Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Deep Dark Truthful Mirror

Like it or not, the time has come for the Liberals to stare into what Elvis Costello called a "deep dark truthful mirror." The results of #elxn41 and the pending elimination of the public subsidy will have the combined effect of sending Canada's former natural governing party into the political wilderness for possibly a decade.

In other words, it's time to take a long, hard look at yourself.

It would be tempting to lay the blame for the current state of affairs on Conservative attack ads or on the performance of the last two leaders, Mr. Dion and Mr. Igantieff. One could also be tempted to point a finger towards the fall-out from the sponsorship scandal.

However, while some responsibility can certainly be directed towards these areas the deep, dark truth is that they are only a small part of a problem that began some time ago.

Take a closer look at the majorities of 1993, 1997 and 2000. What you see is a party that was already hemmed in, owing its power to Ontario, select urban centres outside Ontario, and reasonable support in Atlantic Canada.

The simple fact is that the Liberal Party of Canada ceased to have any meaningful Western presence (outside BC) in the 1980s. They have not held the majority of seats in Quebec since the 1984 Mulroney sweep. By the time Mr. Chretien came to power, all they had was Ontario, urban Canada (including pockets in Quebec) and the Atlantic.

What they did have going for them at that time was the split on the right, and a general sense of fatigue with the roller-coaster of the Mulroney government (free trade, the GST, Meech, Charlottetown). The result, three majorities. And in fairness, on many fronts they provided good government (deficit reduction, targeted investments in innovation, the clarity act, electoral financing reform).

But the majorities prevented the party from asking itself the hard questions. Power shielded the Liberals from confronting the truth that - depending on your perspective - they were in decline or under attack. And that time was inevitably going to run out.

Even when the right was united, there was a sense that under Mr. Martin the party would thrive. Then along came the sponsorship scandal, which over the course of two elections laid bare the degree to which the party was vulnerable.

Faced with a united right, further erosion in Quebec and a general concern about the perception of scandal, the Liberals were left with only one option - play defence. There was no place where the party could grow; no place where losses could be off-set. From that point on, it was only a matter of time.

Yet the party still seemed to believe the natural order would, in due course, return them to power. At some point, the thinking seemed to be, you eventually get out of the penalty box. What they did not count on was five years of Conservative minority government.

The threat of the election around the corner further hemmed the party in, depriving them of the time (even if there wasn't the willingness) to stare into that mirror. To start the process of renewal, both in terms of policy and in terms of organization.

Further compounding the problem was the failure to develop a robust fundraising mechanism. Even accounting for a degree of hindsight, it is bewildering to see how the party that brought in the changes to election financing was so unprepared for their impact. You can argue whether we should have a public subsidy (for the record, I favour it), but you can't argue in favour of making yourself so dependent on it.

So where do things stand?

- The Liberals have their lowest seat total, based in small enclaves in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario

- Funding is about to take a huge hit

- The party is suffering an existential crisis

- The Liberal organization often looks less national and more like a series of "interest fiefdoms", while riding associations have little power

- There is no leader

- Their principal opponent will get stronger, while their nearest challenger has a unique opportunity to further marginalize them

But what they do have is time. If there is one silver lining from this election, it is the time it has afforded the Liberals to stare into the deep dark truthful mirror. It is a time for earnest reflection, difficult conversations and brave decisions.

The political landscape has been re-drawn in Canada, but not in permanent marker - yet.

The steps the Liberals take over the next four years will determine whether they can redefine themselves for the 21st century and emerge once again as a power. If not, the 2011-2015 period may simply become the last phase of a process of erosion and marginalization that began many, many years ago.

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