Sunday, November 25, 2012

Looking for a Liberal Leader

The race to become the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada is underway. On April 14th, 2013, party faithful will choose the leader they hope will take Canada's "once natural governing party, but now third party in the House" down the path of renewal - a path they hope can reposition the party for success.

While the field currently boasts a number of candidates, at this time it appears that the lion's share of the attention will be lavished on three: Justin Trudeau and Martha Hall Findlay, who have both launched their campaigns, and Marc Garneau who will do so this week.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will be writing about this campaign - the candidates and the issues. To start things off, I thought I would borrow page from Andrew Coyne and offer some unsolicited advice.


As Mr. Coyne pointed out in this excellent piece the party has an important choice to make. It can choose to swing for the fences by seeing themselves as viable candidates for power in the next election, or it can preach patience and look to first generate stability and then build from its position as the third party.

His recommendation - the patience route - is reasonable, as it takes into account the litany of challenges the party is facing. It also suggests that settling in as a third party can afford the Liberals the opportunity to develop more definition to their party - something that has been dwindling since 2006.

The argument is that freed from having to play it safe as one of the two contenders, the party can lay out more robust, thoughtful and perhaps controversial policy positions. This is what Reform and the NDP did. The question is whether the Liberals have the patience necessary to survive a longer spell on the sidelines.


Building on Mr. Coyne's arguments, I offer some additional points for the Liberals to consider...

Define Progressive...

A centrist party is by definition a difficult thing to define. Move away from this nomenclature and instead look to define what progressive means in the 21st century.

Progressive needs to be more than a new way of saying "left". The Liberals need to frame progressive as being about balance and collaboration.

A progressive brand should be one which defines what fiscal responsibility means in a modern society. It needs to acknowledge that sound finances and sustainable social programs are equally important to the country's future prosperity.

It should be a brand which breaks both the mindset that taxation is bad, and the mindset that suggests that controlling spending is draconian. Neither position is true, despite what the traditional right or left will tell you.

More than anything, defining progressive is an opportunity to illustrate how economic policy, health policy, environmental policy, education, trade and foreign policy are all inter-connected. Too often they are presented as independent of one another, or even mutually exclusive.

A progressive party should look to connect the dots between the multiple policy threads that make up governing and tell a story which brings the voter into the dialogue. A progressive party should foster engagement, not discourage it.

A tall order, yes. But an opportunity to fill a void which is missing in Ottawa right now.

Pay Heed to the Lessons of Romney, part one...

As Justin Trudeau is currently learning, what you have said in the past can and will be used against you - often and with scant regard for context. And the impact can be significant.  Just ask Mitt.

Quick question: Who won the Republican nomination campaign? Answer: Barack Obama.

That campaign forced Romney to adopt positions which would appeal to the conservatives of the Republican party, but which would not appeal to mainstream American voters.  The result is that while Romney fought to define himself for Republicans, he opened the door for the Obama campaign to define him for the rest of the country.

The definition they offered was something the Romney campaign never really recovered from. Even when he tried he simply reinforced a sense that he would say anything to anyone. When a candidate loses the voter's "does he understand me" test, he or she loses the election. 

The Liberal candidates need to be mindful of this fact as they debate the issues. I am not for a moment suggesting that any candidate adopt a bland, un-offensive approach which tries to please all. But each candidate needs to find their space or ground. 

Moving all over the map, as Romney did, will be damaging. Define your campaign and stick to your principles.

And finally, be mindful as to how you go after one another. Learn not just the lessons of Mitt, but also the lessons of Stephane. As candidates you will look to draw contrasts between one another. But don't adopt the hyperbole that can hamstring whomever the eventual winner will be.

Remember, the Conservatives are just waiting for you to do so. Tread carefully.

Pay Heed to the Lessons of Romney, part two...

Romney won his party's nomination because he was deemed electable. The Liberals need to avoid the "electable trap".

Falling into this trap means choosing someone because you think they can deliver the goods at the next opportunity. For the Liberals, this would be a long-shot. 

As Mr. Coyne points out, the hurdles the party faces are not insignificant. While the unpredictability of politics reminds one that anything can happen, the current facts suggest that on balance the Liberals need more than 2-3 years to be in a position to challenge for government.

With this in mind, the party needs to select a candidate for the long run. The next leader needs two elections and time to build. It has to be someone prepared to put in the time out of the spotlight as they work to re-build.

In the end it is a balance. You need someone ready to lead should fortune swing your way. But you need someone patient to wait and prepared to do the work necessary to build.

And for heaven's sake, Liberals. Don't ditch the leader if they don't win.


In less than five months, the Liberals will select a leader. Between now and then, however, the party and its faithful have some thinking to do.

What are the lessons of the past six years? What investments are needed to re-build the party? Are you prepared to make them?

Many thought that electoral defeat was just the normal "time in the penalty box"; that after a spell on the sidelines it would be their turn again. The thinking was that at some point enough voters would simply tire of the Harper government once they knew more about them, and presto(!) the Liberals would be back in government.

They were wrong. And that is why we stand here today at the beginning of this campaign.

The leadership campaign is probably the Liberals last, best shot at repositioning themselves in the eyes of voters. The stakes are hight. Let's see if they are up to the challenge.

I, for one, hope they are.

1 comment:

  1. Even though I agree with Andrew Coyne and everything he says, is not going to happen. Liberals will make once again the same mistake, elect a leader for the wrong reasons. Let's face it, Justin Trudeau doesn't have the goods, but he is an ace when it comes to be electable, he will win the leadership and will be star fundraiser, and will kick Mulcair as leader of Loyal opposition, will give Liberals some hope but not a chance, he has to do what Harper did in the east, take over the west and that is not going to happen, not anytime soon.

    It's unfortunate that Martha won't have a shot she is pretty decent politician but even if Justin wasn't in the race she wouldn't win, she is not electable, Garneau isn't either. Justin is the Kim Kardashian of politics, no substance but sells.


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