Delegates line up to vote for Liberal Party of Canada executive and commission officers during the Liberal Biennial Convention in Ottawa January 14, 2012.
Credits: Reuters/BLAIR GABLE
KENNEBUNKPORT, ME. - Not a bad day.
Ten years ago, just like today, I was on a sunny Maine beach with my kids. A call came through from the ever-efficient switchboard at the office of the prime minister.
“Time for me to go,” said the familiar voice on the phone. “So I will tell caucus I’m going to resign.” Pause. “In 18 months.”
We had a good laugh about that one. The thuggish supporters of Paul Martin would take hours to analyze Jean Chretien’s announcement, and eventually declare themselves satisfied with it, even though they weren’t. The Martinite enablers in the press gallery worked themselves into paroxysms of indignation over what they would call “Chretien’s long goodbye.”
But that was that. By December 2003, the most successful Liberal leader since Mackenzie King would be gone. And Paul Martin — he of the 200-plus seats, he of the “juggernaut” — would set about piloting the Liberal Party of Canada into the electoral ditch.
Mad as hell. Gomery. Income trusts. Separatists running as Liberals. Billions in crazy spending. Promises of constitutional change in TV debates. It went on and on. By the time Martin was done with it, the once-great Liberal party had been reduced to a piddling minority. And then, in the next go-round, bruising defeat. Martin did much to wreck the cause of Liberalism. But he wasn’t solely to blame for what would happen in the next decade.
Stephane Dion was a decent, good man, but he possessed one critical flaw: For anglophones, he was too hard to understand. When proposing a “green shift” that would see gas prices go up — during a summer when voters were already paying nearly $1.50 a litre — that failure to communicate would prove fatal.
Meanwhile, his attempt to forge a coalition government with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe looked like a gaggle of losers trying to overturn the election result of 2008. The damage to the Liberal brand would be significant.
Like Dion, Michael Ignatieff was an academic and an accomplished man. But 30 years of his accomplished, academic career had been spent abroad.
The 2011 campaign ballot question was as predictable as it was fatal: How can you lead a country you didn’t live in for decades? The Conservatives’ resulting ad campaign, “Just visiting,” didn’t say anything that millions of Canadians weren’t already thinking.
And now, 10 years later, the Liberal party looks back wistfully on the summer of 2002. What if they hadn’t tried to push Chretien out? What if they hadn’t forced a Liberal civil war? What if they had taken Stephen Harper’s efforts to unite the right more seriously, as Chretien had repeatedly urged them to do?
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Some say the Liberal party is dying and, after 2015, will be dead. It won’t be. But Liberals will never regain what they had if they don’t do three things:
One, take back the two themes that made them the most successful political machine in western democracy: Managerial competence and strong central government.
Two, impose communications self-discipline, and religiously defend the leader.
Three, get a leader progressive voters like, as they did Chretien. And there’s only one: Justin Trudeau.
Ten years! A lot can happen to a political party in 10 years.
For the Liberal Party of Canada, it’s been very, very bad.