Liberals hurt themselves fighting over Quebec ridings

Voters are not impressed when parties wash their laundry in public

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The first rule of party unity is simple: Pas de chicane dans la cabane.

Well, la chicane est prise in the federal Liberal Party's Quebec wing, and the walls of the place are shaking.

And the façade of party unity, which had been the first achievement of Michael Ignatieff's leadership, is proving to be a fragile one that easily collapses when the Liberals are in opposition, a place to which they are unaccustomed.

There are two elements to the latest blow-up inside Liberal ranks - the first is a bitter blood feud between Martin Cauchon and Denis Coderre, formerly close cabinet colleagues in the Chrétien government, who were once presented as the yin and yang of Liberal renewal among Quebec francophones.

And the second is an effort by Coderre, now the party's chief organizer and Ignatieff's Quebec lieutenant, to dislodge several other sitting MPs from safe Montreal-area seats to make way for star candidates who would be nominated by acclamation.

One of the incumbents on Coderre's hit list is none other than Stéphane Dion, a former leader of the party. Coderre thinks Dion should have the decency to disappear. Dion thinks Coderre and Ignatieff should treat him, as a former leader, with more respect. And he's right - they owe him, big time. Had it not been for the abortive Three Stooges coalition, and the infamous grainy video that followed, Dion wouldn't have been dumped as leader on the spot, and Ignatieff would have faced a competitive convention.

There are three other names and ridings on Coderre's list - Raymonde Falco from Laval-les-Iles, Lise Zarac from LaSalle-Emard and Bernard Patry from Pierrefonds-Dollard.

And all hell has broken loose inside the party.

The ugliest spat is between Cauchon and Coderre over the Liberal nomination in Outremont, a riding now held by Tom Mulcair of the NDP.

Cauchon, a former justice minister and Quebec lieutenant to Jean Chrétien, held the riding from 1993 to 2004, when he was dumped from the Martin cabinet and pushed out of his Outremont seat to make way for Jean Lapierre, as transport minister and Quebec lieutenant. Lapierre quit and returned to broadcasting after the 2006 convention, and the NDP won the historically Liberal bastion in a September 2007 by-election.

The Liberals are looking to regain the riding and Coderre has reserved it for a star recruit, Nathalie Le Prohon, former president of Nokia Canada and a senior VP at IBM. Not so fast, said Cauchon, who wanted his old seat back.

Cauchon then went to the unusual length of going public with his grievance, with his friends putting it out that the riding association wanted him back and Coderre was parachuting a candidate against their wishes.

The story has taken on an unseemly life of its own since Lapierre broke it on his radio show a week ago. In the village of Quebec politics, Lapierre is something of a town crier - there is very little that goes on inside any of the federal or provincial parties that escapes his attention.

Not willing to take no for answer, Cauchon took his grievance directly to the leader. Having publicly referred on numerous occasions to Coderre as "my Quebec lieutenant," Ignatieff was unlikely to undercut him. There isn't supposed to be any space between the leader and the Quebec lieutenant and to no one's surprise, there wasn't.

In Toronto Monday, Ignatieff said Cauchon "was an excellent minister, an excellent MP and a good Liberal." Emphasis on the past tense. Case closed.

The interesting aspect of this unedifying spectacle is that both Cauchon and Coderre, for reasons known only to themselves, see themselves as contenders at the next leadership convention. And in the great Liberal tradition of alternating between English and French-speaking leaders, they could both be right, though neither has a hope of winning. The point is, only one of them can be the leading Quebec candidate. Coderre now controls the organization, such as it is, and Cauchon has been cut completely out of the game.

For the Liberals, who have been on a very bad roll of late, the latest round of intramural hostilities is more bad news. The voters are generally unimpressed with parties that wash their dirty laundry in public.

It's quite simple. If a party can't run itself, it can't run the country.

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