The Ellipsis – Burying the Lede…ership

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. – Colin Powell

In the long history of the Canadian Liberal organization has there ever been a period of greater upheaval? Probably but the past couple years have still been devastating. The federal, Ontario and Quebec Liberals are all without leadership. New Brunswick’s party just elected a new leader this weekend. Their British Columbian family is flagging. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have a 6 provincial Liberal representatives between them (5, 0 and 1, respectively). Only the (unfortunately) oft-forgotten P.E.I., Nova Scotian and Newfoundland-Labradoran constituencies have shown majority or growing support for their respective local Liberals.

Across the nation, Grits are using terms like “renewal” and “transformation”. They are seeking new faces and ideas to redefine themselves in defence against numerous scandals that have been driving off voters and long-time supporters, like Ontario’s teachers and unions and Quebec’s federalists, in droves. Nowhere is this renewal so profound as in the race for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Justin Trudeau
Trudeau’s best move? Shaving. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

For months now, the Grits of this nation have once again been gradually falling deeper and deeper into the grips of Trudeaumania. When former Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau’s eldest son, Justin, said he wouldn’t be running for the federal party leadership in April. The Liberals were optimistic he could change his mind. Then interim leader Bob Rae announced he wouldn’t be seeking the head job in June. The Liberals excitedly turned to the young MP with bated breath. He said he’d think about it. A month ago, it was hinted he would take up the gauntlet. “I have nothing to announce today,” Justin said. Libs across the country were virtually dancing in the streets. The official announcement came the next week. What has followed has been an endless party.

Since then, a Nanos Research poll has a Trudeau-led Liberal party pulling past the NDP and approaching the PCs (PC: 33.3%, Lib: 30.1%, NDP: 27.9%). So why not celebrate? He’s everything they need, isn’t he? He’s young and tech-savvy. The Trudeau name has rockstar-like name recognition. He hasn’t, as yet, worn out his political welcome.

Then again… He’s young and inexperienced. The Trudeau name has rockstar-like revulsion attached to it. He hasn’t, as yet, made any real political mark. In fact, at just 40 years old and having only held his Papineau riding for 4 years, the public at large and most of the Liberals now chanting his name likely know as much about him as they do those Maritime Liberal leaders I alluded to earlier. That is to say, they know his name and little else. (Although those Maritime Liberals would be lucky to have that much popular  recognition west of New Brunswick.)

If the Liberals truly want to hang all their hopes of reinvention on the coattails of a young, unproven MP, he first needs to reinvent himself as someone more than just his father’s son. While there may be more than 2 years between now and the next general election to do that, he’d be working under the mantle of a 3rd-place party in a Conservative minority government and competing with all other parties for attention. (Although Elizabeth May seems to be doing wonders as the sole Green representative.) No, the best way Mr. Trudeau can establish himself as a future candidate for the country’s top elected post is with a solid leadership campaign that focuses the spotlight unwaveringly on him and his fellow contestants. Unfortunately the current candidates, declared and suspected, leave a lot to be desired. The general election-style voting that allows anyone, party member or no, to vote further exacerbates the dearth of valid competition. Combining the celebrity status Trudeau carries with the leadership format and any lesser-known entries would seemingly have as much a chance of beating the prodigal son as the Washington Generals have against the Harlem Globetrotters. They need a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to take him on. After all, in the majors they don’t let you use a ladder.

Dalton McGuinty
If McGuinty won’t be the competition Trudeau needs, who will? (Nancy Paiva)

Unfortunately, the best candidate for that task has just taken a pass on it. It was widely speculated that Dalton McGuinty’s sudden retirement from provincial politics was a mask for more than just the numerous scandals now plaguing his party. That speculation was put to rest last week when McGuinty announced he wouldn’t be stepping into the ring. This is a shame. If there was a Liberal around who could go toe-to-toe with Trudeau and beat the long odds against him it would be McGuinty. He’s done as much numerous times in the past. In his own bid for the provincial leadership 16 years ago he beat out front-runner Gerard Kennedy on the 5th ballot. In fact, Kennedy won each of the prior ballots, garnering better than 200 votes more than McGuinty on each. As leader, McGuinty overcame double-digit poll deficits and won elections after raising taxes. Who’s to say he couldn’t do so again? That’s a question that likely won’t be answered now.

If his decision had been reversed, McGuinty could have provided just the challenge Trudeau needs. As the longtime leader of the country’s largest province, he has national recognition. His popularity amongst is allies is massive (85.8% support at last month’s leadership review). He has once-already pulled a struggling party back from the brink of extinction. These are potent credentials for a potential leader of a 3rd-ranked party with loftier aspirations. Most important of all, however, McGuinty has proven himself to be strong on policy. He has a record of balancing public wants with political and fiscal limitations and come out on top. A challenger with such would push Trudeau to define himself and his stances and, perhaps even more importantly, distance himself from his father.

McGuinty, however, is widely maligned by the public of Ontario and had very strong ties to the now-deposed Quebec government. These two regions will prove even more crucial for the future Liberal hopes given the failing public interest in the B.C. Grits. As a 16-year veteran, he would hardly provide the fresh face the Liberals are seeking to prompt their “renewal”. Should he have done the seemingly impossible and beaten Trudeau, a regeneration of the national name would be difficult. Finally, if McGuinty were to have won the leadership next April 14, the Conservative party’s attack ads would swamp the airwaves April 15 reminding the nation of (allegedly) politically-motivated power plant cancellations, air ambulance scandals and electronic health record overpayments, all of funded with taxpayer dollars.

The pickings are slim at the Liberal leadership exhibition. Justin Trudeau is easily topping the pundits’ lists but few have seen him play. He may have the raw talent and the all-star name but it takes more than talent to make it in the major leagues. It takes grit. Trudeau has thrown some literal punches, taking down Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau, but can he handle going to the political corners? These days McGuinty’s style of play is looking dated but you don’t play for 16 years without developing strong technical skills. Anyone going up against them will have need political savvy. If they don’t have it, there’s no better way to learn.

No, McGuinty wouldn’t likely have the legs to carry the Liberal team to the championship. But Trudeau needs to show he has more than raw talent and a hall-of-fame name. A protracted exhibition game with McGuinty could have done just that. But Dalton’s hung up his skates and is moving on to another career. To find someone to take on the apparent champion-by-default the Liberals have to look elsewhere. Somewhere like outer space, perhaps?

And,who knows, maybe McGuinty can coach?

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