Liberals edge back from the brink under Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau is fulfilling his mandate as Liberal leader - reinvigorating the party and readying it to challenge the Conservatives in 2015.

Liberal leader has narrowed fundraising gap, given hope to party

Justin Trudeau is fulfilling his mandate as Liberal leader - reinvigorating the party and readying it to challenge the Conservatives in 2015. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau set out a bold goal at the closing news conference of the party's summer retreat – a majority government in 2015.

That's an extraordinary goal for a party that was near death after the 2011 election.

Back then, the party was reduced to just 37 seats — about 12 per cent of the House of Commons — and third-party status.

Trudeau was seen as their saviour. And so far, he's helped them edge back from the brink

  • Fundraising shot up as soon as Trudeau was chosen as leader in April 2013, both in number of donors and dollars collected (that's still less than the Conservatives have collected in any quarter since then, though the Liberals have more donors).
  • The party says it has 175,000 members, up from about 127,000 when Trudeau won the leadership (including supporters, a membership category that's free to join).
  • The party's candidates are competitive again in byelections, including in Brandon, Man. (helped by in-fighting between Conservatives), Calgary Centre and Fort McMurray, Alta.

Liberal staff made no secret about this week's caucus retreat being used to plan strategy and policy for the next federal election, which is currently scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015.

Rally fell flat

According to those around him, Trudeau seems to connect with people.

Stéphane Dion, a former Liberal leader who still sits as an MP for Montreal, says people feel close to Trudeau, and that he has incredible empathy for people.

"Canadians, I think, have a need for that now, after so many years of a very removed leader who is very abrasive, now they want a leader close to them and open-minded and warm with people," Dion said.

Another MP said Trudeau seems to draw energy from meeting people and picks up steam the more events he attends.

Despite that, a much-hyped rally in Edmonton Tuesday night fell flat, with a smaller-than-expected crowd and a long pre-event that saw more than five speakers take the stage ahead of Trudeau.

One MP confessed it was poorly staged and a bad showing when the national media were there watching. That could be a sign that the local ground game needs improving. 

Authenticity versus inexperience

The party takes advantage of Trudeau's warmth and uses his personality as a shield to defend him when he says something ill-advised, calling him authentic and unrehearsed.

But it's those gaffes the Conservatives are counting on when an election hits. They're banking on Trudeau's inexperience leading to thoughtless remarks, something that has seemed to be a safe bet. The Conservatives themselves recall their own leader's ill-advised remark in 2008, as a recession struck and Canadians were losing their savings, that they should consider it a buying opportunity. The Conservatives feel that cost them a majority.

While most people thought the Liberals would plan two elections ahead, to seek government in 2019 rather than 2015, Darrell Bricker, the global CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, says governing is within reach sooner than that.

"He's got momentum and it seems to be building. And, governments that have been around for 10 years are always vulnerable," he said in an email to CBC News.

At the same time, Bricker explained, Trudeau's vote is inefficient — he's very popular in concentrated areas, meaning his national poll numbers have to be higher before the Liberals would be able to win a majority of seats in the House. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's support, on the other hand, is more efficient and evenly distributed among ridings.

Not the first time

The Liberals 170-seat goal would be just over half of the expanded House, which is getting an additional 30 seats in 2015 to keep pace with population growth.

That's four times their current 37 seats.

It's worth noting that no party leader will admit to campaigning for a strong second showing in an election. But the Liberal election readiness committee, national executive and caucus have been treated to a presentation on how to win a majority when the next federal race comes along.

It's also worth noting people rolled their eyes when Jack Layton said he was campaigning to be prime minister. The NDP leader took the party to official opposition status, from 36 MPs before the 2011 election to 103 after it.

Trudeau has only been a party leader for 16 months. So far, he's accomplished what the Liberals have needed him to do. Taking the party to a majority could be the next item on the checklist.


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