PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—When interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae stood for the first time in the House of Commons, it was apparent how far the Liberals had fallen—at least to those in the press gallery seated above them.
Once the party directly below, on the left arm of the Speaker’s chair, the Liberals’ band of MPs now sit in a little pocket at the distant end of the House. Rae looked much smaller than before.
Adding insult to injury perhaps is the nagging presence of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. Not that she herself nags, but seated in that far corner of their shrunken domain she shows the encroachment of yet another left-leaning party.
The third party for the first time in Canada’s history, the Liberals are now a political afterthought, and a recovery looks distant.
The Conservatives hope to put a nail in what they see as the Grits’ open casket (which Liberals would likely describe as more of a day bed) by phasing out the $2-per-vote subsidy. While the Conservatives and NDP have the grassroots muscle to fundraise and compensate for loss, the Liberals have lost much of that over past decades.
Learning in Defeat
But Rae believes the party has learned its lesson. He says the Liberals just need to rebuild in parts of the country where they did not do well.
“To me, it’s a matter of showing real determination. I think there is a great deal of support for Liberal politics, I think there is a great deal of support for Liberal programs,” he says.
There is a Liberal movement out there waiting to be reconnected with, says Rae, and with the inspiration of a defeat, the party is now ready to do that. In fact, he thinks the current fortunes of the party have been dramatically overstated.
“I would not exaggerate either the size of the defeat or the size of the victories of the others.”
While the Conservatives claimed the Prairies, the Liberals maintained dominance in Atlantic Canada, he says. And despite the NDP claiming double the Liberals’ number of Ontario seats, 22 compared to 11, the parties were virtually tied in their percentage of the popular vote—25.6 for the NDP compared to the Grits’ 25.3.
In other words, don’t read too much into the last election results, says Rae.
“We can recover from this situation,” he pledges.
But Rae wouldn’t directly speak to the withering of voter support that has seen the party shed 30 or so seats in the four elections held after the Conservatives formed in 2003.
As for causes, Rae suggests they lost seats because they didn’t get enough votes, a circular logic that doesn’t speak to the core issues. He rejects the suggestion that as the NDP and Conservatives moved to the centre, the Liberal position began to look vague.
“I think that what the Liberals stand for is very clear. What the Liberal Party believes in is very clear.”
That includes freedom, healthcare, aboriginals, fiscal responsibility and sustainability, he says.
What it seems to come down to, from Rae’s perspective, is a campaign issue. Stephane Dion, Paul Martin, and Michael Ignatieff all ran principled campaigns—they just didn’t get the votes.
But some of his NDP colleagues, the people now enjoying the Liberals’ old benches up by the Speaker, offer a less benign analysis.
Hunting for a Hero
Charlie Angus, NDP Ethics critic, says the problem is more systemic than a defeat in the campaign.
“I think in fairness, Mr. Ignatieff ran a credible campaign, but the rot in the Liberal Party is much more than something you can blame one person for.”
Angus thinks the core of the problem is that the party was always looking for a hero—that next great leader that would launch them into power.
“They were obsessed with betting on who was going to win so various members of the caucus could tie their fortunes to the next saviour.”
And when they were on the opposition benches, rather than develop policy, the Liberals focused on attacking government scandals. When it came time to campaign, he says the Liberals adopted NDP policies.
“I think what became clear over a number years is that the Liberals were not interested in developing policy, they were interested in getting back into government.”
After a while, their credibility ran out and that played to the NDP’s favour, says Angus.
Falling Over Themselves
NDP Justice critic Joe Comartin says the Liberals’ self-image as the natural governing party played against it, and over the time the party stopped trying to improve itself or develop its organization.
“I think they have gotten to where they have fallen to primarily out of arrogance.”
Comartin points to the sponsorship scandal as an example. When it came out that the Liberals were handing money to supporters through a corrupt advertising effort touted as a way to support federalism in Quebec, the party did nothing to repair the damage in La Belle Province.
“They assumed that over a period of a year or two years, they would bounce back,” says Comartin.
There was no apology on bended knee, he says, and no acknowledgement of how badly they had hurt themselves.
And while previous generations, including Comartin’s own mother, supported the party for enacting pensions and other initiatives, by the 1980s the party had moved to the right.
“They very much shifted to listening to the large corporations and very wealthy people for most of the direction as to what their political agenda was going to be.”
And while that select group had money to offer, former PM Jean Chretien ended that when he cut out corporate donations and replaced them with the soon-to-be-extinct per-vote subsidy.
Missing the Coalition
Writing in the Walrus this month, Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella offers a more conventional explanation. Conservative attack ads branded Ignatieff before he could brand himself—an argument often used to describe Dion’s own defeat, though his difficult-to-explain carbon tax is also frequently blamed.
Kinsella says the party also missed a chance to effectively negate the NDP by merging with the party and removing the threat from the left.“In crass political terms, co-operation (or coalition, or merger) makes sense. The Conservatives’ grip on power is maintained, more than anything else, by the inability of progressives to get their act together,” writes Kinsella.
He goes on to describe a range of other campaign issues and policy positions that he thinks hurt the party, but concludes a divided left is the key reason the Conservatives rode to victory.