Rumours of the Liberals' demise are greatly exaggerated

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It takes some getting used to, seeing the Liberals shrunken and shrivelled to thirdparty status in the House of Commons. They're having a hard time getting used to it themselves.

They're over there in the far corner of the opposition benches. On a good day, they might get two turns in question period.

Looking ahead to the leadership race of 2013, their front bench is very thin. At this point, Dominique Leblanc and Scott Brison are the only candidates who would make a case for generational change. Justin Trudeau might well have done so, but he made a very smart decision to stay home with his young family rather than spending the next 10 years on the road rebuilding the party.

For the rest, the Liberal caucus looks like a bunch of old white guys, led for the moment by Bob Rae, who pledged that he wouldn't run for the leadership as a condition of being named interim leader.

He may yet get a permission slip when the rules are clarified at a convention in January, when Sheila Copps is favoured to become the new president of the party - as if that were a forward-looking move.

Yet the fact is the most obvious choice for leader is the one the Liberals have now.

Rae has been constructive, good-humoured and even humble in the House, reflecting his understanding that the Liberals have much to be humble about.

In a Nanos poll this week, the Conservatives were in first place at 36-per-cent support, but the Liberals had clawed their way back into second place at 28 per cent, in a statistical tie with the New Democratic Party at 27 per cent.

This is as much a reflection on the NDP as it is on Rae's leadership of the Liberals. The death of Jack Layton, just months after he led his party from fourth place all the way to official opposition, has left a huge hole.

The interim leader, Nycole Turmel, is a very personable woman and well-liked on all sides of the House. But she's a freshman member, and not up to the challenge of leading off question period every day.

For the rest, many talented members of the NDP front bench, including Tom Mulcair, Nate Cullen and Paul Dewar, are out on the leadership campaign trail and can't be counted on to be part of the question-period team.

Which has allowed Rae and the Liberals to climb out of the basement of 19-per-cent support where they found themselves on election day, and where they remained in the polls over the summer. Politics does detest a vacuum, and the Liberals are filling it.

The Liberal brand is a storied one, and there's every reason to believe it can be rebuilt over two or three elections, as the Conservatives did after being reduced to two members in the 1993 election.

But the challenge is a daunting one, because the Liberals have been reduced to a rump of 11 seats in Ontario and just seven in Quebec, the two provinces that were the heart of the great Liberal dynasties of the 20th century. In the four western provinces, the Liberals have a grand total of four seats. Only in the Atlantic have they held their own - with the exception of New Brunswick, where they hold only one seat.

In a new book, When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada, Peter C. Newman predicts the demise of the Liberal Party.

That may be partly out of his annoyance that he started out writing a book on Michael Ignatieff becoming prime minister and ended up with quite another outcome.

Newman blames the Jean Chrétien/John Turner/Paul Martin leadership wars, an internecine struggle that continues even now, long after the principals have left the stage. He also blames the sponsorship scandal for its corrosive effects on the Liberals in Quebec.

But the sponsorship scandal needs to be seen in the larger context of the decline of the Liberal brand in Quebec over the last 30 years, beginning with the patriation of the constitution over Quebec's objections in 1981, the death of the Meech Lake accord at the hands of the Liberals in 1990, and the payback of the 1995 sovereignty referendum that gave birth to the sponsorship scandal.

The irreducible facts are the following: In 1980, the Liberals won 68 per cent of the vote in Quebec and 74 out of 75 Quebec seats.

In 2011, they won 14 per cent of the vote in Quebec and seven seats, all of them nonfrancophone ridings.

In the rebuilding of this great franchise, there's plenty of work to go around. But long term, it's foolish to write the Liberals off.

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