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Taking It To The Street

Justin Trudeau and Ontario: Is The Liberal Party Ready To Come Home?


By Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley"Voters didn't leave the Liberal Party over the last 20 years. The Liberal Party left them."

     - a senior Liberal advisor

At the school I attended growing up in small-town Ontario, there were two pictures up at the front of my history teacher's classroom, representing her heroes.

One was of Sir Winston Churchill, who, she never tired of telling us, had his countrymen practise with broom handles to fight the Germans, because they had no guns.

The other was Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

We're often told small town Ontario is the voting property of the right wing.

A look at the voting history of the province in the last 50 years shows that is a political myth.

And understanding it is a myth is the key to understanding Justin Trudeau's relationship to Ontarians.

In the last 50 years, Ontario voters, many of them in small towns, were amongst the most loyal supporters of Lester Pearson, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chretien. 

It was well known that the key to winning majority government was to capture the vote-rich provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

For 21years, from Pearson's defeat of John Diefenbaker in 1963 until Pierre Trudeau's retirement in 1984 (excepting the 9-month minority government of Joe Clark) Ontarians never wavered in their support for the Liberal Party federally.

These were years that Liberal Prime Ministers held tightly to core values Liberals see as the heart and soul of their party.

It is no coincidence that when the Liberals stuck to those core values, Ontarians gave them majority governments.

Here are the most important, deeply held beliefs that Liberals hold as their own:  

National unity. It was Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier who so successfully walked the tightrope of tension between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Successive Liberal Prime Ministers have seen it as their job to keep the country together through policies like bilingualism, biculturalism, recognition of two founding nations and asymmetrical federalism. When those and plain old largesse didn't contain Quebec sovereignty, Liberal Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien engaged in near hand to hand combat with the separatists. (Other policies, such as PET's National Energy Policy, set Canada on a decades-long fight against Western alienation.)  

Social programs:  While the ideas for most Canadian social programs have actually sprung from the shop floor, through unions to the CCF and the NDP, Liberals are happy to lay claim to implementing them nationally. Pearson brought in universal health care, unemployment insurance, the Canada Pension Plan, financial help for students and the Canadian flag.

An Independent Foreign Policy: Pearson also helped found the UN and NATO and supported the use of our military for peacekeeping rather than just combat roles. Trudeau and Chretien made it clear they would not blindly send our troops into US-initiated wars.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Repatriation of the Constitution: These are accomplishments of which Liberals are fiercely proud, despite the fact PET's repatriation without the support of Quebec after the famous "Night of the Long Knives" betrayal is bitterly remembered to this day by many Quebeckers.

But it was when the Liberal party elected leaders not in this mould that electors in Ontario abandoned them. John Turner, Paul Martin and Michael Ignatief, rightly or wrongly, were seen as sons of privilege who acted more like red tories than Liberals.

The party establishment, believing they had to turn right after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher made tax cuts the new holy grail, tried to imitate them in all but name.

But rather than turn right with them, Ontarians turned away.

The main beneficiary has been the NDP federally under Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair. 

For despite forming a majority government in 2011, Stephen Harper's success has not been because he swept Ontario. It was due to his party "gaming the system" - his minister Jason Kenney poured years of effort luring the immigrant vote in a small number of ridings outside Toronto. It all paid off handsomely on election day.

It is obvious to anyone observing those years that there were still a huge number of Pierre Trudeau Liberals in Ontario. Many felt abandoned by the party.

They are the boomer generation, and we know, they represent huge numbers of voters in this province. 

They are the middle classes that Justin Trudeau spoke about at his campaign launch.

They are the soccer moms of 905 who kicked out the Mike Harris Conservatives here; they are the women from all parties who rallied against the idea of allowing sharia law in Ontario; they are the ones who show up in polls supporting Andrea Horwath when she forces a tax increases for those making over $500,000 a year. 

They are one of the most political of generations ever to grace this land. And they are watching the Liberal leadership race with interest to see if the party is ready to come back to them, to really reflect those values Liberals say are their own.

Five or six years ago, I had a conversation with Gerald Butts, then the top advisor to Dalton McGuinty.  I told him that when generational change finally came for the federal Liberal party, it would be led by Justin Trudeau, former Ontario education minister Gerard Kennedy, and Butts himself.

My predictions don't always come true.  

But in this case, I've been lucky enough to have events bear me out.

Justin Pierre James Trudeau is 40 years old. Butts, who is a volunteer advisor to Trudeau, is 41. Kennedy is 52.  

There are Kennedy supporters in senior positions sprinkled throughout campaign, including Katie Telford and Amanda Alvaro, both of whom worked for the former Ontario education minister at Queen's Park.

These people represent true generational change in the Liberal party.

And in a supremely serendipitous confluence of political values, they are from a generation that learned their activism from the boomers, and reflect many of their best attributes.

Justin Trudeau's closest advisors want to harness the energy of youth, the determination of those who march in the streets against the 1 per cent, to work for a more equal society.

They are Pierre Trudeau Liberals as well as Justin Trudeau Liberals.

There are many more Pierre Trudeau Liberals out there in Ontario.

It will be up to his son Justin to wake the sleeping giant.


You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : October 04, 2012

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