Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

A Changing Political Landscape in Canada

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As the Harper majority government ends its second year in office, the Liberal party, with its third party status, has just chosen a new leader.  Normally, the choice made by the third party in the House of Commons would barely make waves.  However, the overwhelming victory of Justin Trudeau—the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—at the end of a six-month campaign has already begun to change the political landscape in Canada.

Public opinion polls preceding and following Trudeau’s selection have demonstrated that the 41-year-old Trudeau is beginning to have an impact on how Canadians see their current government, what they are looking for in a prime minister  and how important the theme of real change could be in the next election.  Just prior to choosing Trudeau as leader, Liberals had either narrowed the gap in public approval with the governing Conservative party and the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), or taken the lead. A poll recently published in the National Post showed Trudeau actually widening his lead in approval ratings.

With the elections more than two years away, these polls should be taken with a grain of salt. But it is clear that the Liberals have gained a new energy that makes them, once again, a potential major player in the next electoral cycle.  How Trudeau fares in the coming weeks could very well determine the outcome of the 2015 election.  If he loses traction, he may quickly become a passing fad.  Should he display aplomb and growth in his new role, he could become the prime minister-in-waiting.It is far too early to make predictions.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper has proven to be a master strategist, an able leader and an effective performer in the House of Commons.  Mr. Harper and his government have performed well through the turmoils of the Great Recession, and clearly the Prime Minister has a vision for where he wishes to take Canadians.  Agree with him or not, the conservative coalition and Harper’s hold over his party make him a formidable opponent for any political adversary.

Official opposition leader Tom Mulcair and his NDP party are no easy targets, either.  Mulcair is a highly capable opposition leader, and his party has a strong progressive tradition to counter the Harper Conservatives and possibly marginalize any Liberal policy renewal.  If the electorate wishes to make a clear-cut choice between forces of the Left and the Right, Mulcair and Harper easily fit the bill. In order to widen their appeal, both the NDP and the Conservatives have also made overtures towards the political center with some of their policies. This clearly puts the squeeze on the Liberal policy thinkers.

While the Liberals dominated federal politics in Canada throughout most of the twentieth century, they are now on their seventh leader since 2000.  This is hardly a formula for stability, continuity or relevance. Their third-place finish in 2011 was a first in the history of the party, and their centrist positioning with no clear policy appeal has made them more marginal as a political choice.

The arrival of Justin Trudeau has the potential to change this dynamic.  Trudeau is positioning himself as a new generational, new-style politician. He wants to reach out, unite Canadians and reduce polarization. Observations about the parallels between Trudeau and the 2008 Obama have already been made—little government experience, modest legislative accomplishments, a lot of style and charisma—and there are similarities in the message.  All we need to hear are the words “hope and change.”

Some of Trudeau’s main challenges will be to develop more political content, show growing maturity, display a sharp learning curve, and connect with the electorate at large.  Above all, he should not put all his efforts in outperforming veteran, warrior–type parliamentarians like Mulcair and Harper in the House of Commons. Voters outside of the Ottawa press pay little attention.

The governing Conservatives appear concerned and have already put forward some negative advertising about Trudeau, the very day after his victory.  This approach worked well with some of Trudeau’s predecessors.  But Justin Trudeau has a far different narrative, and one more personal to Canadians.  For now, at least, Trudeau’s arrival is making his Liberal party reemerge as a competitor. This is an immediate asset for the leadership of the progressive forces in Canada, arguably greater in number than conservatives.  The choice of Trudeau as leader and his eventual campaign are being portrayed as both exciting—because of the energy and the unpredictability—and serious, in terms of its potential outcome.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada, Justin Trudeau
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