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VIBERT: Liberals are worried about re-election complacency

These Grits will be tough to beat.

The powers behind the throne don’t necessarily want the troops reading that. Complacency was an identified enemy when about 3,000 Liberals from across Canada descended on Halifax and its fancy new convention centre over the weekend, but there’s no denying this is a confident party with many of the elements of re-election sliding into place. With that election still 18 months away, that’s cool comfort.

Their leader, Justin Trudeau enjoys minor movie star status and as Prime Minister has morphed from the scion of a Liberal legend into Captain Canada in his own right.

Just below the bubbly surface in the convention centre however, there was a discernable disquiet, particularly among the old political pros who are harder to find now than at Liberal meetings past.

More than half the delegates in Halifax were attending their first political convention and almost a third were on the sunny side of 35.  The successful Liberal youth movement is a sign of robust health, and a tribute to Trudeau, but it brings with it some nagging political discomfort.

A resolution to legalize prostitution or decriminalize all drugs seems a relatively small price to pay for an active, enthused legion of young volunteers. Nevertheless, the party will have to find a way keep that army unified when those resolutions, adopted as party policy over the weekend, are missing from the final draft of the Liberal’s election platform.

This isn’t your, or Justin’s daddy’s Liberal party. This is a very large tent and those inside reflect a diverse national identity, although delegates appeared to skew younger than the broader population, at least in Nova Scotia. 

Women, long the most trusted labour in any political organization, hold power in this one. Halifax’s Suzanne Cowan officially took over as party president from Anna Gainey over the weekend. Women ascended to most other senior executive posts, too.

The party – Trudeau likes to refer to it as a movement – is wide open. It doesn’t even charge a membership fee, and any party member could pay to attend the convention as a voting delegate.

Keeping the disparate elements within that big tent unified was one source of the minor heartburn experienced by some of the political pros strolling the cavernous corridors of the Nova Centre. Money was another. The Conservatives have been outperforming the Liberals in fundraising, and there’s no sign of the once reliable big red money machine that was always there when Pierre Trudeau led the party.

But is was complacency that visibly worried party leaders, a risk they weren’t hesitant to bring out into the open. These Liberals understand that even Canada’s natural ruling party is susceptible to rapid, unpredictable shifts in public mood that arrived with the 21st Century.

The Prime Minister noted that Canada is not immune from aggressive nationalist populism that has become a powerful political force in western democracies, although he didn’t name the most obvious beneficiary, American President Donald Trump.

Trudeau also met head-on the all-style-no-substance criticism he draws, by running down an inventory of Liberal accomplishments before running down his Conservative political opponent.

A vocal critic of negative politics, Trudeau was forced to explain his pointed attack on federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Trudeau repeated Scheer’s own description of himself as Stephen Harper with a smile.

The Harper government was rejected by Canadians for its program, not the demeanor of its leader, Trudeau said.

His criticism of the Conservatives and their leader signals that the Liberals will go toe-to-toe with their opponents, but Trudeau maintains he’ll stick to differences in policy and attitude and stay away from personal attacks.

With the national economy humming along and the Liberals positioned comfortably on the left-centre of the political spectrum where most Canada’s feel at home, the 2019 election should be a calk walk. But a penchant for unforced errors and the potential for internal divisions that come with the big, open tent gives those inclined to worry something to worry about. 

As for the leader, he’s the national cheerleader-in-chief, a true Captain Canada.

“Canada is the best country in the world,” he says, “I love this country down to my bones and will defend it to anyone who says it is broken.” 

But he adds that we can always do better, which sounds like a project for a second term.

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

  

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