Stéphane, au revoir

Edward Blake is smiling this afternoon. At last he no longer stands alone as the only leader of the Liberal Party of Canada never to acquire the Prime Ministership.

All right, so enough of the schadenfreude. This afternoon, at 14.00 in Ottawa, Stéphane Dion stepped down from the role of leader of the Liberals. (He will stay on until a new leader is chosen, and will focus on the party’s finances.)

Back in 2006, I was asked by a prominent local Liberal in Vancouver who I supported for Liberal Leader. (We won’t, at this juncture, go into the presumption that I was either a Liberal supporter or thought that whomsoever gained the leadership mattered much one way or the other. Liberals often think their own in-party tussles are of deep and abiding interest to Canadians at large, a confusion arising from the notion of “natural governing party” and “Liberal Values are Canadian values”, amongst other faulty memes infecting that party and its supporters.)

I told him Dion: that Dion was the class of the 2006 leadership crew. I stand by that statement. None of the other candidates in 2006 were as promising as Dion was. None of them — should they choose to stand for the leadership again in 2008-09 — are any better today.

Dion in some ways reminds me of Robert Lorne Stanfield, “the best Prime Minister Canada never had”. Thoughtful, seeing more than one side to any question, considering how to integrate the pieces: these are not the tools of the age of the sound-bite, the quip, the endless campaign. Dion always came across as somehow false — fake — with the shouting and protesting in the House.

Alas, Dion came to the Canadian people expecting them to work to understand his great creation, the Green Shift(™ licensed). Too bad, so sad: a people lulled into intellectual stupor by sound-bites (the creation of his own predecessor, Trudeau) and by reality television and the hyperbole of the twenty-four hour news cycle no longer could handle a detailed, rational, “point, sub-point and implication” presentation of anything. He was doomed before he began.

Still, Dion did try to fix one of the Liberal Party’s three great lacunae: the lack of a clear raison d’être for their continued participation in the political life of the country as anything other than a regional rump. Perhaps he did try as well to fix the second great lacuna: the lack of a fund-raising engine that works in today’s rules for handling money. We do not know: the demands on Liberal cash escalated throughout, as eight leadership campaigns struggled to discharge their debts while the party struggled to pay off its 2006 election bills and prepare for the election just past.

The third lacuna, of course, he never tackled: the sense of entitlement. Do you recall his acceptance speech in Montréal in 2006? To paraphrase it: Harper had to be tossed as soon as possible, preferably immediately and the Liberals returned to their “rightful place” of hands on the levers of power. All the backing-and-froing over election calls, all the screaming and shouting in Question Period, all the attempts to smear the government from then on — and all the abstentions! — are the direct result of having to live with that sense of entitlement.

His successor will suffer the same outcome, if these three lacunae are not addressed.

Werner Patels recently suggested Frank McKenna or John Manley as viable successors. (Steve V., of Far and Wide, commented recently and positively about Kennedy entering the House and echoes some sense of the lacunae.) Sorry, though: Chrétien-era folk are — “Blue Liberal” or not — no less likely to find success than the “off to the races” Ignatieffs, Raes, Volpes, Dosanjhs, etc. heard from in the past few days.

To cure the lacunae, the Liberals must turn to a new generation (and no, I am not speaking of Trudeau fils), one who is prepared to spend the years required to rebuild this national institution and reform it of its well-embedded hypocrisy (a natural outcome of an unreformed institution). Whomsoever is chosen, they must recognise that it is not at the next election, but the one after that, that their moment is likely to come. After all, if one awarded to the Liberals every riding in which they lost by 20% or less, they would still only have 133 seats. Great stretches of Canada want nothing to do with this party: it is not national in any sense other than name and the running of candidates, no more national, in other words, than the Greens or the NDP. It will take years of work, coherent policy proposals, the cash to compete and a true sense of humble service rather than entitlement to turn this around.

Ultimately, another thing the Liberals must come to grips with is the question of the Red Tories (and Blue Liberals). As I said in response to Werner’s post:

As for the inability of Blue Liberals and Red Tories to actually form a party and take a place in the spectrum, it is sad but true that they are the centrists everyone loves to hate. These are, of course, the true inheritors of Baldwin and LaFontaine; Macdonald and Cartier — the old “Liberal-Conservative” party (when the alternative was a more radical “reform Liberal” in the Clear Grits, Howe’s Nova Scotians and Rouges du Québec, with tendencies toward copying from the Republic rather than charting our own course of responsible government and a self-governing Dominion (both invented in Canada and designed for the multi-national, immigrant-based community we have become as opposed to either British or American nationalism around the nation-state).

We don’t want to remember our history, our accomplishments and our unique legacy on the world’s stage. We dismiss it (unknown) as irrelevant and chafe instead to be just another nation-state like the others, then we bemoan our “colonial status” and seek/resist a closer affiliation with the power of the day. Blue Liberals/Red Tories would remind us of what we’ve ignored, therefore they must be neutralized, marginalized, trashed.

As a result, all Canadian politics – from the so-called left to the so-called right – is now the legacy of the Grit/Rouge line, while the Liberal-Conservative line is kept from view.

No wonder we can’t say why we matter as a people, eh?

I would add to this only that it is the failure to actually teach our history that aids and abets this, making the Reform strain in the Conservative Party quite as much as the Green and Liberals.

As long as the Liberals are for whatever is expedient in the moment, they will not attract Red Tories in great numbers — you see, we can stomach the Conservative Party and/or the New Democratic Party — and they will always marginalise their Blue Liberals.

The problem, as the tenure of Stéphane Dion has shown is, is resolutely not one of leadership. It is far deeper, far more philosophical — and the continued existence of the Liberal Party as anything other than a Toronto and West Montréal rump joined at the hip to old Maritime traditions depend on Liberals taking the long view.

In the meantime, Stéphane, you suffered for the myth of the leader: may you now be able to set it aside in peace.

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