Rolling out the red carpet | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Rolling out the red carpet

The Liberal Party of Canada comes to Argyle Street for this weekend’s national convention, just in time for both provincial and federal Party members to do some soul-searching.

Argyle Street will be painted red this weekend.

From Thursday through Saturday, thousands of Liberal members will come from away to Halifax—gathering at the financially embattled Nova Centre for the governing party's national convention.

Faithful foot-soldiers travelling from across the country will get to rub shoulders with some of the most powerful politicians nationwide, and take part in discussions and debates that could end up shaping future policy in the chambers of power.

It's a meeting that will bring together Liberals from all levels of government—in a town where the party dominates federal, provincial and even municipal seats.

The event is flying in guest speakers like American journalist and former Obama senior advisor David Axelrod. And of course, the cherry on top, Canada's most recognizable face—prime minister Justin Trudeau himself.

Canada's boy king will stand with Nova Scotia's lanky overseer inside the glass cathedral of hubris they've jointly funded.

In style and demeanour, Justin Trudeau and premier Stephen McNeil are a study in contrasts: Spendthrift versus penny-pinching; cordial versus austere; progressive versus restrictive.

On the surface, Canada's prime minister and Nova Scotia's premier have little in common beyond a party name and colours. But as the national convention kicks off in the midst of a period of particular unrest for the Liberals—nationally and provincially—both leaders are circling the wagons and trying to protect the unfathomable political control they've captured.

In 2015, the Liberals achieved a stunning victory in the federal election, wiping out each and every one of their competitors in Atlantic Canada—painting all 32 seats red.

The red tide wasn't limited to the Maritimes, as the Liberal Party rampaged across the country, delivering Trudeau a robust majority.

But now, two years later and for the first time since the election, the Liberals are slipping in the polls—dropping four points behind the Conservative Party.

Howard Ramos, Dalhousie University sociology professor, says this downward trend is happening, "Despite having a very healthy economy...which is rare."

The honeymoon, as they say, appears to be over.

It's possible Canadians are reacting to a number of public gaffes that have punctured the polished facade established when Trudeau was captured surfing, regurgitating quantum physics and "photo-bombing" prom kids.

There was the ill-fated trip to India in which a man convicted of attempted murder attended an elite government-hosted event—a controversy still dogging the Liberals. Trudeau then faced backlash and international news coverage after instructing a woman at a town hall meeting to use the term "peoplekind" instead of "mankind."

Now, he's in the grips of a pipeline controversy: Kinder Morgan's $7.4-billion-development is hanging in the balance, weakened by fierce opposition from First Nations communities and environmentalists, and forming the battleground for a province-to-province street-fight between Alberta and British Columbia.

Ramos says people are beginning to question what Trudeau values more: A photo op or addressing issues of substance.

"Justin Trudeau is kind of a selfie leader," says Ramos, "He's known for doing public events, having pics taken...But at the same time, after two years, he doesn't have a lot of wins to claim."

As such, it makes perfect sense the party's convention is being held in Halifax.

"This is a region that's part of their recipe to success."

If the Liberals want to hold their position in the next election, Ramos says they must rely on the same Atlantic voters who were so galvanized in 2015.

Dorothy Jack is one of those voters—and a self-described "fairly elderly lady." The Truro- area resident first became captivated by politics when Pierre Trudeau donned a red rose and brought new energy to parliament.

"I'm not a diehard Liberal," Jack admits. "I go by feel each time."

She won't be attending the conference in Halifax, but she does like keeping tabs on the federal Party.

"I feel quite comfortable with what they're doing," she says. "The tone overall, I like the openness and the optimism...and no dirty politics, which speaks to me."

And she's a fan of Trudeau, who she'd like to see win a second term. "They're just getting their feet under them," she says. "A lot of this stuff takes a long time."

When it comes to the local government, she's less keen. "I get the feeling he's at the end of his rope," Jack says of Stephen McNeil.

Jack represents a curious manifestation of Liberal voter: One who believes in the direction of the federal party, under Trudeau's government, and yet is increasingly disenchanted by McNeil's provincial politics.

Jeff MacLeod, associate professor of political and Canadian studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, sees the contrast.

"It really is a stark difference," he says of the two Liberal leaders. "They're just very different men."

It's a generational divide and an intellectual one. McNeil is tied to a bygone era in Liberal politics aligned with Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and hard fiscal decisions.

Trudeau was elected on a spending campaign: One that aimed to reinvigorate Canadian identity as diverse and forward-thinking.

"How they can co-exist in the Liberal Party is an interesting comment on the party itself," says MacLeod.

The ideological differences between the two men in both leadership and policy priority are undeniable.

The federal Liberals are a centre-left operation, while the provincial party veers right—some say, more closely resembling a traditional Conservative style of governance.

"The McNeil approach is to balance the books at any cost," says MacLeod pointing to the recent—and ongoing—labour conflicts with teachers, health care workers and the province's reluctance to fund social programs.

It's an austerity-driven argument that MacLeod says McNeil makes frequently: "Almost weekly."

"For the federal party their latest budget was a social justice budget, based on gender equity and diversity," he adds.

The last McNeil budget, meanwhile, focused on "bread and butter issues." And, as always, says Ramos says, it remains rooted in debt control.

It's a funny image to conjure: Liberal co-hosts Trudeau and McNeil standing alongside each other at the blighted Nova Centre, clinking glasses.

click to enlarge Rolling out the red carpet
Ian Selig
Liberal supporter Chris Hornberger is ready for this week’s convention.

Chris Hornberger says she wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall for that conversation. But the Halifax Liberal Party member is quick to defend both leaders, as divergent as they may be.

"I think they're getting it just doesn't happen that fast," she says. "You gotta pace yourself otherwise you blow your brains out."

The pace will quicken this weekend when a range of policy proposals will be put forward at the national convention—ranging from removing taxation on menstrual products and endorsements of the United Nation's treaty to ban nuclear weapons to Nova Scotia's policies on ocean protection.

"It's a serious business," Hornberger says. "The implications of these policies are going to affect all of us, including Nova Scotians."

Of course, as MacLeod points out, there are no requirements provincially or federally to uphold any of the policies presented during these conventions.

"It's an unfair statement, and unrealistic to say major policy will be decided this weekend," he says. But there is value in the process.

MacLeod doesn't view this week's convention as particularly vital. Any government starting off with such strong approval ratings is bound to see a dip in the polls as it governs, he says.

"I don't see a breach that would make me think this government is in peril," MacLeod says. "If an election were held tomorrow, I'd rather be a Liberal than in another party right now."

Ramos disagrees.

"It's a really critical convention," he insists. Liberals—locally and from across the country—must ask themselves how can their messaging be reworded, "to gain confidence of the left but also those people in the centre?"

Putting it more succinctly, Hornberger says the mission this weekend is the same for Liberals federal and provincial.

"It's a check in," she says. "Where are we? What do we need to do for the next two years? How do we make sure we're on the road to victory?"

Maggie Rahr is a freelance journalist in Halifax.

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