A brilliant tactical move: Justin Trudeau kicks out Liberal Senators
Jan 31, 2014

A brilliant tactical move: Justin Trudeau kicks out Liberal Senators

Sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due: Justin Trudeau just pulled a brilliant tactical move with his unexpected and unceremonious dumping of all former Liberal Senators from the Liberal caucus. As a political analyst, I often am rather unimpressed by the blunders and lack of political acumen from politicians. So setting aside whether this is good or bad thing for the state of Canadian democracy, this post is just about the tactics.

The perennial problem for opposition leaders is that there is little they can actually do. They can huff and puff about what the government's leaders are doing, and direct their party to huff and puff along with them, but they can rarely act. For Trudeau, this problem was compounded by the attempts to portray him as being inexperienced, without substance or statesmanship. His plan of not building a policy platform early (aiming, he says, to have a collaborative bottom up platform), and his tendency to speak openly and at length which leads to inevitable minor gaffes, both serve to reinforce this perception.

What Trudeau does with this move is take the weakest point in his public persona - that he all talk, and talk largely about fluff - and turn it on its head. He is now someone who takes bold, decisive, actions; he is someone who, as Prime Minister, could make the big, risky, but necessary moves opposed to just delivering flowery speeches about shared values and identities.

But it isn't just turning his weakness into a strength. He is showing this strength at precisely the place that Harper is most weak: the Senate Scandal. Harper looked hypocritical enough before the scandal when he had run so strongly on the need for Senate reform then continued the exact same patronage practices he had once decried while putting reform on the furthest of back burners. And then the scandal blew it all up in his face. Now Trudeau doesn't just look like a man of bold action, but someone able to do more as an effectively powerless not even Official Opposition leader than Harper has accomplished on the file in his entire reign. That is ballsy.

Thomas Mulcair had done an admirable job leading the investigations into the scandal. He stood up at every question period to give angry prosecutorial orations that caught media attention and managed to make Mulcair appear to be the one able to hold Harper's feet to the fire while Trudeau lagged at capitalizes on this huge weakness of Harper's. Now Trudeau leapfrogs the NDP, and the kicker is that because the NDP doesn't have a single Senator, they can't really match the issue. All they can promise is a messy constitutional debate if they get elected.

Finally, since all three parties are pushing for various reform of the Senate it looks like the hope of reform I once thought maybe the scandal would create would do just that, but now it seems like it will, just most likely after the next election (Harper is waiting too long, and still needs to wait back from the Supreme Court, I doubt he makes big moves before the election). In many ways, the Liberals are proposing the weakest changes of the three parties, opting not to go to constitutional debate route. So this has the further benefit of making the Liberals appear the strongest on the file where they are easily forgotten with a "keep it as it is, but make it better, somehow" approach overshadowed by bigger democratizing (Conservatives) or abolishing (NDP) plans.

This was a brilliant political move. It is a non-obvious move (have you ever seen a pundit suggest this? I haven't.), not at all forced by circumstance. For the most part, politicians react to various events, taking the obvious paths. This was an unforced, non-obvious move, but one with huge political upside. Credit where credit is due.

Further signs of political acumen:
While I sometimes disagree on tactics, I have tended to find that Trudeau is a genuinely shrew political tactician. This is regardless of whether I support elements of his agenda or not. Consider the marijuanna legalization issue. This was likewise a very bold, very risky policy plank to include. However, it is the right move to make tactically. Firstly, its adoption at convention by the Liberal party sort of forced his hand, but endorsing it is a great way to engage the youth in the party who made its adoption a reality. Secondly, in a narrowing political spectrum LINK, it allows for a strong differentiator that makes the Liberals, not the NDP, appear to be the progressives taking big actions.

Many people have lamented, myself included, the lack of much policy discussion during the leadership nomination. In this case, Trudeau played it safe. He was such a favorite to win it, that he could do precisely what he did (talk about shared values, and how to build the party) without a mention of policy and coast to the easy win. Make a big bold policy pronouncement and it could have been received poorly and cost him during the nomination, or in the years after when he is stuck to that unwelcome policy. This is the opposite of a bold action - and probably contributed to the perception of him later - but at the time it was the smart tactic. This is why I am giving him so much credit: he isn't just doing the same thing every time, he is picking and choosing very carefully his actions and nonactions.

Time will tell, but - rightly or wrongly from a policy perspective - there is more to Justin Trudeau than feminizing strip tease ads by the Conservatives would suggest.

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