Column: Trudeau’s policy gaps threaten Liberal’s gains

by Tim Harper Toronto Star

Style and timing.

They can go a long way in politics but they only rarely go all the way.

Justin Trudeau appears to have both going for him as he seeks to turn around Liberal fortunes in 2015.

But the anxiety in party circles is whether he has what it takes to use that style and propitious timing and add the final ingredient – credibility – when the klieg lights go on in this year’s campaign.

Will the Liberal leader with the well-known name and crowd-pleasing mien become a political meteor, a parking lot for Stephen Harper opponents between elections, or will he have the game and the maturity to seal the deal?

He offers a stylish counterpoint to the buttoned-down world of Harper and his Conservatives and the timing will be right if there is a national thirst for change this year.

Although Trudeau has vulnerabilities which opponents will eagerly exploit, those opponents will also have to look at other numbers that indicate a depth to the Liberal revival beyond the leader’s smile.

No, not the polling numbers which will zig and zag during the year, but numbers like this:

More than $5.25 million, raised by the Liberal party in the fourth quarter of 2014, the party’s best fourth-quarter haul in eight years. The previous best was under rules which made fundraising easier. The party still trails the Conservatives but the party has almost doubled its 2012 fundraising total and should hit about $15.25 million for the year.

More than 300,000, the number of Liberal party memberships, a fivefold increase since Trudeau became leader. They are full $10 memberships, not the “supporters” the party had wooed during its leadership race.

The number of nominated Liberal candidates is now at 189, according to the website Pundits Guide, after weekend nominations in Alberta and Ontario. The Liberals have also had the highest percentage of contested nominations, at about 39 per cent. So far, only 16 per cent of NDP nominations and 14 per cent of Conservative nominations have been contested.

It’s true that when you have sunk as low as the pre-Trudeau Liberals, you can only trend upward. He inherited moribund riding associations and a historically dismal electoral performance in 2011. Fewer incumbents naturally lead to more contested nomination fights.

A Trudeau promise of open nominations has proved to be something quite different in a number of ridings and charges, challenges, complaints, even lawsuits, have clouded Liberal nominations in at least two Toronto ridings, one in southwestern Ontario, two in New Brunswick, one in Ottawa and one in the Vancouver area. In many cases, Trudeau and his inner circle face charges of pushing the leader’s choice over other challengers.

He has indeed acted more as an autocrat than the man who has promised to do politics differently.

He expelled his senators from the Liberal caucus, without telling them in advance, he launched a surprise edict that pro-life candidates were no longer welcome as candidates and he suspended MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti, essentially ending their careers, without a hearing after sexual harassment allegations were brought against them.

He will have to withstand a withering attack from Harper and the Conservatives as we approach the vote and he will have to eventually defend policy, marking the end of a time when voters could essentially project their own aspirations on the largely empty policy palette that is Trudeau.

But Trudeau’s major vulnerability may have been on display on the streets of Paris Sunday and in our own capital last autumn.

There is a hole in Trudeau’s foreign affairs and national security bona fides and they will be expertly exploited by Harper.

This will be the year of fear in Canadian politics and that will play to the strength of the incumbent. One of Trudeau’s freewheeling, partially formed foreign policy thought bubbles escaping his lips during the campaign could be fatal.

Harper has told us that jihadists have declared war on Canada and his party has crafted a narrative that last October’s attack was an Islamic State-inspired terror attack and only Harper has the steely resolve to deal with terrorists and protect citizens.

Trudeau would clearly not be up to that job, the Conservatives will tell Canadians.

Trudeau has so far taken nothing for granted. He has worked hard, pushed back against attack and rejuvenated his party.

But here’s another number to contemplate. If Liberals dream of a majority, Trudeau will have to protect his own 35 seats and win another 135. That would be a swing for the ages.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright: 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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