Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trudeau's will to power

Liberal leader says he wants what Canadians want

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Justin Trudeau arrived in Winnipeg Friday in a bid to take advantage of positive polling numbers and perhaps to shore up votes for Winnipeg South. The fact that he visited the Ukrainian, Filipino, Indian and Israeli pavilions is not lost on anyone.

Of course, he'd be a fool to do anything less. All political leaders, fuelled with polling information and demographics know where the pockets of support are and who they need to massage. Even when there is no official campaign looming, it's clear we're in what Tom Flanagan calls the permanent campaign, with parties always in election-fighting mode. Friday, Trudeau said he wants what Canadians want. It's not really clear what that means, but in keeping with the permanent campaign, it certainly makes a good sound bite.

It's interesting to watch the juxtaposition of Justin Trudeau's political reality against the world of his father. Justin Trudeau's last visit to the Free Press building led to crowds of Free Press employees hanging around the lobby in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Liberal leader. On Friday, despite the fact that it was a beautiful afternoon, there were a large number of enthusiastic supporters waiting to hear him speak at the Free Press News Café.

Obviously, this "Trudeaumania" is not unlike what his father endured back in the late 1960s. Pierre Elliot Trudeau became leader when television, and more specifically colour television, started to gain prominence in political coverage and his ability to come across as young and hip played well to that new media reality which required exciting visuals, conflict and action.

The media in the 1960s and '70s began to write with interest about Trudeau's life and romances, including the fact he once dated Barbra Streisand. When he married Margaret Sinclair in 1971, it was a media sensation and Canadians finally got their own Camelot -- albeit short-lived. As the marriage went sour, Maggie quickly morphed from being a Jackie Kennedy into a Princess Diana, chased by the paparazzi and given little peace.

Justin Trudeau also stands on the edge of a media revolution -- the explosion of new media, propelled by the ubiquity of iPhones, tablets and social media like Facebook and Twitter. He's facing a different reality than his dad faced in the late 1960s when television was the new innovation and there was no such thing as webmail or selfies.

Pierre's leadership ushered in a new way of doing politics, with the party taking a backseat to the leader and his personality. Justin seems to be the perfect prototype of personality-driven politics, with his wavy hair, his good looks and his attractive family. Now even more than ever, careful discussions about policy fall by the wayside, as party officials turn themselves inside out grooming their candidate as a brand to sell to the Canadian public.

Harper's team did this remarkably well, using carefully controlled media messaging and beating the tired Liberals in this new game of the permanent campaign. Once elected to a majority, Harper rebranded Canada from Liberal red and white to Tory blue. It's product placement at its best.

Trudeau may have found a way to subvert Harper's campaign, which some see as too negative and smacking of Orwellian Big Brother control. He's easier with people, more friendly and more charismatic. This is not a party leader who will shake his son's hand in a photo op.

But he also has been very strategic in who he reaches out to.

How?

Do policy seemingly on the fly and tell people what they seem to want to hear.

Want to make sure young people support you? Advocate for the legalization of marijuana.

Want to make sure women support you? Tackle head-on the issue the Harper government has been too afraid to discuss -- abortion and make sure all candidates espouse a pro-choice line.

Want to get aboriginals to back you? Talk about dismantling the First Nations Financial Transparency Act and make a pledge to shore up First Nations education funding.

If he's fuzzy on details, it doesn't matter. He says what he's doing is engaging with Canadians to try to parse out what the policy issues need to be.

And here's the deal: Right now it's working for him in a lot of ways. His polling numbers are trending upward, at least according to an Ekos poll released last week.

Nationally, voter intentions for the Liberals have climbed to 38.7 per cent -- up almost 20 percentage points from 2011, putting them into minority government territory. Even more stunning, if you believe the seat projections, the Conservatives who are running neck and neck with the NDP may actually end up in third place.

Third.

It's early, with at least a year to go before the next federal election and I'm not sure I'm convinced Trudeau can continue the momentum. Frankly, it would be very foolish to underestimate the Conservatives. But this game is going to be an interesting one to watch, particularly if he can get his supporters to do more than just gaze at him adoringly on a hot Friday afternoon.

If he can get them to come out and vote, 2015 could be a game-changer.

 

Shannon Sampert is the Free Press perspectives and politics editor.

 

shannon.sampert@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 A13

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