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Liberals last to admit they are no longer Canada’s Natural Governing Party

May 20, 2011

With this post, Sisyphus adds Joan Tintor as an author. Joan is a self-employed corporate writer, who has also worked as a legal assistant and conservative political staffer. She has a magazine journalism degree from Ryerson University. She came highly recommended for her articulate right-of-centre viewpoint (thanks Kathy) and will contribute whenever it strikes her fancy, or once a week, whichever comes first. You can follow her on Twitter where she tweets under the handle @TintorDetto.

We welcome her to our little commune (just kidding, Joan!) and hope Sisyphus readers will enjoy her posts, or at least be irritated by them. Either way, your comments and feedback are welcome as always.

Known for most of the 20th century as Canada’s Natural Governing Party, many are now predicting – as many did in 1984 – that the Conservatives and NDP are poised to become the new dominant parties, and the Liberals will fade into the pages of history. True, the Liberals did eventually rebound to form a government again after their 1984 drubbing, and they may yet recover from their current and unprecedented third-party status. But they can not any time soon call themselves Canada’s natural governing party without being met with laughter.

For a timely indication of the decline of the once almighty Liberals, I offer the following anecdote. On Election Day, I was a scrutineer for Stella Ambler, the Conservative candidate in Mississauga South, up against six-term MP Paul Szabo. Szabo won by 2,152 votes in 2008. The federal Liberal campaign was, I presume, well aware that this was a riding they could not afford to lose, but was being heavily targeted by the Conservatives. Indeed, the sign war that I witnessed prior to Election Day, suggested a competitive race.

I was more than a little surprised, then, that only one Liberal scrutineer showed up at my polling location the entire day. The rather harried-looking young man didn’t arrive until 2 p.m. (voting began at 9:30 a.m.), and was in and out until voting ended at 9:30 p.m., suggesting that he was also responsible for scrutineering other polling locations. By contrast, Stella Ambler had four volunteers come through the location throughout the day, with at least two there at any given time, and three at the close of voting. Stella won by 4,598 votes.

While the media coverage portrayed Ignatieff as being on the same footing as Stephen Harper, on the ground it was another story. The disparity between the visuals and the reality of the Liberal effort in Mississauga South roughly mirror their national situation: a Potemkin party that fewer and fewer members struggled to hold aloft, sustained by a sympathetic media and academic establishment.

In the 1970s the Liberal Party lost the West; in the 1980s it lost Québec; in the 2000s it lost rural Ontario and has been reduced to the MTV Party – Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver (all while having the audacity to continue boasting that the Conservative party represented only a narrow band of narrow-minded Canadians).

I hope readers will forgive me for what may sound like triumphalism. I joined the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada at U of T in 1983, motivated by the public enmity toward Pierre Trudeau, the colossus who still haunts the Liberal party, if fewer and fewer Canadians. In my second or third year at U of T, there was a leaders’ debate among the PC, Liberal and NDP student leaders, attended by me and approximately 37 other nerds. The Liberals’ student leader was John Duffy, today a noted Liberal policy wonk, strategist and author (“author” as in someone who’s had a real book published, reviewed and sold, not marginal characters who rant on the interweb, a là yours truly).

Gesturing politely but somewhat dismissively to his two opponents, Duffy opened the debate with this statement, offered as fact, not opinion: “The Tory party is the party of business. The NDP is the party of labour. And the Liberal party is the party of government.” And it was not just Duffy’s skill as a debater that made it persuasive: he really believed it. And at the time, he was probably right.

So, what happened in the three decades between then and today? Some say it was the loss of the majority of seats in Québec in 1984, an advantage never regained. Others blame the schism created in the party by the Meech Lake Accord. Others, the poisonous leadership politics that grew out of Jean Chrétien’s undermining of messiah-in-waiting John Turner, a precedent of disloyalty that was repeated against Chrétien by Paul Martin. Still others call the Liberals victims of their own success, in that there are simply no grand national programs left to enact, a fact underlined when Michael Ignatieff offered a meagre tax credit for people caring for aging relatives, instead of a costly program run by federal bureaucrats.

What astonishes me, in addition to the Liberals’ decline, is how long their self-image as the natural governing party has persisted. First, the endless, masturbatory gloating and preening about all the Liberal party had done for Canadians in the past – in some cases as much as 40 years ago. Health care. The Canada Pension Plan. The flag. Peacekeeping. Repatriating the constitution. Achievements, yes. But achievements of prime ministers long dead and Parliaments long retired. Yet, much like The Caine Mutiny’s Captain Queeg boasting of catching his own officers in a fib about some disappearing strawberries, Liberals continually reverted to citing these achievements.

No, I am not comparing health care (an initiative for which both the NDP and PCs could also claim some credit) to some purloined strawberries. But elections are about two things: (1) the future, and (2) what have you done for me lately? Every election in which Liberals touted the glories of Pearson and Trudeau, was an election in which such glories resonated with even fewer voters. Today, they resonate only with old card-carrying Liberals.

Conservative governments built Canadian institutions too: the Bank of Canada, the CBC (oops), Air Canada, Diefenbaker’s bill of rights, free trade. Heck, they could claim credit for the national railway and arguably the country itself. But Conservatives don’t expect people to vote for them today based on what its leaders did in the 1960s, 1930s or 1870s.

I would argue that this is one of the main reasons Michael Ignatieff ended up back in Canada, pushing MP Jean Augustine – who’d done nothing to offend anyone – out of her seat in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Ignatieff first took hold of Liberal imaginations when he was the featured speaker at the otherwise anti-climactic 2003 leadership convention that legitimized the crown Paul Martin tore from Jean Chrétien in 2002.

Much of Ignatieff’s speech consisted of soothing Liberal back-patting, including paeans to the achievements of Pearson and Trudeau, delivered by a Canadian who had distinguished himself in Britain and the U.S. Naturally, this was like mother’s milk to the assembled Liberals. “This world-famous guy gets us! He really, really gets us!” Well, frankly, you couldn’t blame Ignatieff too much. As far as he knew,Canada was still the Liberal-dominated country he came of age in during the 1970s.

Only a party that still sees itself as “the natural governing party” could wittingly present a repatriated Michael Ignatieff to Canadians as the greatest thing since the 1972 Canada-USSR series. (Probably the last hockey game Ignatieff watched on TV before decamping to the two jurisdictions more suited to his ambitions. Ambitions which, to his credit, he largely fulfilled.)

People who call the Conservatives mean and vicious for the “just visiting” and “he didn’t come back for you” ads need to ask themselves: what would have been the media and public reaction had the Conservative party elected a person with Ignatieff’s resume as its leader? But such a question is not even possible as a hypothetical: because the Conservative party would never dare elect such a person as its leader. Why? Because we know the media, the opposition, and many Canadians would never accept as a national party leader, someone who had spent so many years of his adult life outside of Canada, who had defended Bush administration policies and advised the U.S. military. Only a self-identified natural governing party would dare.

This arrogance and presumption fuelled the car that ferried Ian Davey, Alf Apps and Dan Brock down to Cambridge, Massachusetts to inveigle Ignatieff into coming back to Canada in 2005 to (1) run for Parliament, and (2) eventually run for Liberal leader and become prime minister, like another famous professor did in the 1960s. “We’re the party of Pearson and Trudeau,” they must have told themselves, perhaps only subconsciously. “We can make anybody prime minister!” Well, after Jean Chrétien won three majorities, you can see why the Liberal party continued to be susceptible to such a delusion.

As a final example, note the photo to the left. This is a sample of the women’s thong underwear that the Liberal party was selling at its 2006 leadership convention in Montreal. Again, would any other party that expects to form a government dare to display and offer for sale such items before the national media, and its members from all parts of the country? Not likely.

Things such as thongs or where Michael Ignatieff spent most of his life may seem trivial, or even irrelevant. But they are the things that happen when a party is living, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, in a bubble assembled from its own myths. “We’re still big,” I can picture Jean Chrétien saying, “it’s the voters who got small.” Wrong, Jean. The country moved forward. Yet the Liberal party remained exactly where it was.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2011 1:22 pm

    Good to hear a measured and thoughtful voice from the other side. It helps answer Sherwood’s posed question re “what happened to the liberals”. The facts re Ignatieff’s ignoble support of the Bush war effort (and if I am not mistaken – his support for the use of torture) should have been used by the opposition – the caveat here is that the conservative opposition may have had the very same positions. Nonetheless, excellent article and bravo to Sisyphus for having the courage to create a balanced forum for both sides to hear each other rather than just talking to themselves.

  2. Gabby in QC permalink
    May 21, 2011 1:40 pm

    Great post. Congratulations.

    This line «“We’re still big,” I can picture Jean Chrétien saying, “it’s the voters who got small.”» encapsulates Liberal think perfectly.

  3. May 22, 2011 2:58 am

    Good to see my old friend Joan – even if only virtually. Joan and I scrutineered (she for the PCs and me for the NDP) in a UofT election and struck up the oddest and most awkward of friendships – but she has always been one of my favourite Tories.

    I will point out to Eric that some Liberal opponents DID make much of Ignatieff’s support of Bush’s war, and even more so of his morally bankrupt support for torture. Not all Liberal opponents are on the right, Eric.

    I think, at the end of the day, the Liberal Party collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions. One can only pretend to be progressive so many times before eventually somebody notices the complete failure to deliver a single, meaningful progressive policy.

    Given that 13 years of largely unchallenged Liberal dominance left completely intact an unaltered policy trajectory from Brian Mulroney (or earlier) to Stephen Harper, it is pure mythmaking (to frame it politely) to claim that the Liberals were ever a real alternative to the Mulroney PCs, the Manning/Day Reform Alliance or the Harper Conservatives.

    Whatever else has happened, we seem to be coming into a time when the two major parties in Canada might actually disagree on matters of substance, rather than merely posture over wedge issues. Certainly the onus will be on the New Democrats to consolidate their unanticipated and unprecedented gains. But those Liberals who seem so convinced their time will simply come again if only they wait would do well to consider the fate of the Liberal Party in Alberta (last in government in 1921), Saskatchewan (last in government in 1971) or Manitoba (last in government in 1958).

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