Will Bob Rae’s unexpected but sensible decision to withdraw from the Liberal leadership race pave the way for the second coming of Trudeau?
I certainly hope not.
Let me declare my biases: while I was a huge fan of Trudeau père, I am not enthusiastic about inherited political dynasties, of any ideological stripe. Talent often dissipates across the generational divide, replaced by opportunism and the conviction that being born on third base looks good on a resume.
Justin Trudeau, who got a gusty plug from The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin a few days ago, may have a pugilistic streak, but his journey to the forefront of the Liberal caucus – which began, curiously, with the eloquent eulogy he gave at his father’s state funeral – is hardly a stirring accomplishment. And while he’s got that youthful swashbuckler thing about him, the promise he apparently brings is reminiscent of the hype that preceded Michael Ignatieff’s ill-fated coronation.
What’s in a name, you ask? Less than you’d think.
Stephen Harper made sure there’s not much bench strength in the Grit caucus. Dominic Leblanc, another political scion from Atlantic Canada, is sometimes mentioned, as is David McGuinty, brother of you-know-who, and Gerard Kennedy. Former Liberal justice minister Martin Cauchon, a savvy Chretien protégé who is safely ensconced as a rainmaker for Heenan Blaikie, is another possibility, and would fit with the party’s tradition of alternating anglo- and francophone leaders – assuming, of course, that such traditions mean anything at all in this day and age.
If I was a Liberal strategist attempting to think outside the box, I would be focusing on the one politician in this country who can, in my view, solve a great many of the party’s policy, positioning and organization problems: Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.
Nenshi is a tested leader who could present Canadian voters – especially those in large urban regions — with a stark counterpoint to Harper’s Conservatives, both in substance and style. And, what’s more, he is the only public figure I can think of who has a hope in hell of surmounting the corrosive resource-sector-fueled regionalism that has transformed federal politics into a zero-sum game.
Let’s start with the obvious: Nenshi reflects the face of 21st century Canada – diverse, well-educated, savvy about the ways of globalization and totally at ease with the youthful pluralism that increasingly characterizes Canada’s major urban centres, and therefore most of the country. He is smart, articulate, self-deprecating, and understands the fluid nature of engagement in the age of social media and Twitter. Indeed, his organizational skills in the run-up to the 2010 Calgary mayoral race were a spectacle to behold.
Where Harper and his Conservatives thrive at the politics of division, Nenshi is all about adding, multiplying and synthesizing. As the Calgary race demonstrated, Nenshi is a guy who viscerally understands how to build complex coalitions and then deliver on key democratic principles, such as transparency.
A few more points: he’s a socially progressive yet unapologetically pro-business politician from Western Canada who has figured out how to romance Calgary’s oil patch executives – a group not known for its love of progressives.
It also seems increasingly clear that Alberta is no longer in lock step with the prime minister’s brand of conservatism, as Alison Redford’s election suggested. Yet if the Liberals want to capitalize on this opening, they’re certainly not going to do it with a long distance phone card, much less a leader whose every utterance will remind the West about the indignities of Trudeau Sr.’s national energy policy.
More important, however, is that Nenshi represents an entirely different approach to politics and governance, and is well positioned to take advantage of the generalized discomfort with Harper’s MO. The Tories, after all, don’t do openness. They value tactical victories and heavy-handed message control over open-ended debate. And they display a breathtaking contempt for countervailing information, be it from StatsCan or government scientists or the criminal justice experts who have been stonewalled by Vic Toews and his Old Testament sentencing policies.
Lastly, Harper, during his tenure, has placed a massive bet on the resource sector as the key to Canada’s economic future, and has done so without seriously questioning the implications for Canada’s more urbanized sectors, not to mention the environment. Are we to become a country which coasts along by selling rocks and oil to the U.S. and China, and Timbits to one another?
I don’t remember ever having that particular debate.
Harper, for all his coldness and fiscal self-righteousness, gets a pass from Canadians because many voters believe he won’t blow the bank, even though the country’s monetary stability is mostly the handiwork of Mark Carney and the federal banking regulators and Paul Martin’s war on the deficit in the mid-1990s.
To date, the opposition parties have failed to convince most voters that Harper’s fiscal management is deeply risky because he’s putting all our eggs in the resources basket without any kind of hedging strategy. What’s more, it seems absurd that a modern, wealthy country should become so blinded by the allure of commodities and China’s industrial customers that the federal government is willing to dismantle generations of accepted environmental protections to ensure that we can remain price competitive with all those developing world nations and semi-failed states that have little else to trade but rocks, fibre and oil.
If anyone can challenge Harper by asserting the importance of developing a forward-looking, diversified urban economy based on innovation, it is Naheed Nenshi. He gets cities, and how they generate wealth. That’s the choice he offers.