The Liberals await heaven’s command

Peter C. Newman on how the convention revealed a party still searching for a way back from the brink

Awaiting heaven's command

Blair Gable/Reuters

It was like spending a frigid weekend huddled around the world’s biggest samovar, with 3,200-plus joyful Liberals, not one of them fitting my expectation that they had shifted categories from walking wounded to being the walking dead. Their joy is that, whatever else they might do in a future that remains a distant and ill-defined option, at least they can pretend that dreams still count. That even if the Earth moved last May 2, and left the one-time power barons barren of power, they exist, awaiting heaven’s command.

Assembled, they project the distinct impression that while they are in third—which is like having a one-way ticket to purgatory—they should still be heard. No longer members of Canada’s natural governing party, they are losers searching for a mission. Slip-sliding away, like drunks convinced they are holding up the lampposts. The Grits have yet to earn another chance to head an effective opposition. Beyond that, they can’t count on Bob Rae being the dream candidate who could lead them back to the Treasury benches. He has enough political baggage to fill an airport carousel. For some inexplicable reason, he reminds me of Sir John A. Macdonald’s line, “I do not say that all Grits are horse thieves. But I feel quite sure that all horse thieves are Grits.”

Before they’re taken seriously again, the Grits must correct a potentially fatal absence. The Ottawa delegates scored high on youth (a third were under 25) and gender (half were women) but dismally failed the skin-colour test. Swaths of white stands out in our multi-hued society. Also, the delegates’ decision to legalize marijuana hands Stephen Harper the most effective of cheap shots: I can visualize future Tory ads entirely devoted to attacking the “Marijuana Party.” The up-and-coming generation may swallow that Kool-Aid but parents and grandparents vote, too.

The Liberals’ electoral reforms are daring and dangerous. By allowing anyone to vote on policies and leadership, they leave themselves open to being hijacked. That’s not just a theory. Way back during my youth, the University of Toronto campus included a Communist party. This was at the height of the Cold War, and its membership was not composed of radical Canadian kids but Moscow-directed apparatchiks. A few of us who came from countries then occupied by the Russians—which fit my Czech family background—quietly joined the Communist club, and spread the word. By the time its annual meeting came around, we had a slim majority. We immediately moved a successful motion that the organization immediately be dissolved, and its treasury donated to the Red Cross. It passed without debate.

It did and can happen.

The convention established the fact that this is a new political party. The stars who dominated the Trudeau party were made prominent by their absence. From those glory days, only John Turner, Dick O’Hagan, Jim Coutts and Don Johnston attended.

An interesting convention victory was that of Mike Crawley to succeed Alfred Apps as party president. His opponent was the effervescent Sheila Copps, who assured the assembly that her tennis arm and sex life were flourishing. She was a great politician and Paul Martin was just plain dumb to squeeze her out during his brief tumble as prime minister. But she does evoke the old Liberal party, and this convention turned out to be a cleansing exercise. Sadly, she was not wanted on the party’s next voyage.

Crawley will be a mixed blessing. He was dead right in his declaration that Liberals must get over themselves and forget the notion that there will always be a clearly defined spot for them in Canada’s political firmament: “We have to realize,” he told the delegates, “that every vote we earn in the next election will come from the work we do from this day forward.” True enough. The downside of the Crawley candidacy is that he remains a controversial figure in Ontario’s rural politics because it is his company that is planting wind farms across the province, often in the face of local anger.

What the Liberal party needs, following the free-fall electoral record of Michael Ignatieff, is a leader with a swordsman’s eye for being alert to the counter-thrusts of his opponents—plus the tactical intuitions of a chess master. Such a superior creature has yet to appear on the Liberal horizon.




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The Liberals await heaven’s command

  1. That the Libs chose to make their “defining policy decision” of the convention on legalizing pot shows where the focus is of their rank and file and shows how out of touch they are with reality. They will stay in the sidelines where they have made their bed.

    • Another one who didn’t actually pay attention. Almost all the energy at the convention was in constitutional voting not policy, which is not binding on the party anyway. On top of which, it was a youth delegate inspired proposal. The party will take note and make of it what they will to the degree it is politically useful. 

      • Nobody, other than reporters and the people actaully there, paid attention.

        • How do you know that? Am i speaking to god?

        • How do you know that? Am i speaking to god?

  2. If liberal ideals were truly out of touch and their existence really at such great risk, I find it hard to believe that so much time would be dedicated to discussing it. If it was a forgone conclusion of any kind, surely only liberals would care so much or be so invested.
     
    For so many others to be so darkly and insistently emphatic about the party that has traditionally represented these values, suggests to me the inverse is true: They cannot figure out why it won’t just die already! LOL
     
    There are a great many people however, who eschew ideological or dogmatic stances and instead try to inform their actions and opinions with fact and careful consideration. More importantly, these people exist in all corners of society. So a party that successfully embodies these ideals is the most dangerous party in the mix: a party that can draw votes from all the other parties.
     
    The CPC and NDP know this. They know that neither of them can be truly convincing as a “centrist” party without rejecting their established bases and becoming liberals by another name.
     
    So a genuine liberal party is always an emergent risk for them, because there is no inherent contradiction in its professed ideals. Liberals can’t be accused of abandoning their principles when facts demand they modify a position. For a liberal, facts speak for themselves and ideology must give way.
     
    For the liberal voice to re-emerge from the hyper-partisan tar pits of the past decade, the party that claims to represent them must reaffirm this identity. They must not only remake their party structure and re-engage the electorate in a meaningful way, but they must re-energize voters who have opted out of the dirty mudslinging race for the bottom that politics in this country has become, and that the Liberals fooled themselves into believing they should fight in kind.

    • Well said. I believe the phrase – evidenced based…was rather prominent at the convention…a good sign imo.

    • Phil, you have a short memory! It was the Liberals who started the politics of fear with their attack ads of ‘soldiers in the streets’ and ‘privatized medicare’ superimposed on pictures of Harper. The Liberals have always defined themselves by what they are not because they never know who they are.

      • One can hardly claim that liberals invented negative advertising, or that it made its first appearance in 2004. It’s merely another form in the ancient art of dirty politics. Personally I find it deplorable and consider it evidence of having nothing better to say. I would even suggest that the mass exodus of Liberal voters from the polls since then is a pretty good indication that many of them think the same thing, and haven’t been given a good reason to return even still.
         
        It requires an incredible lack of context however to ignore the Conservatives’ willingness to “take it to the mattresses” as they have, or imply that they were merely responding in kind. Theirs was a nuclear option in response to shots across the bow.
         
        No Canadian political party has ever waged such a massive media war against another party as the CPC has done against the Liberals. Until Harper came along, the idea of an endless 24/7 onslaught of negative attacks between election periods was unheard of in Canada, and makes a mockery of election spending limits.
         
        So I ask you, is this something to be proud of? Something to praise?
         
        And in that regard, was my comment a defence of the Liberal Party’s actions?
         
        Obviously not.
         
        I am speaking about the raison d’être of liberalism itself, not any particular incarnation of the party that claims to represent it, or the sad actions of those clinging to power without taking the time for honest self-reflection and renewal.
         
        My point is simple: You can’t kill the ideals of liberalism, and as long as the party claiming to represent them still has a membership that recognizes and embraces those ideals, the party is not only alive and kicking, but always a clear and present danger to the other parties.
         
        As evidenced by their unrelenting need to denounce this supposedly dying party, the detractors make it obvious that no such thing is occurring. Their greatest fear is the moment this movement finds its voice again.

        • Phil; there is no such thing as CLEAN politics. The same as there is no such thing as a clean fight. The Liberal Party attack ads were more than shots over the bow, they were direct broadsides and actually did work in keeping the Conservatives from their majority. The seas were full of biased Liberal media sharks always ready to frenzy feed on any hapless conservative gaffe. Even now, the Liberal media sharks go into a frenzy at the slightest smell of Conservative blood. The recent debacle over gay foreigners divorcing is proof of that. 

          • I’ll agree politics is at all times messy, but we’ve entered into a whole new era these days by my reckoning.

            I’ll tell you this though, unless or until the Liberals come out with a clear, concise and relatable vision, they’re going nowhere.

            People don’t elect them for status quo, and playing someone else’s game just concedes the point.

  3. “The Liberals’ electoral reforms are daring and dangerous. By allowing anyone to vote on policies and leadership, they leave themselves open to being hijacked.” The Liberal Party didn’t pass a resolution allowing supporters to vote on policy. 

    • Thanks for saving me the trouble.

      You’re a fine writer PN and an entertaining one, but one also prone to not checking all your facts before spinning your webs of cause and effect.

      I’m pretty sure your anology of the amateurism of commies in the UoTs campus and a modern political party is ludicrously stretched. You had nothing to lose at the time, any seroius political party in the country that got caught at this game would pay a steep price at the polls or in the courts. Besides where this has been tried before, eg French socialist party elections and the UK, there has been no credible charge of nobbling that i’m aware of.

      Still reading your book by the way; it’s great and entertaining,but not yet the last word.

  4. Right on Peter! The Liberal Party never really stood for anything other than the Liberal Party and its leadership personality cult. The mainstream media, including you at times, bought into this because your ideas were plagiarized by Liberals which fed your egos enormously. The Liberal house of cards finally collapsed with the advent of new media which ended Liberal plagiarism.

    • Plagiarism huh? LOL

      I suppose that’s one way to characterize the willingness to adapt to new situations and/or accept the reasonable arguments of others.

      In that case, the CPC should probably engage in a little more plagiarism when drafting bills?

      Then at least when a sensible ammendment to legislation is offered by the opposition, it might actually stand a chance of being adopted!

  5. You just know with that loser Boob Rae at the helm the Liberals are poised for greatness. Good luck in the next election boys.

  6. I find it funny that Newman falls on the tired old line that the Liberals simply need the right leader. The trouble with the Liberal Party is that it doesn’t stand for anything that either the CPC or the NDP don’t. They haven’t defeated a united conservative party in a generation (except 2004 when it was an infant) and on most issues they largely agree with the Tories anyway. There really is no reason to vote Liberal anymore and there hasn’t been since the early part of the last decade and the main one was that the conservatives were too disorganized. 

    • Anyone who thinks the liberal party largely agree with this model of the CPC hasn’t been paying attention at all for the last decade or so. If you want to make the argument there wasn’t much daylight between the old PCs and the liberals i would agree.

      • As an old PCer, that was exactly what I was thinking. Cheers.

        • Please. The Liberals are so desperate to look different than the Tories that the only way they can distinguish themselves from the them is to support pot legalisation and abolitioning the Monarchy. It’s pathetic.

          • Game Over: They voted to keep the Monarchy actually.

            I think there is a place for the Liberal Party yet. With only 60% of voters casting ballets last May, there is a large demographic that needs to be courted. Of the 40%, how many of them probably consume pot? I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of them do on a semi regular basis.

            Can we please stop referring to the Harper Government as a Tories? They are Conservatives – wannabe Republicans. They ignore facts (anyone remember the head of Stats Canada resigning in protest?), sell out our sovereignty to the Yanks, are backed by religious nutters, and reckless with our funds (more prisons even though everyone knows crime is on the decline for the past 30 years???).

            My hope? I have my fingers crossed that the abortion issue will come back on the table. A line in the sand will be drawn and the Conservatives in Ontario and the east will have to decide whether they stand with the majority of Canadians, or with their Republican-wannabe colleagues in the west. Then maybe the Harper Goverment will become fractured and the real Tories can get their party back.        

    • What is missing your argument is that Liberals have good record to protect. The last Canadian government to ever balance budget and start paying our debt. On that score alone, the Liberals will able to the pass test against the conservative sale pitch. Liberals are not car salesmen. Theirs is a record of sound fiscal management. Conservative’s is a record of amounting debt and divide and rule politics. In 2015, they will be forced to defend their abysmal record debt and job loses in government. That is difference for you, liberals sound economic management, conservatives amounting deficits and debt. I am sure most Canadian could easily differentiate the two. For the NDP, Quebec is their last stand, and even then they are in slippery slop.

      • No one cares what the Liberals did in the 1990s. Have the last few elections taught you nothing.

        • When you’re the only example in recent times of balance and forethought, it’s hard to deny.

          People may forget for a short time, but when the fit hits the shan, people are going to wonder where things went wrong.

          Think they’re not going to consider who was in charge when things seemed so much brighter?

          People want a sense that those in charge are intelligent and disciplined enough to allow them to live their lives without worrying what the government is doing.

          I’ll guarantee you that as things progress, Harper will seem less and less like that man. In fact, I would say he only appears that way now because of the sorry state of the opposition, or in other words, the apparent lack of options.

    • All you’ve proven is that you’ve confused the party with the actual ideals. The party either embodies those ideals or it doesn’t, but the ideals themselves are universal. They just wait for another chance to be embodied. While it seems unlikely, it is always possible that another party will evolve to fill this gap. More likely however, we will have to wait for this “liberal” party to renew itself and remember what it “stands for”.

      However, you and I seem to mean different things when we say this.

      In order to “stand for something” as you seem to envision it, one has to believe that there is only ever one right answer, one way of looking at things, or that those answers are self evident and obvious without careful consideration of the facts in the current context.

      I couldn’t agree less with that characterization.

      For me one can only “stand for something” if one aspires to higher ideals; something bigger than one’s self or one’s personal sense of things.

      Building consensus around higher ideals is what makes liberalism what it is. By keeping an eye on the contemporary perspective of those ideals one has the flexibility to determine not only what is sensible and logical, but what people are prepared to accept as well. Clearly those things change with time and are therefore incompatible with dogmatic, exclusive or inflexible beliefs.

      It is the ability to incrementally adapt to the state of society as we advance ourselves, without reliance on dogmatic and inherently exclusive ideology, that makes liberalism so popular and why it captures the imagination of so many.

      • Liberals good, tolerant and consensus-oriented. Everyone else bad, intolerant, and dogmatic. With solid arguments like that it’s a wonder the Liberals ever lose elections.

        • Again, confusing a particular party with the ideals.

          I was a Progressive Conservative for most of my life. In many ways they were more sensible than the Liberals of the day, as they balanced idealism with realism very effectively. Say what you like about Mulroney, but what he did in office was intelligent, well thought out and set the stage for decades of prosperity.

          I give the same respect to the CCF under Tommy Douglas. A sensible man with a strong sense of community. I appreciate his contribution to public life.

          When I look at the parties today, what I see is that two of them cultivate a base that does not carefully consider the neccesary balance between idealism and realism. Instead they rely on dogmatic positions, such as the oilsands being all good or all bad with no inbetween.

          Jack Layton did well in the election in terms of communicating the type of blance I’m talking about, but I don’t see any proof that the party has actually changed, especially now that he’s gone. I’ll give Brian Topp the benefit of the doubt, but he’s got a lot of change to manage in that party if they’re to move to the “center” in any meaningful way.

          I’ll agree the Liberal Party hasn’t been that impressive of late, but unlike the other parties, I see a real chance of them rediscovering the values of liberalism. They don’t really have any other option do they?

  7. Mr. Newman why do hate the liberal so much. If you think conservative will use the marijuana stuff against the Liberals, tell Harper to bring it on. We have the facts and the Canadian people on our side. over  60% of Canadian support legalization of some sort. No wonder you are pundit and you pontificate best. Only that the Liberal will not take the conservative garbage and assault sleeping. The party will fight back and neutral observers like myself will help them in whatever way we can.
    http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/alex/2012/01/harper-government-ethical-oil-and-sun-media-connection

  8. The fifth-column highjacking argument against open nominations and policy proposals is completely irrelevant.

    If any organization is so weak that it can be taken down from the inside by instant-members then it was not a strong organization to begin with. Why have anti-gun lobbyist not tried this strategy with the National Rifle Association? Because it would be next-to-impossible.

    If the Liberal strategy in this regard results in it being killed from within, then it was near-dead to begin with.

  9. “…but dismally failed the skin-colour test. Swaths of white stands out in our multi-hued society.”

    Peter, may I point out that, outside of certain urban areas of this nation, you’d be hard-pressed to find areas where the populace is not a swath of white. If those areas are being properly represented at a national convention, then one would expect a significant portion of the delegates to be white.

    If the representatives from, say, metro Vancouver and the GTA were all white, then yes there is a problem. But please bear in mind that a large portion of this nation is not multi-hued (go to the Avalon Mall in St. John’s, for example, and look around; many days you will not see a single non-white face). I would argue your description betrays a definite “major urban area” bias.

    • That’s true, except for one qualifier.   In the West, a huge portion of the rural population is aboriginal.   That’s a demographic that needs to be represented in all the parties, and isn’t.

  10. I often don’t agree with you Peter, but this time you’ve nailed it … dead on!

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