COLUMNS

CALLING RALPH GOODALE

If the Liberals lose, here’s a leader who could make changes—and retire

PAUL WELLS May 23 2005
COLUMNS

CALLING RALPH GOODALE

If the Liberals lose, here’s a leader who could make changes—and retire

PAUL WELLS May 23 2005

CALLING RALPH GOODALE

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

If the Liberals lose, here’s a leader who could make changes—and retire

THIS CORNER HEREBY DECLARES the Back Page a prediction-free zone until after the election, which will come in June. Unless it doesn’t. It could come any time. Don’t ask me! I’m not predicting!

Things will get worse for the Liberals, unless they get better or, alternatively, stay roughly the same. Too many Canadians fear Stephen Harper. He can’t possibly get elected. Unless they get over it. They might. Or not. Don’t ask me!

Too many Canadians are too angry at the Liberals to let Paul Martin keep his job.

Unless they get over it. Hard to tell, really. I’m not predicting!

Still, we can’t resist indulging a hunch, which is this one right here: if it gets weird for the Liberals, it probably won’t get halfweird. A swinging pendulum rarely stops hallway. Liberal MPs have spent much of their time lately staring at the Opposition benches with the evident distaste of a debutante whose dinner guest uses the wrong salad fork. But the Liberals may yet learn there is something they like even less than an opposition full of Conservatives. That’s an opposition full of Liberals— and not very many of them either.

If the voters hand the Liberals that ticket to the wilderness, the party will be tempted by memories of Pierre Trudeau. It should resist, in favour of an altogether more prosaic choice. Let me explain.

In 1979, Trudeau lost power to a minority Conservative government. If he had left politics, then he’d be remembered today as an underachiever who fumbled the economy, got nowhere with the Constitution, and left Joe Clark to handle René Lévesque’s 1980 referendum. But Trudeau held on long enough to win back the keys to 24 Sussex Drive. What followed were almost the only three years of his career that most people remember: referendum, Constitution, Charter of Rights, National Energy Program.

Paul Martin’s surviving loyalists, all six of them, will fan out after an election loss to remind everyone of this tale. The mes-

sage will be: the Liberals’ rightful place is in power. Harper can’t last. Let Paul stick it out. The Martin years—the real Martin years— still lie ahead.

It would be only the latest of Martin’s applications for a stay of execution. If they indulged their leader, Liberals would be making his never-ending state of denial their own. They would be postponing the nasty duty of soul-searching.

It would be so much better for Liberals to take defeat—if it comes; I’m not predicting!—as a long-overdue cue to renew. The Liberals cruelly lack young talent. They haven’t taken a comprehensive look at their values since the 1991 conference in Aylmer, Que. And they’re mighty low on leadership stock.

So it’s time—or may be soon; who knows? I’m not predicting!—to open up an extended parenthesis in the life of what is usually Canada’s governing party. A vacation,

lasting at least a couple of years, from the indignities of power and the obsession over the leader’s identity that consumed Liberals so completely after 2000 and for which they have paid so dearly. After a leader who was defined by his ambition, they need a leader without any, a leader who’ll preside over cultural change and then retire quietly.

I nominate Ralph Goodale. Sorry, Minister.

Almost the only pleasure to be had in the House of Commons last week came when the minister of finance stood to defend the Liberals’ battered dignity against a relentless opposition. Goodale fought fire with anger, detail with detail, French with English (nobody’s perfect). One minute he was shouting, the next reasoning sweetly. He is almost the only Grit left who believes questions deserve an answer instead of a sneer or a talking point—and who has the wit to come up with an answer when he wants one.

He can’t become prime minister. He speaks essentially no French, has no charisma— although I’ll always believe “charisma” is the worst possible criterion for choosing a leader, because it lasts for six weeks and when it’s gone you’re stuck with Kim Campbell or Paul Martin. But a prime minister isn’t the first thing a losing party needs. What it needs is competent stewardship while it decides what a prime minister is for.

In 1987, Ontario’s provincial Conservatives got their teeth handed to them in a brutal election defeat after a near-eternity in power. Broken and badly confused, they handed the leadership of their party to the MPP from Sarnia, Andy Brandt, while they set about figuring which way was up. Brandt held the “interim” leadership for almost three years, until his party found Mike Harris and a road map back to relevance.

It takes rare grace to react with humility to a humiliation. I’m not sure today’s Liberals have it in them. We’ll find out soon enough. Or not; I’m not predicting. (in

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