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Trudeau’s rise brings broken Liberal Party back together

Four decades of civil war that took it to the brink of ruin are over. Justin Trudeau will inherit a united Liberal Party.

A week of voting lies ahead before the next Liberal leader is revealed Sunday, after a weekend showcase dominated by Trudeau supporters who whooped it up in celebration of his certain victory.

A party famous for factional infighting appeared united, jubilant and renewed. It also appears to have become Mr. Trudeau's personal political machine. That machine runs without the bile that fuelled so many earlier campaigns. Mr. Trudeau's most senior advisers played little part in the fratricide that plagued Liberals as the party descended from power to official opposition to also-ran.

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Team Trudeau has recruited tens of thousands of supporters who are loyal only to him, who signed on as supporters simply to vote for him. And the campaign is expected to donate nearly $1-million to party coffers beyond campaign expenses, finally bringing the Liberals into the modern age of political fundraising.

A party that appeared bereft of money, of organization, of leadership, is finally renewing itself under the presumptive leadership of a 41-year-old outsider who has banished the old guard and who is bringing the Liberals both generational change and internal peace.

"The biggest enemy the Liberal Party has faced over the past many years is its own internal divisions," said Alfred Apps, former president of the party. "That is now behind us."

About 127,000 people are eligible to cast ballots online or by phone for the next Liberal leader before the Sunday afternoon deadline. About three-quarters of them belong to the new "supporters" category, which allows people to vote for a leader without becoming card-carrying members. By every indication, most of these supporters signed up to vote for Mr. Trudeau.

In effect, they overwhelmed the aging and shrinking factions who, at one time or another, had supported Michael Ignatieff against Stéphane Dion, or Paul Martin against Jean Chrétien, or Jean Chrétien against John Turner, all the way back to 1975, when Mr. Turner, nursing his own ambitions, resigned as Pierre Trudeau's finance minister.

And because none of Justin Trudeau's challengers turned out to pose the slightest threat, there will be no prominent second-place finisher nursing his grievances, as local Iagos whisper poison in his ear.

Mr. Trudeau has run the first effective Liberal leadership fundraising campaign since the Chrétien government abolished corporate donations to parties and the Harper government restricted individual ones.

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Team Trudeau has raised so much money that the party will have funds available to respond to whatever attack ads the Conservatives launch in an effort to tarnish the new leader's lustre.

All of this is to the credit not only of the telegenic, charismatic scion of the emerging Trudeau dynasty, but of a team led by Gerald Butts, who was personal secretary to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, and Katie Telford, who also has a Queen's Park background (though she worked at one point for Mr. Dion).

Not only do they come from outside the federal party, carrying little or none of the baggage from the previous wars, party insiders say they made a point of not recruiting – or not even returning the calls from – old-guard types who volunteered their services.

"The leadership of the tribes has played virtually no role in any of this," Mr. Apps observed.

What remains of the old party's infrastructure will pay a price. Trudeau people will soon be in all the key roles, and the Trudeau machine will supplant the Liberal fundraising arm, such as it was.

The new guard will have little patience with a constitution and infrastructure that still places considerable power in the hands of the provincial wings of the national party, overseen by local warlords.

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Expect all of that to be swept away, replaced by a centralized organization devoted to recruiting a national base of mass support using the most sophisticated tools of communication and fundraising.

It still might not be enough to overcome Stephen Harper, his powerful political machine and his rock-solid political base. But root-and-branch renewal was always the necessary, if not sufficient, condition if the Liberal Party was to survive beyond the next election.

It would seem that condition has been met.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story that appeared online and in Monday's newspaper incorrectly said 217,000 people were eligible to vote for the Liberal leader. The correct figure is 127,000.

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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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