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Justin Trudeau's Obama Moment

From the Liberal convention, a message that success in 2015 rests on the man, not the party.

Haley Cullingham 25 Feb

Haley Cullingham is the editor-in-chief of Maisonneuve, an award-winning quarterly magazined based in Montreal.

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Trudeau's convention speech focused on hope: "Negativity cannot be this country's life-blood." Photo via

Attending a party convention is a lot like being at a wedding. Everyone wants things to go well, and feels a little uncomfortable at any hiccup in the orchestration.

On Friday afternoon, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau practiced his opening remarks as delegates slowly started to fill the convention centre. The audio was piped inexplicably into the media filing room, where reporters overheard Trudeau rehearse a portion of his welcome address in which he spoke to his wife over Skype. "The audio's really garbled," Sophie Gregoir told him. "It might just be my French," he said.

At least nobody was handing out Justin Trudeau-branded Zig-Zags.

The leak of a Conservative party memo listing convention sabotage tactics did a solid job of hijacking the narrative (albeit not, perhaps, in exactly the way their energy-drink-company-at-a-musical-festival strategists hoped) leading up to the Liberal Convention -- but the scene at the Palais des Congres in downtown Montreal this weekend was charged with the intention to take that narrative back.

By Friday evening, girls in sleeveless shirts (it was warm for Montreal, but not that warm) were tumbling out of cabs and racing into the convention centre, high-paced chatter at full decibel, afraid they would miss Trudeau's introduction. A Young Liberal walked around the foyer asking members of the under-30 set to come to the front of the stage during the speech.

Based on the split of the crowd, he wouldn't have had much trouble. In total, 3,000 delegates filled the Palais des Congres. (One, in from Ottawa, remarked at the number of young people in attendance -- but he was also struck by the numbers of the old guard.)

There is, admittedly, something of the celebrity about Trudeau that is largely absent in Canadian politics. While Harper and Mulcair demand attention, it gravitates toward the Liberal leader, with his Disney-hero cocked eyebrow.

This presents the party with an interesting problem. Instead of looking for ways to humanize their candidate and get his name out there, they instead need to convince voters that he is more than a public persona. With the electorate deeply split across party lines, branding the Liberal Party with Trudeau, instead of the other way around, might connect with Canadians for whom the very concept of politics has become hopelessly bogged down in corruption and contention.

Changing the conversation

There was much to be learned about the Liberals' strategy in the coming election from Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, a former Obama deputy campaign manager who spoke at the convention.

O'Malley Dillon gave what one delegate called a "higher-level" overview of both the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. "Nothing is as important as person-to-person organizing," she said of 2012. "But everything was touched by data, tech and digital." (By the end of the campaign, Obama's 34 million Facebook fans connected him to the newsfeeds of 98 per cent of Americans.)

Obama's focus on the Hispanic vote gave him a huge advantage in 2012, and one can't help but wonder if appealing to the rapidly-growing First Nations voter base could be a wise strategy for Trudeau. But O'Malley Dillon's strongest message was one that will feel familiar to anyone who watches AMC's Mad Men: Change the conversation. Set the tone of the campaign early, and ensure that the race focuses on the conversation you want to have.

The Obama/Trudeau comparison is hardly new, because it's hardly a leap. The party believes that Trudeau's weaknesses -- that low-word-count resume -- can be overcome by his appeal, and nudging the race in a direction that emphasizes future and present action, not past achievements, is one way to do that. This could, perhaps, be the cornerstone of the Liberal strategy, as evidenced by the Senate announcement: get out ahead of the race and set the tone of the conversation.

Speaking to individuals and building a "bottom-up campaign" would put Trudeau supporters one-on-one with Canadian voters, overcoming the alienation many (including many members of the First Nations voter base) feel with political parties. As the leader of the third party in Parliament, Trudeau might want to start doing his walk-ons to Drake's "Started from the Bottom." (Although, given his pedigree, this might not be the best idea.)

Soundbites, but little strategy

A convention is, after all, a glorified pep rally where a place around the bonfire costs $500.

As a voice counted down the minutes to Trudeau's keynote speech on Saturday, staff did the roadrunner sprint -- torsos stiff, laminated IDs barely bouncing, but legs a purposeful blur -- from one end of the room to the other. Boom mics bobbed above the crowd -- the inverse of the hockey sticks everyone was really thinking about.

A woman in the crowd embraced the leader on his way to the stage, unable to stop herself from touching his hair.

Trudeau's keynote, with its predictable focus on the middle class and the creation of a politics of hope, not anxiety, set the tone for a convention that suggests the Liberals will try to shift the focus of the next election towards people and not policy.

He made good on the cheerleader metaphor, telling his party he will "stand on your shoulders" to achieve their common priorities.

"Productive growth is important. Innovation is important. We want to make sure the economy is diversified and resilient," he said. "But they are all a means to an end." However, we're still left wondering, by what means? "Tax increases are not in the cards and not on the table," he said, to cheers.

He described an infrastructure that was built for a different climate, but didn't suggest how it can adapt. He emphasized the importance of getting things, like education, right, citing a national target of 70 per cent for post-secondary attainment. But the means to achieve these goals were to his whole speech what Keystone XL was to the moment when he spoke about a "robust environmental policy" that included developing resources responsibly (the words of the speech where his voice reached peak volume): implied but absent in name.

Not absent in name, however, was Stephen Harper. "I believe... he was a principled man," Trudeau said. "But... he has abandoned the principles he held dear." Conservative critics were quick to point out that Trudeau's comments didn't quite align with the theme of his speech: "Negativity," he said, "cannot be this country's life-blood."

In these moments, Trudeau sounded like a leader, even a harbinger of relief from the exhausting wasteland that is Canadian politics. But one can't help but wish he backed up his soundbites with strategy -- too often, his supporters are tweeting lines from his speeches that feel ready-written for the medium, and you can't fix a country's character in 140.

The citizen connection

The keynote was received well by the echo chamber of the Internet. Even before the speech was over, someone had created a @fakenathalie Twitter account (which reads like a bad attempt at meme-generation by a Harper strategist), based on the archetype voter Trudeau repeatedly referenced in his speech.

After the speech, Young Liberals, perhaps unintentionally, paraphrased Miley Cyrus as they milled around the lobby: "It's our party, we can do whatever we want to." But it's not their House yet, not even close. And not everyone is swept up by Trudeau the Good. One young delegate from New Brunswick complained that, though his family is Liberal going back generations, his friends in the Conservative Party make it sound more welcoming. He's leaving the convention unconvinced.

On the same afternoon that Trudea's faithful stood rapt in an auditorium, NDP supporters were flooding Canadian neighbourhoods as part of the party's National Day of Action. (It was a big weekend for those who hope to give Stephen Harper a headache in 2015.)

While Trudeau's speech emphasized the importance of job creation, the focus of the NDP Day of Action was "making life more affordable for Canadians," said Sam Hersh, the vice president internal of NDP McGill who canvassed Montreal's Roxboro neighbourhood in the riding of Pierrefonds-Dollard.

The issues at hand -- capped ATM fees and low-interest credit cards -- are ones that make literal much of what in Trudeau's speech was still theoretical.

According to Hersh, grassroots efforts are one thing that sets the NDP apart from the Liberal and Conservative parties. "I haven't really seen or heard of Liberals or Conservatives canvassing neighbourhoods and going door-to-door to the same capacity as the NDP does," said Hersh. "The work that the NDP is willing to do and the effort they are willing to put in to hear the opinion of the average Canadian and act on those opinions will make them stand out in 2015."

It will be Trudeau's ability to capture a sense of ownership over the party that could determine its fate in 2015. And someone decrying the lack of substance at the Convention could point to the significant gains in both popular and financial support he's managed to rally over the last year, as well as the policy resolutions passed: support for assisted suicide, Senate reform, officially rejecting the 1969 White Paper, and of course, electoral reform among them.

But at the end of the day, no one knows how many of these resolutions will make it to the 2015 platform. The policies that will shape the modern Liberal Party of Canada are still very much to be determined. Hope and Hard Work, certainly, but as the banners come down, the question that hangs in the air is, "How?"  [Tyee]

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