Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Summer no silly season for Trudeau

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The political barbecue season opened the 2015 federal election window this weekend with the Liberals basking in 14 months of buoyant byelection, poll and fundraising numbers.

From the Calgary Stampede this week to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto at the end of August, the paparazzi are on the prowl for photos of party leaders wearing cowboy hats, flipping pancakes or awarding prize ribbons to livestock.

Conventional wisdom says the Liberal surge should not be happening.

The steady incumbent hand of Prime Minister Stephen Harper should be swatting away challenges from the third party with the youthful leader.

However, summer opened with the Liberals ahead in the polls, except in Alberta, and winning the byelection tally by five seats to four since Justin Trudeau took the party's helm.

He won Labrador away from the Conservatives, Trinity-Spadina from the NDP and gave the Tories a scare in Fort McMurray-Athabasca, cutting their margin of victory from 70 per cent to just 12 per cent.

In all nine byelections since Trudeau became leader, the Liberal share of the popular vote has increased significantly. His party's fundraising is growing faster than the Conservatives, although it lags behind the Blue money machine in totals.

In 2012, Elections Canada data show, the Liberals increased their haul by $2 million more than the Tory increase.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are financing a costly negative-advertising campaign new polls indicate is driving support Trudeau's way. The negative ads and the Conservative media spin-doctors say Trudeau is not ready for prime time, but he is beating both the Conservatives and NDP on prime-time TV.

There are caveats to the "Trudeau effect." Only in Atlantic Canada is the Liberal lead indisputable. British Columbia is too close for the Liberals to count on. And in Quebec, Liberal-Conservative vote-splitting provides an opportunity for the NDP to hold seats.

Although as many as a dozen Conservative seats are now in play in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Prairie provinces are Harper's stronghold and source of all his byelection wins.

Even so, Ontario is the voter- and constituency-rich key to the 2015 election for the Liberals.

Voters there just forgave provincial Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne for the sins of her predecessor in office, Dalton McGuinty, and handed her a resounding new mandate. She crushed the conservative Tim Hudak, whose politics closely resemble the ideology of Stephen Harper.

Federally, Ontario is looking strong for the Liberals, too. Trudeau has won all four byelections held in the province during his leadership term.

He can look to Ontario, especially its cities, for the margin of seats he needs to form at least the official Opposition in the coming election. No one is more dismayed by this prospect than NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair.

There is one empty seat in Ontario, Whitby-Oshawa, vacant since the recent death of former Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty.

His widow, Christine Elliott, turned down Harper's personal invitation to contest the seat in a byelection, choosing instead to campaign for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership.

Trudeau's political honeymoon has survived and his base has grown in spite of unrelenting, nasty and personal attacks that have become a hallmark of Harper's leadership and, by implication, his political persona.

Trudeau commands the political buzz factor this summer. His informal speaking style -- collar unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up, standing in the bed of a pickup truck or on a platform -- enlivens a crowd.

He likes to speak without notes, and that has led to extemporaneous flights of rhetoric that leave his handlers with explaining to do. Not since the late Alberta premier Ralph Klein, however, have voters been so ready to forgive and forget.

Not since Justin's father, Pierre Trudeau, burst onto the political scene in 1968 has a leader climbed to the top of the heap so rapidly.

This summer will test whether Justin is charisma or chimera.


Frank Dabbs is a veteran business and political journalist. He lives in the rural Ontario village of Annan overlooking Georgian Bay.

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2014 A9

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