For Justin Trudeau, one campaign ends and another begins
The press gallery above the House of Commons is normally close to empty during question period, which most reporters watch from their offices, when they watch it at all.
On Monday, it was standing room only, with overflow in an auxiliary gallery behind it. The joint was jammed for Justin Trudeau’s first day in the House as leader of the Liberal Party.
Which turned out to be much ado about nothing. As leader of the third party in the House, Trudeau had to wait his turn to ask Stephen Harper why he was doing nothing for the middle class, a cohort of voters Trudeau discovered during his leadership campaign. The prime minister’s answer was as forgettable as Trudeau’s question.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Tom Mulcair, just back from the New Democratic Party convention in Montreal, was in high dudg- eon on the issue of temporary foreign workers displacing Canadians in the labour market. Overall, Mulcair had a good weekend at the convention. The NDP is officially no longer a socialist party, though its members still call themselves brothers and sisters. The convention, held in a city that Mulcair has long made his home, was also intended to fill in some gaps in his personal narrative, as a father and family man. Yet back in the House on Monday, it was as if he was determined to show Trudeau up in terms of righteous indignation.
But Trudeau doesn’t do sound and fury, and if he stays on plan, won’t be in the House very much anyway. Question period doesn’t play to his strengths as a retail politician. And as the leader of the third party, there isn’t much there for him. As one of his advisers put it: “The plan is to liberate him from question period.” When the House is sitting, look for him to be there on Wednesdays, caucus day and perhaps Tuesday or Thursday as well.
For the rest, his job isn’t in the House. His job is in the country, rebuilding the party, recruiting candidates and filling the campaign war chest. He has already been quite successful as a rainmaker, having apparently raised $2.3 million for his leadership campaign, well over the party’s limit of $950,000. What’s more, he can legally donate the surplus back to the party.
His campaign also created a ground game. “There were 12,000 volunteers on the ground,” says an adviser. “They made 200,000 phone calls, real phone calls, not robocalls.”
Winning by the margin he did, with more than 80 per cent of the turnout of 104,000 voters on a preferential ballot, Trudeau will be leading a united party, one that badly needs to put decades of infighting behind it.
As if to make the point, Jean Chrétien was warming up the crowd at Trudeau’s coronation ceremony on Sunday, ripping the Conservatives and NDP, and doing some management of his own legacy.
At one point, he referred to his government’s sound fiscal management, of balancing the budget in 1997 and paying down debt thereafter. Even at that moment, he could not bring himself to mention the name of his finance minister, Paul Martin, who was sitting right in front of him.
Unwittingly, Chrétien opened the door to the biggest applause line in Trudeau’s prepared acceptance speech.
“It doesn’t matter to me if you were a Chrétien Liberal, a Turner Liberal, a Martin Lib- eral or any other kind of Liberal,” Trudeau declared. “The era of hyphenated Liberals ends right here, tonight.”
The Liberal War of the Roses dates to John Turner’s resignation from Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet in 1975, before his return from Bay Street in 1984. Turner’s leadership was constantly undermined by the Chrétien clan. And Chrétien, a sitting prime minister, lost his caucus and was deposed by Martin in a very Canadian coup.
Trudeau’s team is largely unscarred by all that. Some of them don’t even remember it. But the party, beginning with its former leaders and their clans, still have to put their past behind them. On Sunday, Chrétien and Martin’s paths never crossed as they worked different sides of the room, and sat for separate interviews with TV anchors. It was enough for the Trudeau campaign just to get the two of them in the same room.
“This is the last stop of this campaign, and the first stop of the next one,” Trudeau said.
And he took aim at the Conservatives as a party that plays divisive tactical politics.
“We are fed up with leaders who pit Canadians against Canadians,” he said, “West against East, rich against poor, Quebec against the rest of the country, urban against rural.”
It is early days until the next election in October 2015, but between now and then, this guy will be out there, working the crowd, honing his message of “hope and hard work.” Based on the leadership campaign, the Conservatives and NDP would both do well not to take him lightly.