Justin Trudeau

Trudeau could lure Catholics to Liberals, observers say

  • April 18, 2013

OTTAWA - After winning the Liberal Leadership with 80 per cent of the vote, Justin Trudeau may be able to woo some disaffected Catholics back to the Liberal fold say observers.

"It's certainly an opportunity for Liberals to recapture their traditional stronghold," said University of Ottawa political science professor André Blais.

Blais said the reason Catholics were pillars of support for the Liberal Party during the Chretien years was as big a mystery then as their defection became after 2005. Though Liberal support for same-sex marriage and abortion may have been factors, the Quebec sponsorship scandal also played a role, he said

The scandal was the biggest reason, Blais said, but "it didn't explain the large decline among Catholics."

"The big question is whether people have forgotten about this and are willing to move on to other things," he said. "Mr. Trudeau has a new opportunity." He is "fresh" and was not even remotely involved with the sponsorship scandal.

Blais was among the authors of a study "Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat" published in 2009 that showed Catholic support had plummeted "a massive 24 per cent," according to the lead author McGill University political scientist Elisabeth Gidengil. The study said the Catholic vote, traditionally Liberal, contributed to the Conservative victories in 2006 and 2008.

But Blais does not believe Catholics who care strongly about issues like abortion will return to the Liberals. They "will be a bit disappointed by the Conservatives but still feel much more at ease with the Conservatives than the Liberals," he said.

The Liberals are more likely to regain support from "those who are more progressive on social issues or on economic issues," said Blais. Some Catholics had fled to the New Democrats, and they might return.

Though Blais admitted there is little data to go on, his personal impression of Trudeau's attractiveness, not only to fellow Liberals but to Canadians in general (based on recent polls), is his personal charisma. That charisma is more than just his personal appearance or his famous father's last name, though the name plays a role.

He gives the perception that he is pragmatic, while he tries to present both Prime Minister Harper and NDP Leader Mulcair as "ideological," said Blais. This makes people feel at ease. "They probably like this approach at this point of time."

"He's learning fast," he said. "I'm sure he will make many mistakes." 

But Blais called him "really impressive," especially in his ability to meet with people and say the right words that may "appear to be a bit vague, but are consistent with concerns people have now."

Though the Conservatives immediately launched negative ads trying to paint Trudeau as in over his head, a lightweight and inexperienced, Campaign Life Coalition Parliament Hill lobbyist Johanne Brownrigg says the Tories should not underestimate the new Liberal Leader. 

"I think he is a politician of our time," she said. He can be extremely attractive to average Canadian voters who do not pay much attention to politics as well as to Catholics who are not well catechized.

"Not this election but the one after, it could very well be a cakewalk," Brownrigg said.

Trudeau has been a frequent speaker in Catholic schools, much to the consternation of pro-life Catholics who have protested against his appearances to local school boards. Brownrigg believes his talks in the schools are an astute, political calculation that could pay off in the future. 

"He's brought in; he revs these kids up, gets them to care about bullying or the environment," she said. "They're big fans. . . . I have to admire his patience because the kids he's addressing are future voters.

"Maybe he's not planning to win the next election, but he plans to win the one after that," she said. "It's astute. It's wise. It's too bad he's on the wrong side of virtually every issue."

What's problematic and confusing for Catholic schools kids is while he may stay on noncontroversial issues inside the classrooms, they hear him speak against Catholic teaching on life and marriage outside that venue, she pointed out. 

"He makes them feel good, gets them pumped up. Then outside that arena he speaks up against life. Those children will follow."

Trudeau is a controversial, even divisive figure, though perhaps unwittingly, she said. 

"He highlights the division within the Church itself" between those who serve the poor and those who serve the pro-life movement, she said. 

"People who seek social justice don't seem to see abortion as a predominant or prominent issue, including Justin who advocates a pro-choice position and will not allow his caucus or party to vote according to their conscience," she said. 

Trudeau objected vehemently when a Conservative MP accused him of not being a good Catholic because he advocated for same-sex marriage and abortion, but Brownrigg said his attitude towards faith is like that "of so many Catholics" who see no conflict with their faith, or their conscience when they support these issues "and who continue to receive communion but are not in a state of grace."

Like Blais, Brownrigg sees Trudeau as charismatic.

"He's young, articulate and good-looking and has succeeded in not alienating anyone who isn't a deep thinker. He's becoming a phenomenon."

On the social justice front, Trudeau made a good impression on Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn.

"I remember that the first press conference Justin Trudeau did after being elected to the House was when he joined us in presenting a report card on child poverty in Canada," Gunn said. "He spoke convincingly, and from the heart at that time. I would hope that, with all the pressures of his new office, he can continue to prioritize concern for the poor and youth - whose unemployment rate in Canada now stands at double what the rest of us face."

Richard Bastien, an economist and the Catholic Civil Rights League's representative for the National Capital Region, said Trudeau's victory will not "make the slightest difference on the Catholic presence in the Liberal Party."

"Catholics who take their faith seriously left the Party quite some time ago and are now either supporting the Conservative Party or abstaining from any political involvement," he said. "So-called 'progressive Catholics' — a polite term for dissenting Catholics who support contraception, abortion and gay marriage — have never left the Party, but they have in effect left the Church. "

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