I am no friend of the Liberal Party of Canada. Nevertheless, there is something that is responsible for the decline of the Liberals in our national life: the idea of the Liberals as Canada’s “National Governing Party” (NGP).
That the Liberals were able to dominate Canada’s twentieth century with success in office year after year does not create an entitlement, but many people — and I include editorial writers, columnists, bloggers, reporters, party supporters, hacks and politicians in this — by believing in this mythological status also come to believe in it as an entitlement. By definition, therefore, any leader of the Liberals ultimately has to deliver a return to (or retention of) power. A failure to do so brings out the knives. These may (as in John Turner’s case) or may not (as in the probable outcome for Stéphane Dion) lead to another chance to win an election. But those who believe in an entitlement are vicious and seek revenge if they find themselves denied.
The Liberal Party has to drop the entitlement thinking. As long as it exists, the party is not really a party. It is a flame attracting the moths, the corrupt seeking power for its (and their) own sake. No one with two brain cells to rub together would, on sober reflection, consider either Michael Ignatieff or “Today’s” Bob Rae as serious contenders for national leadership and potential high office: their subordination of principle to personal interest is manifestly visible and has been since the first leadership race in 2006. No one who has ever suffered through a Justin Trudeau speech would consider him as suitable for anything other than the backbenches at this point in his life other than the mystical power of his surname. From these and other jockeying and braying moths in the spotlight and the queueing up of the power-brokers and aides behind one or another “bandwagon” to the type of ground worker in campaigns of my personal acquaintance who think nothing of stealing from co-workers to fund their party life, the Liberal Party attracts those who believe the state and the taxpayer exist for their personal aggrandizement.
Give Dion credit. The “Green Shift”(™ licensed) was not a policy that appealed, but, in the face of his party’s failure to actually think about policy and what it stood for he did do the heavy lifting of trying to provide it with one. That the party felt quite comfortable in dispensing with policy in 2006 — and apparently still is not particularly seized by the question — shows the underlying truth of what I have just written about the Liberal Party’s flame and its moths.
Perhaps taming this beast is now beyond hope: if so, the Liberal decline looked forward to by both Stephen Harper and his Conservatives, and Jack Layton and his New Democrats, will continue. (They are already a Toronto & Montréal rump attached to an Atlantic stronghold, but close examination of the results riding by riding shows how much of a close thing this was in a fair number of seats — and the trend continues to work against them.) There is too much unbridled ambition tied up in the Liberal legend of being the party entitled to lead, and perhaps no leader can emerge that can tame the horses involved in such a competitive race. But a focus on the question why should anyone choose to switch to the Liberal Party? rather than the eternal quest for the leader with the charisma and intensity to bring back old glory days of supping at the trough of “rights denied” might be a very good starting place.
Don’t expect it, though. There’s just still too much impetus behind the idea — and a much more thorough thrashing required at the polls — to make that point stick. For the mythos of the NGP also leads, inexorably, to two other notions: that NDP voters are Liberals “seduced away” and that can be scared into returning, and that Conservative voters are Neanderthals and fascists by definition. Neither of those memes reflects reality, either: a party that won’t deal in reality is unelectable in most of the country. Enough said.
Along the way, of course, Stephen Harper must also drop the notion of the Conservatives becoming the inheritor to the “National Governing Party” meme, or his accomplishment in bringing 2/3 of the fractured big tent right of centre together will fall apart much as the Liberals have been doing since Trudeau (Chrétien benefitted from the disarray in Conservative circles through three general elections). We shall see if he and those around him “get this”. A good starting point would be nurturing and developing more Conservative voices, and a strong set of Ministers with good public identities, demonstrating an openness to differing ideas about the future of Conservativism in Canada.
Do I muse in vain? Or will it come down to another Government-of-One vs the winner of Yet-Another-Horse-Race-Looking-for-the-Leader-Who-Brings-The-Entitlements-Back? For there is nothing “natural” about any party being in Government.