The Liberals and the muddled middle

Whatever they do, they’ll still be wedged between the Tories and NDP

Liberals face tough test in the muddled middle

Photograph by Cole Garside

If any prominent Liberal might be expected to think of the party as a family affair, it would have to be Montreal MP Justin Trudeau. Heading into the federal party’s convention in Ottawa this week, though, the son of the iconic former prime minister, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, says Liberals must use this opportunity to start projecting a new, decidedly non-familial party image. “The sense is that the party has too long looked at itself as a family, or a club, or a very strict hierarchy,” Trudeau told Maclean’s. “We need to make a shift to being much more of a movement. It’s hard to join a family.”

Talk of wrenching the Liberal mindset from cliquish to welcoming, its processes from top-down to bottom-up, might sound like mere hopeful rhetoric from a party laid low in the election last May 2. But the 1,500 or so hard-core Liberals expected to attend the Jan. 13-15 biennial convention will be debating concrete ideas for changing the rules about who gets to shape their party’s direction. The key proposal would give designated supporters—Canadians who would have to sign on to Liberal principles, but not be required to buy memberships—the right to vote in the party’s leadership race, and maybe at nomination meetings for candidates at the riding level.

It remains to be seen if the paid-up Liberal members who make the effort to travel to Ottawa for the convention agree to empower far less committed supporters. The idea is being championed by the party’s national board. After last spring’s drubbing at the polls, hardly a Liberal official or MP left standing denies that the Conservatives and New Democrats do a better job of keeping their bases energized and engaged. Instead of calling for their party to just copy Tory and NDP approaches, however, senior Grits are arguing they must chart a different course from their more ideologically motivated adversaries.

Stephen Harper’s machine has long since mastered techniques for pushing the buttons of the staunchest Conservatives. The government’s top priority might be the economy, but the ruling party never neglects issues like scrapping the gun registry or imposing longer prison terms—topics that fire up its right-wing volunteers and donors. Under the late Jack Layton, the NDP might have struck a moderate stance, but Layton never hesitated to lash out at “big corporations”—reassuring left-wingers they still had a home. By cleaving to the muddled middle, Liberals find themselves pitching mostly to voters far less prone to that sort of fierce partisan loyalty.

In fact, Trudeau says he often meets Liberal-leaning moderates, especially among younger voters, who just aren’t inclined to sign up. “People look at labels as much more fluid these days,” he says. “We will be opening up to people who will feel connected to the party, but not necessarily to the formal idea of membership.” By replacing the old emphasis on recruiting members with a new push to identify supporters, the Liberals would no longer have to fight the reluctance of many self-defined centrists to join.

Crafting messages that appeal to cautious moderates, but still grab the attention of voters, will be tricky. But New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc says Liberals cannot afford to veer left or right, since the party must somehow simultaneously win back votes from the Tories on their right and the NDP on their left. “This is a critical question for the party,” LeBlanc says. “How do we occupy the progressive social agenda and, at the same time, remove from Mr. Harper the phony title of great economic manager?”

Trudeau suggests focusing on “evidence-based policy,” a phrase increasingly heard in Liberal circles as the catchphrase for their alternative to what they argue is the Conservative pattern of ignoring data and research. Trudeau cites Tory policy moves such as cancelling the long-form census, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for a raft of crimes and opposing Vancouver’s Insite supervised injection clinic for intravenous drug users. He admits “evidence-based policy” doesn’t exactly have the ring of a traditional rousing party slogan. “It’s a lot easier to be mad at something,” he says. “It’s easier to motivate people when they feel marginalized or on the fringe.”

Getting across any nuanced message will cost big money. Veteran Saskatchewan MP Ralph Goodale has been coordinating the party’s bid to revamp its lacklustre fundraising for the past few months. Donations flowed in at a respectable rate in 2011, Goodale says, despite the horrible election outcome—or perhaps because of it, as the party’s dire condition prodded previously blasé backers to open their wallets. When the final 2011 tallies are in, he says the party will have raised more than the NDP, but only about half as much as the Conservatives. “Not long ago, [the Tories] were beating us by three to one,” Goodale says. “We can’t delude ourselves, however—we’ve got a long way to go.”

The party’s national board is proposing to abolish its old revenue committee, and create a more streamlined fundraising operation under a new chairman and a professional manager. Goodale is angling for a multi-million-dollar budget for a centralized fundraising operation. As well, Liberals at the convention will be asked to vote for the establishment of a so-called “strong start” fund, a war chest to allow the party to fire back against the expected Conservative attack-ad assault when a new Liberal leader is chosen in 2013. Both of the last two leaders, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, were trashed by remorseless Tory advertising long before they got a chance to hit back on the campaign trail. “This is a proposal,” says MP Marc Garneau, “to make sure that if the Conservatives do this again with the new leader, we’ll be able to retaliate with some available funding.”

Garneau happens to be a possible leadership contender. But speculation among Liberals about who might succeed Ignatieff, who stepped down immediately after leading the party to its collapse from 77 to 34 seats last spring, has been surprisingly muted. Reeling from the election result, the party opted to put off picking its new leader until 2013. Along with the proposal for letting non-member supporters participate in that selection, Liberals at this week’s convention will consider adopting a U.S.-inspired “primaries” model of regional voting for the leader, which would be staged over 10 to 16 weeks through the spring of 2013.

Chatter about who’s likely to run can’t be entirely stifled as the party reconsiders its leadership process, membership, fundraising and organization. The hottest question in the convention hallways could be whether interim leader Bob Rae might be allowed to stand. When the former Ontario NDP premier took on the stopgap position last year, it was on the condition, imposed by the party executive, that he not try for the permanent leadership. But Rae has lately declined to rule out the possibility that he might run, if the party brass lifted that restriction.

Leadership is always a distracting subject for party insiders. But Liberals can hardly afford to give themselves over to it this week. Their bid to change the fundamental notion of who matters to the party—only full-fledged members, or softer sympathizers too?—should command their closest attention. A full-blown split over that idea could demoralize an already battered party. Even a half-hearted compromise outcome might signal that party insiders oversold their boldest idea for a new start. If they suffered last year’s defeat as a family, Liberals will want to feel they’ve taken a decisive step this week on the path to redemption as a movement.


The Liberals and the muddled middle

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • I agree Turd they are just the Print Arm of the Lieberal Party….

      • Conbots working over time today i see…hope it isn’t on my dime!

    • “Fluff”, is the apt word. 

    • That’s all you Harper fanatics can manage to say lol i’d like to see a bit more substance for a change….

  2. “It remains to be seen if the paid-up Liberal members who make the effort
    to travel to Ottawa for the convention agree to empower far less
    committed supporters”


  3. “Even a half-hearted compromise outcome might signal that party insiders oversold their boldest idea for a new start. If they suffered last year’s defeat as a family, Liberals will want to feel they’ve taken a decisive step this week on the path to redemption as a movement.”

    I suspect a compromise it will be; though not necessarily half hearted – just cautiously hopeful. But you may be right there’s a danger of a split – that would be disasterous from a lib perspective, so i hope they sell it well.
    I’m one who is back and forth over this supporters vs members thing. I have real problems getting my head around the notion that $10 bucks is a real barrier to entry ; maybe i’m just out of synch with the times?
     One thing JT does make sense on is that this may indeed be an antidote to the Tory model of suppress the vote and make sure you get your base out. So i’ve still an open if creaky mind on the subject – something has to be done differently that’s for sure We’ll see if they public really don’t care about the libs or if they’ve been just waiting for the libs to get busy reaching out to them.

    Call me stubborn but i don’t know about “moverments’, it gets my hackles up. I’m an institution man myself, it’s what has made the western world a cut above the rest – not the free market.  

    • It’s not the amount of fee that’s the barrier. It’s having to pay at all.  When you pay, that’s kind of sealing the deal that you’re committed to the party.  Let’s be honest, a lot of people don’t want to feel that way until they’ve had some experience with it.

      Hell, the sample booths at the Costco work on the same principle.  Give them something for free, and hope they like it enough to buy more. After all, while the party needs money, at the end of the day what they need more is people paying attention to them and getting involved. That leads to more money anyway.

      So “Well.. I’m not really that interested, but if they’re gonna let me vote for the leader, maybe I’ll check it out.” is a lot better than “Well.. I’m not really that interested, so I think I’ll keep my money.”

      • I get your point but i think it overlooks the inertia factor, entitlememnt factor,or whatever you want to call it of those who already have been long time members. Luckily i’m not one of those so i may be coming around.
        I guess i’m still stuck at the you should get off your ass and go vote part of the why don’t we let everyone vote from the securuty of their comfy chair debate. I need to reframe… must be the repressed catholic in me, or in my case the latent Scottish presbyterian[ shudder].

    • Fancy meeting you here :)

      I have been the events coordinator for the Waterloo Region CAPP group for the last two years.  We have guest speakers and such.  One of the things I’ve learned from that is the absolute pride a great many people take in being able to say “oh, I’m part of the Chamber of Commerce, or Amnesty International (or Avaaz, or Rotary/Optimists/service clubs or any number of other organizations that lobby politicians) but I’m not a member of any political party.”

      So by their own admission,they join things.  They are involved in fixing what they see as wrong.  But it is not socially acceptable to join the one thing (a political party) that actually has the power to introduce the legislation they are lobbying for.

      Less than 2% of Canadians are a member of any political party.  I shall vote for the supporters amendment in the hopes it will be seen as socially acceptable.  I shall vote for the leadership and the EDA candidate selection by supporters.

      • Those are compelling reasons Jenn. But the cynic in me wonders if we wont get hijacked by special interest groups?

         I guess the antidote to that is too listen to/  engage lots of different pov and groups/orgs. I’m beginning to like the idea some more – cast a symbolic vote for change from me then – us oldish guys got to get on board or out of the way sooner or later.

        • Yeah, that is a concern, but we will have a couple of protections in place such that I think that is more of an initial reaction against change than it is a legitimate stumbling block.  I will also admit that it took me about two days to get over the “but I’m doing all the work, as a member” bit.  Even though I’m an activist in the “its not all about you” department.  :)

  4. Forget it John, the Liberals may not be dead but they have a terminal disease.

    • We are SO dead, a thousand more delegates are here than what John said.  In fact, when the final count is taken, we expect that number to be twice John’s figure.  I must say,the energy from all the dead people in the room is quite astounding.

      • Zombies walking around, Jenn

  5. Fuddle Duddle is out dated but piece of sh it is OK… thats your liberal spokesman Justin “pos” Trudeau.   Your Family’s pet policy, Multiculturalism, is nothing more than government funded racism. Let us not forget your present “interim” leader.. Canada’s biggest hypocrite.

  6. The underlying premise of this article – that Canadian politics are primarily about ideology – simply does not hold. Broadly speaking, our Tories have been as enthusiastically spendthrift as our liberals, if not moreso (Chretien was our most fiscally conservative Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie-King was number 2, if you look at government spending as a % of GDP). 

    Rather, Canadian politics are defined by a core-periphery distinction between our urban centers and the outlying hinterland. In that sense it is the Liberals who have traditionally been on the extreme, supporting more power for Ottawa, relative to the provinces, and favouring policies that benefit cities over suburbs and rural areas. 

    And it is precisely there that you can see the common thread between Trudeau and Chretien. One enlarged government, while the other cut it. But they both did so in ways that enhanced the power of the federal government vis-a-vis the provinces (Trudeau by creating new national programs, Chretien by slashing transfers to the provinces). This is also why, for instance, essentially the same Quebec nationalist voters could switch from say, the Bloc (led by a former communist), to the Tories, and then to the NDP (after Layton renounced federalism). 

  7. I like this Trudeau. I admire the courage of his outrage and agree completely with its direction. 

    I am outraged too. 

    Goodspeed to you, Justin Trudeau.


  8. Pierre Trudeau in his prime makes Jack Layton look positively moderate.  It was Trudeau’s far left of center vision for Canada that got alot of people thinking the country was doomed and as a result many of us that had the ability voted with our feet and moved south of the 49th parallel. It doesn’t matter which side of the border you live on – a liberal is nothing but a slow socialist

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