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John Ibbitson: We know the Liberals have a new leader, but that’s about all we know

Justin Trudeau, accepting the leadership of the Liberal Party, offered a measured appeal to the better angels of Canadians' political nature.

Liberals, he told a room full of ecstatic supporters, must do a better job of being Liberals. They must do a better job of connecting with middle-class Canadians. And they must turn back the Conservative barbs that they know are coming.

He promised Canadians "more humanity, more transparency, more compassion." Is that enough? Probably yes, for this day.

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Those who were hoping that the incoming leader would use the opportunity to promise something more substantial than hope and change were, yet again, disappointed.

But Mr. Trudeau is right: We are two years from an election, far too soon for the party to be costing out postsecondary tuition tax credits. Still, a leader does need to offer foundational values; these are what voters search for when they assess a leader. These have yet to be convincingly delivered.

In his speech, Mr. Trudeau limited himself to promising Canadians that he will work hard to promote and defend the values and aspirations of "middle-class Canadians who are putting much into the economy and getting too little in return."

He promised them: "The purpose of the Liberal Party will be you." He promised as well: "Come 2015, the clarity of our plan to make this country better."

Ironically, he rose to passion only in his appeal for party unity. He said he didn't care whether you were a Turner Liberal or a Chretien Liberal or a Martin Liberal.

"The era of hyphenated Liberals ends right here, right now, tonight," he declared. With his massive first-ballot victory, and with the party faced with a choice of renewal or extinction, he is probably right.

The way Mr. Trudeau won is good news for the party. It's decision to open voting for the leader to anyone who signed on as a supporter, even if they didn't join the party, can be pronounced a qualified success. Of the 127,261 registered members and supporters – with supporters making up about three quarters of that total – 104,552 (82 per cent) actually cast a ballot. The Liberal Party now has a committed base of supporters who can be tapped as volunteers and donors. It is a healthy beginning for what is, in some respects, a new party with a new leader.

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We still don't know in which direction that new leader will take the party – how far to the right is he prepared to move to confront the Conservatives on economic issues; how far to the left in an effort to marginalize the NDP of social policy.

Actually, we don't know many things: what topic he will choose for his first question in Question Period on Monday (temporary workers, perhaps?); whether he will support or oppose the free trade agreement with the European Union when it finally lands; his stand on the proposed west-east oil pipeline; or how he would implement his promise to decriminalize marijuana or – well, there's a lot we don't know.

We do know, however, that he's getting pretty good at delivering a speech. And in politics, that's an arrow you want in your quiver.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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