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Marijuana as generational change

Trudeau sets sights on the youth vote

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In a recent episode of Aaron Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom, a television journalist covering the Mitt Romney leadership campaign puts in a valiant effort to get either the candidate, or his handlers, to provide a meaningful answer to a meaningful question.

The reporter laments the fact journalists report faithfully whatever Romney says in exactly the way he says it, even when it doesn't make any sense or conflicts with established facts.

The Newsroom is, by admission, catnip for journalists: an accurate representation of the real-world issues confronted in real-world newsrooms, even if the characters are smarter, more articulate, and thinner than real-world journalists. Still, there is a lot in this show that resonates for reporters, such as our failure to question the assertions made by politicians.

Case in point: Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his most recent cabinet shuffle embodied "generational change" in the power structure of his government. Eight new faces were added to cabinet, most in their 30s and 40s, and four of them women, Was this really a generational shift? And if it was, does it signal real change in the direction of the Harper government?

The media, on the whole, bought into the theory. Long after the shuffle, journalists debated and dissected the influence the new ministers might have on government policy. However, when you get right down to it, the new cabinet is not much younger than the old one.

The shuffle did get rid of some older folk, and introduced younger ministers. But the average age of the new, improved and younger cabinet is still 51.5 years. As a result, it's highly unlikely this shuffle will alter the direction and tone of a government led by a 54-year-old prime minister. To really change, you'd have to do something a bit riskier, a bit more assertive.

Contrast the Tories' bid to embrace generational change with what's happening with the Liberal party.

Three months ago, Justin Trudeau, the 41-year-old son of a former prime minister, was elected leader of the Liberal party. He is young, by political standards at least, and seems to live young. He has penchants for interesting facial hair and showing up in videos shirtless. It's easy to deduce the branding of the Tory cabinet shuffle was a response to Trudeau's youthful vitality.

However, for the most part, Trudeau had done nothing to demonstrate he had really changed the Liberal party in any meaningful, generational way. Until last week.

At a public event in B.C., Trudeau stunned many by supporting the legalization of marijuana. It's not a fully formed idea, and Trudeau has lots of room to modify or step back from his original statement. However, his statement does suggest the possibility of real change in his party.

This is a watershed issue for many younger Canadians, most of whom (if polls are to be believed) don't think you should be imprisoned for possessing pot. In the United States, ballot propositions on legalizing pot even led to a surge in voting among younger demographics. That's right, pot has succeeded where youthful candidates, social media and MTV failed. Actually, maybe that's not so surprising.

Was the pot policy an unscripted audible, or was this part of a thoughtful and deliberate plan by Trudeau to show Canadians what real generational change looked like? It's unclear at this point. There is no guarantee this will become party policy, or a central plank in the 2015 election platform. You can expect Trudeau to face some opposition among his own caucus.

Some Grits will balk at Trudeau's plan because it's not certain proposing to legalize pot will help the Liberals win an election. To do that, the Liberals would have to put together an array of policies that would increase voter turnout among younger voters. With the Tory vote rock solid, and the Liberals and NDP splitting centre and left-of-centre voters, increased turnout among younger voters is a must if the Grits are to recapture government.

Although this is an issue popular among the vaunted 18- to 34-year-olds, it is not clear legalizing pot will convince more of them to vote. Consider as well the fact the NDP favours decriminalizing pot possession, a policy that doesn't go quite as far as Trudeau has gone, but far enough that voters would actually -- if you can believe this -- have a choice between two pro-cannabis parties in the next election.

At this point, nobody knows whether legalizing pot will even become an issue in the next election. And yet, in stepping out on this limb, Trudeau is showing that generational change has a lot more to do with embracing new ideas than the date on your birth certificate.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

What will best appeal to younger voters: a promise to legalize pot or younger, if less powerful, cabinet ministers? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 A7

History

Updated on Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 6:12 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds question for discussion

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