ESSAY

NOT A FOREGONE CONCLUSION

Who says the Liberals will be invincible in the next federal election? That may not be the case, argues veteran party strategist HERSHELL EZRIN

February 24 2003
ESSAY

NOT A FOREGONE CONCLUSION

Who says the Liberals will be invincible in the next federal election? That may not be the case, argues veteran party strategist HERSHELL EZRIN

February 24 2003

NOT A FOREGONE CONCLUSION

Who says the Liberals will be invincible in the next federal election? That may not be the case, argues veteran party strategist HERSHELL EZRIN

ESSAY

THESE DAYS, you have to look far and wide to find anyone who seriously disputes the idea that the Liberals are headed for another majority victory in the next federal election. We saw some evidence of that recently in newspaper ads placed by the president of an investor advisement firm noting, ruefully, that "it appears that the Liberal Party will continue to be Canada's sole governing body at the Federal level for some time." A long string of opinion polls favouring the Liberals also points to that—as does the perception of disarray in opposition parties. But is it really so? I have some doubts—but let's begin

by examining the arguments in favour.

The current mood of Liberal electoral infallibility initially appears rooted in several incontestable facts. Start with the polls: the intensity of internal dissent over the timing of Jean Chrétien's retirement doesn't appear to have substantially harmed the party. Then there's the general expectation that Paul Martin will succeed Chrétien. On the basis of Martin's demonstrated abilities and popular appeal, and compared to the lacklustre performances of opposition leaders, that alone appears to favour the Martin-led Liberals in the next election.

Add to that the failure of the Alliance and the Conservatives to resolve their votesplitting, and you have a major source of frustration for those trying to build a coherent centre-right national alternative to the Liberals—who govern from all points of the political compass. Either a Martin or John Manley leadership would likely shift the Liberals a bit more to the centre-right, compounding the difficulty for the Alliance and Tories to distinguish themselves—without resorting to policy extremism. The Alliance has little support east of Manitoba. And the Tories have never recovered from their near-death experience of 1993: their latest humiliation is their rejection by numerous would-be leadership candidates.

The fading fortunes of the Bloc Québécois seem tied to a historical lull in support for

the separatist option in their home province. And the NDP has just elected an untested leader who seems determined to take the party back to the future with an ideological approach (consider his peace-at-any-cost statements about Iraq) that make him a throwback to the Woodsworth parliamentary vote against Canadian participation in the Second World War.

In the words of Alfred E. Neuman, many Liberals seem content to say, "what, me worry?" But some unique electoral challenges remain, and these could yet result in the next election not being the predict-

complacency: Martin and his people have their work cut out for them, both within the party and with the public, if they are to avoid some looming pitfalls.

The internecine dispute over control of the party apparatus has significantly weakened the Liberals—and, potentially, the government—particularly with the Sopranos-style stories of loyalty, omerta and revenge. Martin's huge lead in the run-up to the convention has led to demands that he act like a winner before he has even secured the prize. In most leadership races and elections, victory brings (and requires) magnanimity, but the fear now runs deep on all sides that a tribal settling of scores has just begun. If this continues, it doesn't bode well for building an election machine of volunteers whose primary glue is loyalty and trustnot just the disposition of victory's spoils.

With the withdrawal of credible alternative candidates like Brian Tobin and Allan Rock, as well as complaints from some remaining potential contenders about the

Some voters may have a by-election mentality: what the heck, let's just vote for somebody else

ed Liberal coronation. This isn't a time for

lack of a fair fight, the public is left asking whether the Liberals are simply perpetuating their democratic deficit: trading the rule of a small central clique for another. So far, it looks as if the party will also lose out on the excitement of a hotly contested leadership race that rekindles public interest, attracts new supporters, energizes members, and forces real, and sometimes painful, policy renewal. While it's to the credit of Martin and his team that they've lapped the field, they should be thinking about how to keep Liberals motivated and in the tent.

Resolving the disharmony within his caucus will also be a major challenge. Martin may find himself hoisted with the same petard as the current prime minister when it comes time to face caucus radicals bent on taking advantage of the rule changes that give backbenchers greater voice. Those changes will also hamper the new leader when he faces the task of rewarding his overflowing number of caucus followers. The disappearance of central control over numerous perks, such as the reward of a committee chair, will nurture bitter disappointment for former "future cabinet ministers" whose aspirations can't all be met.

Today, Martin appears to be at the peak of his electability. But once he has to take responsibility for choosing policies rather than just commenting on them, his reputation will start to collect the inevitable barnacles. Can, for example, Martin's politically astute Kyotoif-necessary-but-not-necessarily-Kyoto stance fly with both his Albertaand Quebec-based supporters—who have been encouraged to interpret his views in contradictory ways? And while Martin appears fresh in comparison to the Prime Minister, can he successfully occupy the middle ground? Will he represent wise experience at the helm, or will he feed the notion that it's time for a change?

In fact, the seemingly invincible Liberal lead in the polls may offer one of the biggest challenges to the party's plans for clear-cut victory. A new leader will face the twin dilem-

mas of accelerated voter apathy and the prospect of narrow strategic and selective voting. Lulled by a sense of security that the Liberals will win no matter what, some voters may experiment. This plays into the hands of the opposition, who, for all of their pan-Canadian weaknesses, retain the very strong regional and local appeal that has allowed them to stay alive. In short, the Liberals could face an electorate with a by-election mentality: since voters will consider a change of government unlikely, they can feel free to vote for other parties. The consequence of that on a national scale could have a seismic impact. Factor in the departure of a number of long-sitting Chrétien loyalists, whose seats were personal fiefdoms, not party strongholds, and the potential for change increases.

The NDP's election of Jack Layton, a leader with an ideological, urban, central Canadian nationalist focus that feeds on latent anti-

American sentiment, will mean tougher battles in a number of urban Ontario seats that the Liberals can ill afford to lose. But the new NDP profile could weaken its strong rural base in the West, and will decrease the likelihood of strong three-way races therehelping the Alliance and hurting the Liberals. Nova Scotian Peter MacKay's likely victory as Tory leader should help solidify the PC rump in Atlantic Canada. And in Quebec, old assumptions about political preferences no longer apply, as we see in the provincial three-party race between the Liberals, Parti Québécois and Action démocratique.

Added to the mix is the alarming slide in voter interest. In 1988, three quarters of voters participated in the federal election; by 2000, only three in five took part. Fewer voters could make the difference in hardfought local contests. Shifts of five per cent or less in some key ridings could take their toll—and shifts of this magnitude aren't un-

common when you factor in issues such as the personal popularity of local candidates, the quality of their election teams—and the effect of dissension within the party. Meanwhile, the continuing debate over issues such as health care and our relationship with the United States will put the Liberal agenda under more intense scrutiny—and attacks from both the right and left.

Ten years is a lifetime in politics. The Liberal hegemony under Chrétien has been absolute through that period, as he has managed to dominate the centre while painting his opponents on the extreme margins of the political debate. But at the start of a new era, there are scenarios that cast some doubt on continuing Liberal control. Is another majority Liberal government the certainty that many presume? Not if Liberals don't address some very real problems.

Hershell Ezrin is the chairman and CEO of GPC International.