New blood fuels Liberal party's comeback

Tim
Tim Harper
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MONTREAL, QUE. – As their four-day convention wound down here Sunday, Paul Martin walked virtually unnoticed from the downtown conference centre.

Someone remarked that he had kept a low profile here.

"This is somebody else's convention now,” Martin said, “as it ought to be.”

There was no rancour in the observation of a former prime minister, but this was not a gathering for looking back.

In only 10 months at the helm, Justin Trudeau has firmly put his stamp on this party and its executive, its future candidates, its former Senate caucus and its political brand.

The choice speaking slots were handed to those newcomers who the party expects to be MPs in 2015, while Bob Rae was given the job of chatting with provincial premiers and Liberal leaders onstage, and StÈphane Dion worked the corridors like any other MP.

Michael Ignatieff? Michael who?

Prime spots went to Bill Morneau, a Toronto businessman who is expected to run in a downtown Toronto riding next year; Jim Carr, one-time head of the Manitoba Business Council, who will run in Winnipeg; Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, expected to make a bid in Ottawa; and Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, who is expected to run in that province.

All delivered fealty to the leader and were rewarded with a Trudeau hug.

It was a younger crowd here, with some party insiders claiming as many as half the attendees were new arrivals to the Liberals, although they provided no numbers to back that up.

But this is still a party which is essentially Trudeau in the window asking for votes.

Strangely, for a party that has faced accusations in the past that it put pursuit of power ahead of policy, the leader was nowhere to be found Sunday to explain policy that had bubbled up from the grassroots, the only opportunity it will have to try to influence the 2015 platform.

Trudeau's team was content with the leader doing a couple of packaged television interviews and being pictured cheering on Canada's Olympic hockey team, all before any resolutions were passed.

This could presage the buttoning down of a leader whose freewheeling mouth often made journalists happy and aides nervous.

It was a strange strategy, stranger still, when one is reminded this is still the third party in the Commons with a long road to go before looking like a government-in-waiting, adopting the Stephen Harper media playbook.

The party voted to decriminalize assisted suicide and passed resolutions on a national transportation strategy with 10 years of guaranteed funding, increased funding for aboriginal education, a national energy strategy, a national framework for mental health, the reopening of federal-provincial meetings on funding health care, a massive infrastructure program and enhanced pensions.

None are binding on Trudeau, but he will have to address them, because in the absence of a specific economic policy, his opponents will now paint him as a big spender who will take this country back into deep deficit.

The convention also overwhelmingly endorsed the leader's move to boot his Liberal senators from caucus, even as a half-dozen or so were sprinkled throughout the hall.

It was not always a comfortable atmosphere.

Jim Munson, for example, had to stand mute in support of MP Judy Sgro's pitch for a national autism strategy, even though this was Munson's work. Since it was a caucus resolution, the suddenly ousted Munson could not speak to his own resolution.

Another senator's spouse boycotted the hall in frustration at Trudeau's move, after, she said, she worked hard to raise money for him during last year's leadership race.

But that debate has passed and Trudeau's bidding is done.

Looking forward, the party will have to do some juggling as it tries to put the new Liberal brand into election mode because former MPs are setting their sights on their one-time domains. Trudeau's inner circle wants new blood.

Former cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal was at the convention and is considering a run in British Columbia, and former MP Dan McTeague says he will seek the nomination in a redrawn riding in the Pickering area.

Others will be subtly told their time is past.

That will mean some party infighting as the election nears, but those will be small skirmishes compared to what this party has done in the past.

One of the other traditions it appears to have now ditched is its long history of leadership fights, and we are now seeing a novelty - a Liberal party united behind one leader, albeit one still untested in battle.

tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

Torstar Syndication Services

Organizations: Manitoba Business Council, B.C. Assembly of First Nations, Syndication Services

Geographic location: Toronto, Winnipeg, Ottawa Canada British Columbia

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