With Bob Rae officially bowing out of the race to become the next Liberal leader, Canada’s erstwhile natural ruling party finds itself yet again at a crossroads. As Maclean’s found out, the Liberals continue to suffer in Quebec at the hands of the NDP—and from their own reputation.
Since its pummelling in last year’s federal election, the Liberal Party of Canada has thrown itself into a large, humbling rebuilding effort. “We’ve got to get bigger,” interim leader Bob Rae said in a speech last November. “Fundraising and connecting with people has got to become a new part of the culture of this great political party. It has not been in the past.”
Yet while the party’s fundraising efforts have seen moderate success over the last year, they haven’t necessarily translated into new blood flowing into the party. Certainly, this is the case in Quebec, a key province in the party’s rebuilding efforts. According to an internal party document obtained by Maclean’s, Liberal membership has dropped by nearly 40 per cent in the province in less than a year.
The document, the Quebec portion of the Liberals’ support-tracking database, is testament to the party’s dwindling fortunes in a province where as recently as 2004 it claimed nearly 40 per cent of its seats. Membership declined in all but two of the ridings held by the party’s seven Montreal-area MPs. In the riding of Haute-Gaspésie-La Mitis-Matane-Matapédia, the party lost 575 members between July 2011 and April 2012—a reduction of 85 per cent in just nine months.
The numbers speak to the difficulty in reviving the Liberal brand in Quebec. There is the simple matter of too few MPs to push the party in the far-flung regions of the province, and the lack of volunteers to man phones and knock on doors. There remains an aftertaste of the sponsorship scandal, uncovered in 2004, in which Liberal operatives siphoned money from a program essentially designed to sell the Canadian flag to wary Quebecers. Finally, according to some analysts, there is a lack of leadership within Quebec Liberals due in part to the apparent waning interest of the Liberal caucus leader, MP Denis Coderre.
“Membership is definitely one of the challenges we have,” acknowledges Alexandra Mendès, the newly minted president of the party’s Quebec wing. She says “finding volunteers is a challenge,” and that two big Liberal events—January’s biennial convention and the recent annual general meeting in Quebec—have taxed the existing ranks. “We haven’t been too insistent on them to do membership calls,” Mendès says. “We concentrated on getting delegates rather than having members.”
The lack of warm bodies to propagate the Liberal message is compounded by a lingering disdain for the party in the province, according to Imran Ahmad, a vice-president of the party. “We’ve been put in the penalty box, and until we present new ideas we are going to be remembered for what we’ve done in the recent past.”
Among those new ideas is an initiative to make it easier to bring new people into the party. Since January, would-be Liberals can sign up to be a designated “supporter” of the party simply by registering online. A “Liberal supporter” can vote in the party leadership race though not for local candidate nominations. Unlike memberships, which are $10 a year, being a supporter is free and doesn’t expire. “It’s a gateway into the party,” Ahmad says. (According to Liberal spokesperson Sarah Bain, some 10,000 people have signed up to be supporters since January.)
Still, strong hints of the party’s old guard can be felt within the Quebec wing. Many younger Liberal delegates at the province’s AGM in Montreal were looking forward to hearing Brian G. Rice, a well-regarded Liberal strategist and expert in social media outreach. Yet Rice’s appearance was nixed. “I offered to speak” at the meeting, Rice wrote in an email to Maclean’s, “and while there were a number of people in Quebec who would have liked to see that happen, the organizing committee couldn’t make room for me on the agenda.”
Others lay the blame for dwindling membership numbers at the feet of Denis Coderre. The sharp-tongued Coderre, usually a prolific campaigner, is reportedly considering a run for the Montreal mayor’s office in 2013. “Coderre doesn’t know where he’s going in life,” says Liza Frulla, a former Liberal cabinet minister turned political analyst. “When you build something, you have to put your head into it. He used to, but now he’s working a bit less.” (Coderre, whose riding has seen a 72 per cent drop in membership since July 2011, declined to comment specifically on the numbers. “Mr. Coderre would like to point out that he is in a period of renewal in his riding,” Coderre said through a spokesperson.)
There are bright spots on the Liberal horizon. The Liberal leadership convention in spring-summer 2013 will no doubt generate buzz around a party that hasn’t had the opportunity to chest-thump much in recent history. Bob Rae, who has just announced that he won’t be in the race, has been a study of stump-speech optimism as interim leader. And there are rumblings within the party that MP Justin Trudeau will bring his younger sensibilities and revered family name to that leadership race. Though in Quebec, where the Liberal dream was born in the 19th century and (nearly) died not a decade ago, the numbers don’t lie: there is a long way to go.
Editor’s note: This article has been changed from the print edition to reflect Bob Rae’s decision not to run in the race for Liberal leadership.