Reinventing a political party is hard work, and the first step is usually admitting there's a problem. The Liberals aren't so sure.

JOHN GEDDES May 8 2006


Reinventing a political party is hard work, and the first step is usually admitting there's a problem. The Liberals aren't so sure.

JOHN GEDDES May 8 2006


Reinventing a political party is hard work, and the first step is usually admitting there's a problem. The Liberals aren't so sure.



For shameless flattery, it’s hard to top a politician addressing the party faithful. Rank-and-file members can reliably expect to be lauded as the backbone of democracy. Their efforts are nothing short of heroic, especially if accompanied by regular cash contributions. They’re family. (Cue the balloons and streamers.) Against this grand tradition of ingratiation, the best lines from Brian Mulroney’s speech to the Tory leadership convention on June 10, 1983—the day before he beat Joe Clark to take over the party—stand out in sharp relief. “Why is it that when we put on our hats as federal Conservatives,” Mulroney asked, “everyone in the country says we are a bunch of losers? Why is it? And this has been confirmed on more election nights than we care to remember.”

Of course, he quickly moved on to explain why Conservatives really were, despite all the losing, winners. It was just that they hadn’t yet found the right formula to convince voters. As it happened, Mulroney came bearing just

the prescription for success, so he closed on the traditional upbeat note. But it was that stinging phrase—a bunch of losers—that hung in the air. Tories needed to hear it. In fact, for any party languishing in opposition, a cold splash of self-awareness is a good starting point for change, maybe an indispensable one. The tempting alternative is for partisans to cast their election defeats as moral

victories and mere temporary setbacks. In that warm state of denial, many parties have sunk into long stretches of powerless torpor.

Federal Liberals are now trying to decide how badly they lost on Jan. 23—and how badly they want to do something about it. Those who are inclined to be upbeat focus on the 103 seats they won. By any measure, that’s a respectable opposition contingent. Optimists figure Paul Martin’s replacement stands to inherit a solid enough base in the House for the party to bounce back quickly. Less sanguine Liberals feel a deeper sense of foreboding. Especially after last week’s softwood lumber deal, they fear that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will carry momentum going into the next election. To deny him a second win, maybe a majority, worried Liberals say they need more than a new leader—they have to present a thoroughly retooled brand.

They could do worse than rereading Mulroney’s 1983 blueprint for a Conservative revival. After labelling them losers, he told Tories, in that pivotal convention speech, how to win. His plan had two themes: unite the party and reach out to strategic voting blocks. To end ruinous infighting, Mulroney made a concrete and very public pledge to install his leadership rivals and their key advisers in big roles. He made good on the promise. “I need you,” he told Don Mazankowski, who had plotted to the bitter end to block Mulroney from winning the leadership, in a phone call early on the morning after the convention. He later gave Clark the coveted post of foreign minister. Paul Martin, on the other hand, when he took over as prime minister, froze out many Jean Chrétien loyalists and even allowed Sheila Copps, who had mounted a hopeless leadership bid against him, to be humiliated by losing the nomination in her Hamilton, Ont., riding to one of his crew.

Next only to party unity, Mulroney emphasized strategic coalition-building. He highlighted two glaring gaps in the Tory base: francophone Quebec and urban immigrants. Convincing French Canadians and new Cana-

dians to vote Tory, he said, was “the challenge of this generation for the Conservative party.” These remain key strategic constituencies nowadays, though they represent a different sort of challenge for the Liberals now. Recovering from their collapse in francophone Quebec after the sponsorship affair stands as arguably their next leader’s biggest test. As Liberal MP John McCallum said late last week: “If we don’t make progress in Quebec we won’t be in government until the 22nd

century.” Holding urban strongholds with large ethnic community votes in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal is another key challenge, as is trying to roll back Tory gains in eastern and southwestern Ontario.

So the basic outlines of Mulroney’s approach remain relevant. But for many Liberals, healing internal rifts and identifying the voters they need to target isn’t as intriguing

as recasting policy. Those with long memories hold up the legendary i960 conference at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., convened by Lester B. Pearson, as the Liberal renewal template. Tom Axworthy, who heads the Queen’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, is now spearheading a sprawling Liberal policy rethink featuring more than 30 task forces, from Frank McKenna’s on Canada-U.S. relations to Justin Trudeau’s on engaging young people. Axworthy is inspired by the Kingston confab, which is credited with setting the social policy direction for the Pearson era. Other party insiders cast back only as far as the 1991 conference in Aylmer, Que., which doesn’t carry the cachet of Kingston, but set the centrist, voter-friendly policy tone that launched Chrétien’s long run as prime minister.

The Aylmer conference was part of a wider reorientation of liberal parties in the Englishspeaking world at the time. Conservatives had dominated American, British and Canadian politics through the 1980s. Their rivals on the left all shifted to the centre in response—and electoral success followed. Working through the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, a little-known Southern governor urged U.S. Democrats in 1991 to move away from leftist special-interest politics and embrace the cause of “the very burdened middle class.” Bill Clinton soon reclaimed the centre, and the White House, for Democrats. In Britain, Tony Blair took over Labour declaring that business would be as important to him as unions, and soon after excised a highly symbolic clause from his party’s constitution that dedicated it to oldschool socialist notions like “common ownership of the means of production.” He was bound for 10 Downing St.

Aylmer was where Chrétien pulled leftwarddrifting Canadian Liberals to the centre. They had lost a draining, emotional campaign against free trade three years earlier, and the deficits and inflation of the Trudeau era meant they were seen as dubious economic managers. “We knew that we had to bring back people’s sense of confidence that the Liberal party was fit to govern, that we weren’t clinging to things that we’d run several previous elections on,” says Chaviva Hosek, who became Chrétien’s policy chief, and is now president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Chrétien told Liberals at Aylmer that they must accept economic globalization and take deficits seriously. He assigned Hosek and Martin to draft the platform that became known as the Red Book, which lent the Liberals an aura of moderate policy coherence during his triumphant 1993 campaign.

It might be tempting for Liberals now to try to duplicate the way Chrétien, Clinton and Blair overhauled their parties. But times have changed, and figuring out the correct strategic repositioning might be trickier today. While edging right to recapture the centre was essential in the early 1990s, many Liberals seem to put a higher priority now on shoring up their left-of-centre base, partly to hold off a revived NDR But that risks ceding the middle-class mainstream to Harper’s Tories. “All this talk among Liberals about we’ve got to


be left wing, we’ve got to be centre-left, is somewhat delusional, certainly dangerous,” says Peter Donolo, who was Chrétien’s director of communications. “Liberals should not deal away their credibility as financial managers that was built up after 1993”

While leadership candidates like Michael Ignatieff, Gerard Kennedy and Ken Dryden are all staking out centre-left turf, their stances

are still more a matter of rhetoric than big, visionary policy ideas. Perhaps the closest thing to a defining issue is child care, where Dryden oversaw the push for a national daycare strategy as a Martin cabinet minister. Global warming is another issue on which Liberals could set themselves apart from Conservatives. Big social policy and environmental pushes might suggest to voters that Liberals are rallying around an ambitious, activist federal agenda, around creating an Ottawa that’s not afraid to get in the faces of provincial premiers.

At least one candidate, Bob Rae, himself a former Ontario NDP premier, has warned against that sort of positioning. Last week, he said Ottawa must be seen “not as a nanny, not as a scold, not as Big Brother, Big Daddy, whatever.” In an echo of Clinton’s famous declaration a decade ago that “the era of big government is over,” Rae said, “The federal government is there to help facilitate change,

to be a constructive partner, and to have sometimes the fiscal capacity to help make things happen. The days of heavy centralized bureaucracies running big programs, those days are gone.” That sort of talk has some Liberals viewing Rae, the converted former socialist, as staking out a position slightly to the right of other big names in the leadership pack.

The leadership race might seem like the obvious place for Liberals to sort out how they want to take on the Tories. But some restless Grits have seized on the lost election as an opening for freelance bids to influence the “progressive” side of the policy debate. New think tanks have sprouted. The most highprofile attempt to jump-start discussion will come in a mid-June conference at Mont Tremblant, Que., called “Canada 2020.” Among the international speakers slated to attend are economist and anti-poverty crusader Jeffrey Sachs, and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, now a campaigner for action on climate change. The Canada 2020 meeting is officially non-partisan, but many of its organizers are Liberals, and former Chrétien cabinet heavyweights John Manley and Anne McLellan are co-chairs, along with businessman François de Gaspé Beaubien.

Donoio is on the Canada 2020 advisory board, and thinks the two-day gathering stands a better chance of airing real policy

differences than any process hitched formally to the party or its leadership race. Despite calls for fresh thinking inside official Liberal circles, he says the imperative for party unity must trump any urge to argue. He describes the party’s equivocal aim as, “Let’s debate, but not disagree. Let’s be vigorous, but not controversial.” As well, in a crowded leadership field with no front-runner, candidates are looking to stay on good terms with each other—hoping for second, third and fourth ballot support at the December


convention. In that climate of tactical civility, the race might be marked more by politeness than bracing exchanges about how to recast the party. “The rubber won’t hit the road until there is a new leader,” Donolo says. “He or she will drive the real renewal.”

By then, the Tory government will be nearly a year old, and its prospects for re-election will be easier to handicap. If Liberals see Harper as vulnerable, they might merely tinker with their machine. But if he appears formidable, the question is whether they will be ready to change fast—or if they will need to experience another defeat before they are ready to hear, as Tories were in 1983, that they look like losers and must do something about it. M