Is Trudeau a real threat?

A perplexed reader asks why the ruling Conservatives are trying so hard to take Justin Trudeau down. Should they not just let the Liberals and the NDP kill each other off? What exactly is it about Trudeau that has the ruling party so rattled? The answer begins but does not end with the polls that report a big boost in Liberal fortunes.

A perplexed reader asks why the ruling Conservatives are trying so hard to take Justin Trudeau down. Should they not just let the Liberals and the NDP kill each other off? What exactly is it about Trudeau that has the ruling party so rattled?

The answer begins but does not end with the polls that report a big boost in Liberal fortunes.

If hitting the ground running in voting intentions was an omen of electoral success, Michael Ignatieff would be prime minister. Thomas Mulcair’s leadership victory last year was also followed by an improvement in the NDP’s standing in the polls.

There is a difference: Ignatieff, Mulcair and Stéphane Dion before them initially turned their party into the main receptacle for opposition votes. But Trudeau is also eating aggressively into Conservative support.

The main Conservative concern is that more may be at play here than a run-of-the-mill political honeymoon.

Harper strategists have become masters at retail politics. When they look at their electoral holdings they can see a number of markets where they are vulnerable to a Trudeau-led Liberal party.

Near the top of that list are a dozen or so Conservative ridings that are home to sizeable francophone communities.

It is hard to think of a constituency within which the Liberal leader’s last name resonates more loudly than the francophone minorities who live outside Quebec.

Within those communities, Pierre Trudeau’s Official Languages Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are landmark policies that are credited for an unprecedented expansion of minority-language rights across the country.

If there is to be a Trudeau-led recovery outside Quebec, formerly Liberal ridings such as Ontario’s Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, New Brunswick’s Madawaska-Restigouche and Manitoba’s Saint Boniface, to name just three, should be among the first to return to the fold.

Harper will need to do more than attacks ads to hang on to such seats in 2015.

In the immediate, the prime minister faces two calls that could impact his re-election prospects in minority francophone territory.

The first has to do with the upcoming cabinet shuffle. On James Moore’s watch as heritage minister, there have been no major flare-ups on the language front and a fragile peace has broken out between the government and the cultural community.

Moore has held the fort since before the last election. He may be due for a change. But the last thing Harper needs is a bull in the culture/official languages china shop between now and 2015.

And then with a Conservative convention scheduled for next month, the usual series of anti-CBC resolutions has found its way to party headquarters. That comes at a time when party strategists have been looking for red meat to throw at a somewhat restless base.

But to go after the CBC is also to go after its French-language counterpart.

Radio-Canada is an essential part of the cultural food chain of the country’s francophone minorities. Much as they often rue its Montreal-centric content, few French-speaking voters outside Quebec would want to do without some or all the services of the public broadcaster.

As it happens, Premier Pauline Marois has just handed Harper a fresh argument to avoid giving in to the anti-CBC lobby within his party.

In Quebec, every inch of ground that Radio-Canada gives up as a result of funding cuts is taken up by Quebecor, Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s media empire.

Marois has just appointed the media mogul to the chairmanship of Hydro-Québec. Some suggest that is the first step towards a political career and a future run for the PQ leadership.

The notion of giving a fellow PQ traveller an even greater sway over Quebec’s French-language media scene by reducing Radio-Canada’s presence would weigh on the mind of any unity-conscious prime minister, let alone one who needs to stay on the good side of the francophone voters elsewhere in Canada who could determine the fate of a dozen of his MPs in 2015.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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