Why the Liberals Need New Leadership Blood

Michael Ignatieff. Bob Rae. The two front runners from the 2006 leadership struggle are ready to engage in their fight to the finish again. (It would be in their interest, of course, to have a short campaign and something close to an annointing: they have the organizations, proven fund-raising credibility, the recognition, etc.)

The other prior candidates: Martha Hall Findley, Gerald Kennedy, Scott Brison, Ken Dryden, etc. Most of these are no doubt exploring their chances, even if only to say “no, not for me”.

Then there’s the names that didn’t contend last time: John Manley and Frank McKenna, plus those who served in the last Chrétien Government who may want to return: Martin Couchon comes immediately to mind.

It seems a field of contenders that give the Liberal Party choice as to how to proceed into the future. It is also a field likely to perpetuate old battles.

Ever since Trudeau eliminated the vestiges of responsible government, centralized decisions in the PMO and subordinated his Cabinet Ministers (remember, this is why John Turner resigned in 1975) the Liberal Party has been adrift. Trudeau used the party as a vehicle to power for his own agenda, and fixed the mould of the party solidly in the form it is today. From then on, the Liberal Party has been the scene of one “inheritor” after another (Trudeau to Chrétien to Dion to, potentially, Rae; Turner to Martin to, potentially, Ignatieff). It is this alternation which is one of the three things that must change for the Liberal Party to arrest its long-term decline that started (at the latest) after the 1980 election.

The next leader of the Liberal Party needs to break this mould of armed camps at war with each other. A strong and dominating leader, such as Chrétien, was able to force the battle to quiesce at least to the point of campaigning as one team. As we know, Martin was able in turn to organize his putsch in the background and thus rip the leadership away from Chrétien. It is with the elimination of the sense of “my camp” and “your camp” that this evolves.

This means fresh blood: members of the party never considered before as potential leaders.

The second thing the new leader must do is revitalize the party. Riding associations (many are semi-moribund due to years of a failure to elect/compete effectively) must be rebuilt. The loyalty of the EDA executives must be to the party first, to the leader second, and not to a particular leadership candidate (an idealistic goal, but one that should be sought). The fund-raising conundrum must be solved: the Liberal Party must be competitive with the best available party in this area (which, at the moment, is the Conservatives by far). Just as with cabinet building, as I discussed in a prior note today, critic building must look to talent and expertise, not either the rewarding of grandees (there are no entitlements) nor “provincial balance”. The job of rebuilding the party requires nothing less than the best available talent. Those unwilling to work under those conditions should be ushered firmly to the back benches.

Third, the last major policy renewal of the party occurred under the tenure of Lester B. Pearson in 1960. What is the raison d’être of the Liberal Party going forward? Is it simply to be “anti-Conservative” and to moan incessantly about the existence of the NDP and the Greens as “siphons of votes that should be Liberal”? Or is it to stand for a clear vision of the future and specific means to make this come into reality?

As a part of such a renewal, new members of the party can be sought to seek elective office, so that required expertise and vigour can be found. This, if one recalls, is also part of Pearson’s legacy — and, with the odd individual exception such as Chrétien recruiting Dion, something not done since. Yes, “Dream Team” candidates have been sought — but not as a response to a coherent, complete policy rethink. It is long past time.

The existing candidates for leader are not only tied to their past associations and supporters, they often — at least amongst the “big names” — are also closing in on the end of their window of opportunity to lead long enough to become Prime Minister and serve for a period suited to achievement of their goals. (In other words, age creeps up on them, as it does on us all.) This rebuilding may well require multiple years and two elections to be effective. Someone — not unlike Stephen Harper himself, if the point of his winning the leadership of the Canadian Alliance is taken as a starting point — who is of an age and determination to build toward success over the required period of time — is what the Liberals now need.

Can they do it? A good question: certainly the cards are stacked against this type of outcome. But to eventually end the “Pizza Parliament” syndrome we need two viable, electable, broadly-based, truly national parties (which means members are elected coast to coast) — and that involves reinventing the Liberal Party, before the NDP or Greens figure out what’s needed to pole-vault over them.

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2 responses to “Why the Liberals Need New Leadership Blood

  1. Enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks.

  2. Hi, Whopitulia. Thanks for dropping by. I’ve also just had a read through some of your stuff – also good.

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