real issues
By Bruce A. Stewart
Newish Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has spent a lot of time outside of Ottawa since acquiring the tarnished crown of Team “We’re not those guys, and we’re not those other guys, so give us power.”
A fair bit of that time has been spent in Western Canada, a region of the country that was last in contention for the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968.
That’s a good thing. Those aspiring to lead national parties to government need to find ways to appeal to the all the various parts of this land. It may be that, on voting day, the results show you didn’t eke out more than a few outposts (think of the Harper Conservatives in Québec, generally placing fourth on the ballot in most ridings) but you need to try.
Given that the long years under Trudeau senior (he of the wilted rose), Chrétien, Martin, Dion, and Ignatieff were all ones where the Liberals consciously let their western ridings atrophy — only Turner, during his leadership, made rebuilding in the West important — Justin Trudeau is definitely using some strategic sense in focusing on the issue early and often.
Election day 2015 may still be 28 months away, but rebuilding riding associations, attracting volunteers, finding good local candidates, and so on takes time. You literally can’t start too soon. (Ask the New Democrats, who have been working like banshees to do exactly this in Québec to sustain their electoral gift from 2011.)
Getting these grassroot structures up, running, and active this year also allows for the Western ridings to attract new people with new ideas to feed the Liberal policy development process that will take place next year. (Let’s face it: the die-hards that have kept the Red Banner flying in most Western ridings have supported, for the most part, the Liberal approaches that Westerners generally disapproved of.)
Think of this, then, as the Liberals’ opportunity to have their Reform moment as a party, only on the inside rather than with a breakaway movement.
Liberals need voices inside their tent that will argue against supply management (which benefits Eastern farmers at the expense of Western consumers), or for Senate reform (which will run smack up against “the system as it is”), or for hard definitions around “sustainable development” (rather than today’s pabulum) vis-à-vis the region’s oil and gas resources.
So a thumb up for Justin Trudeau figuring out that this has to be done, and has to be done soon.
Justin Trudeau’s efforts may derailed if he insists on star candidates
But then, in what are becoming a string of “open mouth, exchange feet” moments, he undid it all by talking about a conflicting strategy to win seats in the West.
I remember, in the 1984 election, when the Liberals decided that winning my riding demanded a star candidate. Effectively the campaign literature and visitors at my door boiled down to “but he’s got letters after his name — a string of accolades — he’s a somebody, you surely must vote for the somebody rather than the nobodies the other parties have put up.
Well, first of all, in the ’80s the PCs and the NDP hadn’t run nobodies. They’d run municipal politicians, well-known locally, rooted in the riding. These were people the country at large might not have known, but certainly ones we had at least a passing acquaintance with.
Mr. – excuse me, Dr. – International Hotshot left his parachute all over the neighbourhood’s lawns (you can’t expect the star to clean up after himself, after all) and expected to stroll to victory on the back of his relationship with the party leader who’d recruited him.
It didn’t work that way, and here’s why: When the party leader starts dropping star candidates on ridings, it gets the riding association in a lather.
The Liberal Riding Association in that riding had had a nomination fight. A long-time member who’d worked up from banging signs into frozen grass to door-knocking day and night to sitting all day long as a scrutineer had run against a local municipal politician with equally strong roots in the area for the nomination. It had been a battle royale, but it settled, and the riding association was ready to go to war with the other parties on behalf of the winner. Then came the parachute drop.
It split the riding association and two thirds walked away, disgusted.
Star candidates can alienate the party faithful
Star candidates can work. So can “I’m the leader, I’ll decide who represents us.” But as a strategy it tends to alienate the very people you need to carry the candidate to victory.
Recruiting a star candidate (leaders do worry about the quality of their ministers should they win, if nothing else) and asking a riding association that doesn’t have a candidate if they’d be willing to get behind the star is one thing. Overriding local selections – even unseating sitting members, as the Martin brigade did to inject Michael Ignatieff into the political process in Canada – is definitely not the way to make friends and influence people.
It’s right down there, in fact, with saying one thing in one part of the country and another in another corner, or saying “yes” to us and “non” to Québec.
Justin Trudeau takes his political lessons seriously. The party building lesson he takes from his grandfather, former BC Senator Sinclair. The “the grassroots are nobodies, take my star” approach he learned from his father — who went to Ottawa as an imposed star candidate recruited by Pearson and imposed on a riding.
For the Liberals to again become a national party that’s relevant, they’re going to need the ground forces, and they’re going to need policies that reflect all the parts of this nation they want to lead.
That suggests Justin Trudeau should drop the star candidates, and focus on the nitty-gritty of the grassroots.
After all, we still need a fiscally conservative, small business-orientated, sensible party in Ottawa.
Allowing the grassroots of the West to reform the Liberals might just get us that.
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