National Column: Conservatives, NDP have lessons to learn from PM’s trip

by Chantal Hébert

As they ponder the leadership of their own parties, what lessons, if any, should the Conservatives and the New Democrats draw from Justin Trudeau’s picture-perfect official visit to Washington?

Over the coming weeks and months, the NDP and the Conservative Party of Canada will make decisions that will shape their respective courses to the 2019 election.

Part of the thinking on the way forward will by definition be introspective.

A debate about leadership is almost always a debate by proxy about what the party stands for. And in each of those two cases, the potential for divisiveness is high.

But on leadership, the choices the opposition parties will also inevitably be informed by how their Liberal rival performs in action. And on that score, Trudeau’s first few months in government offer his main rivals much food for sober thought.

Take this week’s trip to Washington. It would be easier to dismiss it as just a lost week for the opposition were it not part of what has been a winning streak for the rookie Liberals.

Polls suggest that Trudeau is exceeding the expectations not only of those who supported his party last fall but also of many non-Liberal voters.

While it would be comforting for the opposition parties to conclude that the prime minister’s high approval rating is a product of the triumph of style over substance, that’s the reasoning that had led the NDP and the Conservatives to their current predicament.

Here are some tentative lessons they might want to keep in mind going forward:

If voters did not buy the argument that Trudeau is an empty vessel when he was just the leader of a third party, they are even less likely to do so now that he is backed by the expertise of the civil service and basking in the glow of the mostly positive first impressions of the international community.

If anything, Trudeau’s political pedigree has tended to blind his opponents to the fact that he is not a media magnet just by virtue of his birth but also in his own right.

No Canadian politician has so consistently been under the spotlight as he has since he was first elected as MP.

The opposition parties need to come to terms with the notion that he will not be melting down anytime soon.

For a click-hungry media, Trudeau’s celebrity appeal is a gift that keeps on giving. Lamenting that reality will not change it.

And waiting for his aura to fade has been a losing game. A leader comfortable in his skin is usually one who is also comfortable with voters and the media. But the more instructive paradox is that while Trudeau’s star shines more brightly than that of his political contemporaries, he has also redirected more of that glow unto his team than most popular leaders.

That might entice the Conservatives and the New Democrats to reconsider the proposition that in politics, collegiality is a remedy for weak leadership at the top rather than the mark of strong leader.

When the Liberals selected Trudeau, they picked someone who could win only by changing the terms of engagement of the leadership battle. In a contest for the title of alpha dog, Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair would have had him beaten hands down.

The question the opposition parties have to ask themselves is whether they should engage on those changed terms and make their leadership decisions accordingly or – even more fundamentally – whether they have the luxury to not do so. On this, the Washington visit offered a partial answer in the shape not of the much-celebrated Trudeau but rather of his outgoing American vis-‡-vis. Barack Obama and Trudeau are both cut from the same atypical leadership cloth. Their path to power was not the beaten one.

A show of political killer instinct did not get them where they are. But hundred of thousands of new voters made the difference in their favour.

As it turned out, the American president did not walk on water. But after eight difficult years in the White House, a critical mass of Canadians still liked Obama’s inclusive optimistic approach to politics enough to install a like-minded leader as their prime minister.

Chantal HÈbert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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