Liberals emerge re-energized

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 18, 2012

For a party that was left for dead at the side of the road in last May's election, the Liberals not only showed surprising signs of life at their convention last weekend, they also made an impressive show of strength.

More than 3,000 Liberals turned up in the middle of a January snowstorm - about twice as many as attended the Conservative convention in the same building, the new Ottawa Congress Centre, on a sunny weekend in June.

And from every corner of the country, the Liberals paid for their own travel and accommodation. So a good story just got better. One couple I encountered in the lobby of the Château Laurier Hotel said they'd just driven from Toronto in seven hours, a drive that normally takes only four. Hundreds of Ontario delegates had similar stories.

Far from abandoning the party after the rout that reduced it to third-party status for the first time since Confederation, Liberals turned out in force for their policy convention. And about 1,000 of the delegates were young people, which is the future of any party. They might be putting up posters today, but 20 years from now they may be running the country.

They were making a collective statement: the party needs us; we're here for the party. The energy level was high. And there was no sense of Liberal entitlement in the air - only an acknowledgement that there's a lot of work ahead on the long road back.

The visuals of the weekend were very powerful, and very different than the ones seen every day in Question Period. In the House, reduced to 35 members, the Liberals are huddled in the far corner of the chamber, and they're lucky if they get two questions a day. To say they look and act demoralized is to understate the case.

At the Congress Centre, the Liberals rocked the house. They looked like the official Opposition. This poses real challenges for the New Democrats, who've been struggling in the House, and whose leadership campaign is not lighting any fires across the country. The Liberal convention wasn't really about policies. It wasn't about process. It was about being there and having fun again.

On policy, it shouldn't come as a shock that the youth wing proposed to legalize marijuana and abolish the monarchy. (The first resolution passed easily; the other one failed.) Or that Liberals want a national daycare program, and free tuition for college students.

On process, and by a margin of only 26 votes, the Liberals elected a new president, 42-year-old Mike Crawley, who sends a message of generational change that Sheila Copps, at 59, couldn't have done. It's pretty hard to make the case that a charter member of the Rat Pack, first elected in 1984, represents the future. She did say she'd lost 25 pounds, is playing a better game of tennis, and has "a good sex life." Quote of the week.

Significantly, the Liberals also voted to allow "supporters," as well as members, to vote in the 2013 leadership campaign.

Supporters will be able to participate free of charge, just by signing up. It's not quite like a U.S.-style primary, but it's a step in that direction.

Another process question was whether the national executive would change the rules of the leadership game to allow Bob Rae to run. In that event, Crawley allowed at a joint news conference, Rae would have to resign as interim leader.

Meantime, Rae enjoys the competitive advantage of being the leader without having to say whether he wants to run.

For example, as the interim leader, Rae got to give the opening and closing speeches at the convention. (Which also heard a spirited valedictory from Michael Ignatieff. "I didn't get there," he said, "but you will.")

If there's one thing that Rae's got in him, it's a rousing speech, one with rhetorical ruffles and flourishes to bring a crowd to its feet.

"What we have been doing here is creating an alternative," Rae declared. "A Liberal Party that can credibly offer an alternative to the prospect of an enduring Harper era. If we're going to ask Canadians to bring the Harper era to a close, we need to offer them a Liberal Party that is open to our future, open to optimism about this country, and open to participation by Canadians who want to change politics."

Here's the thing about Rae: he's a rhetorical leader, the first on the federal scene since Brian Mulroney, who happened to see Rae's speech on Sunday.

"When you've got 3,000 of your own people in a room, they want to march," Mulroney said. "Bob knows how to get them marching."

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