From the archive: The secret plot to destroy the Liberals -

From the archive: The secret plot to destroy the Liberals


This column is almost exactly five years old, hard to find online, and perhaps pertinent. I wrote it the week Parliament returned after Stephen Harper was first elected. It started as a survey of all the activity in a busy week, so I’ve pruned out a few bits of sight-seeing that are of less interest today. – pw


What’s with all the back-scratching between the Tories, the NDP and the BQ? ‘We want to remove the Liberals from the game board,’ says one MP.
Mon Apr 17 2006
Page: 22

The first week of Canada’s 39th Parliament was the latest instalment in the endless fight between the serious and the frivolous in Canadian politics. For once, seriousness had a good week. The new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, set a brisk tone and tempo for his new government. Senior ministers set about their work with diligence and good humour. Parliament set to work with a minimum of fuss.

…[I]t was also a bad week for the Liberal Party of Canada. The party that governed Canada for the last 13 years (and for 33 of the last 46) is in greater danger than it seems to understand, with more enemies than its leaders seem willing to count. Harper’s Conservatives are the government, but it is the Liberals, under the temporary new management of Bill Graham, who are alone with their backs to the wall. Much of the week’s drama came from watching this startling new dynamic on display. Much of this Parliament’s drama will come from seeing whether the Liberals understand their peril and can find any way out.

…On Wednesday Harper sat in the Prime Minister’s hot seat for his first Question Period. The format seems to give him little trouble. He offered kind words of praise for each of the three opposition leaders who tried to grill him. He swatted away the Liberals, when pressed on almost any file, by saying that they had not managed in 13 years of trying to clean the problem up. And he showed the self-deprecating humour that has made him more endearing to some voters than they ever expected. Had he seduced David Emerson to abandon the Liberals for a Conservative cabinet seat? “I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of seducing anyone. Even my wife.”

Not that the Conservatives enjoyed a bump-free week. As is proving to be the case with some frequency, David Emerson provided many of the bumps. The Liberal refugee on the Conservative benches remains politically tone-deaf. At one point Chuck Strahl, the agriculture minister, joked that thousands of farmers protesting outside had every right to expect action from a Conservative government “because they certainly didn’t get any from the last government.” Strahl’s colleagues gave him a standing ovation. Emerson joined the ovation. Basically Emerson was applauding the assertion that he belonged to a do-nothing government. Later he professed to “shake my head at the hypocrisy” of another MP. He will provide barrels of fun for a long time to come.

Over the course of that 45-minute session, and another like it the next day, the contours of the emerging parliamentary battlefield became clearer. It quickly became almost as interesting to watch the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois as to watch the two larger parties. Something big is afoot.

Here is Harper’s response to NDP Leader Jack Layton’s first question: “The NDP managed to substantially increase the number of seats that [it] won in the last election. As we know, it is important to everyone, including the government, that we have an opposition party that is both national in scope and principled in its approach.” Don’t we have one? Apparently not: “We wish the member well in building that kind of opposition,” Harper said, before adding the punchline. “As long, as, of course, he remains in opposition.”

Ho ho ho. The Prime Minister could simply have been making mischief. Except the odd connivance of the Conservatives and the NDP continued throughout the week, with occasional assists from even the Bloc Quebecois. Here is the first part of the Layton question that drew Harper’s lovey-dovey response. “Mr. Speaker, 13 years ago a Liberal government was elected on a commitment to build child care spaces across the country. Three majority governments, eight surplus budgets, and not a single child care space was built.”

A day later, Layton was on about the Liberals’ environmental record, “from head-of- the-line to environmental delinquent.” Soon it seemed like more than a trick of geometry that had the NDP sitting on the same side of the House as the Conservatives. Indeed, there were moments when the Bloc seemed to want to cross the aisle too, leaving the Liberals alone to the Speaker’s left.

Benoit Sauvageau, a Bloc MP, reminded the House that his party has demanded for years that election-day scrutineers be non-partisan appointees, not party hangers-on. Would the new government do what the Liberals never had and listen?

Up popped John Baird, the Treasury Board president. “Mr. Speaker, I’m very happy to work with my colleague from Quebec,” Baird, an Ontarian, said in French. “I can tell him the answer to his question is yes.” Applause from the Bloc.

Curiouser and curiouser. The new Prime Minister gave more hints about what’s going on when he rose on Wednesday afternoon to deliver his speech in reply to the Throne Speech. (Ottawa is the kind of place where there are often speeches in reply to other speeches.) “We recognize in a minority the necessity of working with others,” Harper said. “I note that the New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois have already availed themselves of that opportunity.” And the Liberals? “I will have a bit of time to speak about the Liberal party in a moment,” he said ominously.

Harper continued with the routine business of thanking friends and family for his election victory, then circled back to the Liberals. Bill Graham had given a good speech on that party’s behalf, Harper said. “However, to hear him speak, we would think that Jan. 23” — the Liberals’ election defeat — “had never occurred.” Where were the apologies for “the waste, the mismanagement, the corruption?” Or for “the campaign of fear” the Liberals ran? When could Canadians expect “the tens of millions in taxpayer dollars that were misappropriated over the course of the sponsorship scandal?”

So if Harper’s government had a relatively smooth first week, it is because for much of the week, Harper’s government was almost nobody’s target. I don’t want to overstate the scale of the plot against the Liberals — it is normal for a long-serving and recently deposed government to continue to take bodychecks from its long-time opponents even after it ceases to be an immediate threat. And very little of last week’s jousting was noticed by anyone except CPAC addicts and a single Maclean’s columnist.

But none of this is an accident. There is a lot of quid pro quo going on. The Bloc got its non-partisan scrutineers. Later Harper reversed himself and threw a considerable bone to the NDP by announcing that there will be a debate, albeit no vote, on the Canadian Forces’ deployment in Afghanistan. Everyone is scratching everyone’s back except Bill Graham and his crew.

Just because the Liberals are prone to paranoia, in other words, does not mean that everyone is not out to get them. Paul Martin began the 2006 election campaign by recruiting Buzz Hargrove as Pied Piper to lure NDP voters to the Liberals. He ended the campaign expressing astonishment that Layton was luring Liberal voters the other way.

Many Liberals continue to believe their betrayal by leftist voters and a thoroughly uncooperative NDP was fundamentally illegitimate. That belief will be one of the two or three defining themes of the Liberal leadership race. The poster boy for Liberal indignation at the NDP refusal to fold its tents — although that characterization sells his other qualities short — is John Godfrey, the patrician Toronto MP.

After Thursday’s Question Period I buttonholed Pat Martin, an NDP MP from Winnipeg, and asked him to confirm my hunch that the NDP and Conservatives have formed an alliance of circumstance against the mutual Liberal foe. “John Godfrey told me — I said, ‘Why are you running for the leadership?’ and he said, ‘To get back the million and a half votes we lent you,’ ” Martin said.

“But I’m not sure that’s your game,” I told Martin. “I think you’d like to keep going.”

“Oh, absolutely,” the New Democrat said. “We want to do to the Liberals nationally what we did to them in Manitoba: remove them from the game board.”

Wishing, of course, does not make it so. Conservative sources say Harper has, on occasion, privately encouraged Layton to try to overtake the Liberals, but has long considered Layton a woefully slender reed for such a formidable task. And yet. On Thursday the Environics polling firm released a public-opinion survey that suggests the Liberals did not stop running out of trouble when they were run out of 24 Sussex Drive.

The poll, taken in March, showed the Liberals down eight points since election day, with the Conservatives up five, the NDP up three and the Bloc holding steady. These results put Harper’s party at 41 per cent in popular vote — majority government territory — and the Liberals and the NDP only a point apart, at 22 and 21. The poll put the Liberals at fourth place in Quebec, commanding barely one vote there for every three Tory votes. In Ontario, the Liberals have lost the five-point lead they enjoyed on election night to fall 11 points behind the Conservatives, a 16-point swing. There is no part of the country where Liberals command more than 30 per cent of the vote except Atlantic Canada and the Greater Toronto Area.

I know, I know. Polls outside election periods catch distracted voters who haven’t been thinking seriously about politics. You can’t put much stock in them. And the Liberals are between leaders — except that parties between leaders often rise in the polls because respondents can imagine an ideal leader without any baggage. Free of Martin and Jean Chretien, the Liberals are still close to historic low voter support.

I asked a long-time Liberal strategist whether he realized the party is being double-teamed, and he said, “Sure.” But the collapse of Canada’s governing party “ain’t gonna happen.” This would be more credible if the Liberals hadn’t lately had to witness a lot of events that used to dwell in the realm of ain’t-gonna-happen: the unification of the right; the loss of Paul Martin’s once-legendary mojo; the utter collapse of the Liberal vote in Quebec; and the election of Stephen Harper.

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From the archive: The secret plot to destroy the Liberals

  1. A useful reminder of a useful period of collaboration and of the truth that a wounded animal can take a long time to expire.

  2. They wanted to pump up the NDP a bit, as they knew that would kill the liberal vote, and boost the Con vote, as the NDP is unelectable across the country. Looks like it worked. Rob Ford did the same tactic in the Mayor's contest, by flattering the 3rd candidate, to split votes from the #2, and people ate it up. DIVIDE AND CONQUER, sayeth Caesar Harper.

  3. Paul,

    I thought you had forgotten, bravo! To repost this article shows a bit of the understanding of the long game. The game is essentially over now, with only the removal of public subsidies standing between the Grit carcass, and the abyss. The goal was always bankruptcy, it is at hand.

    • sorry, when did the Conservatives ever pledge to remove public subsidies from political parties? I've only ever heard them talk about one of the three. interestingly, in these times of fiscal restraint and taking tough principled stands on the use of scarce public finances, I believe that it's the least expensive of the three public subsidies only that would be cut.

      • My apologies. They didn't, they only spoke of the per vote subsidy initiated to replace corporate and labour donations. Better now?

      • In roughish terms the per vote subsidy and the political donation tax refund each cost about $23 million per year.

    • Was Jean Chretien in part responsible for the current fate of his once great party by taking away its greatest source of financing: corporate Canada?

      • …as an act of spite towards Paul Martin?

        And then Martin turns around and sets up Gomery to get back at Chretien assuming the voters would let the Martinites off the hook for being so 'clean'?

        I personally always wondered what would have happened to the Liberal Party had they avoided Gomery and just swept the whole thing under the rug. Remember the Billion Dollar Boondoggle? Swept under the rug- never hurt their electoral results one bit.


        • Didn't Chretien prorogue Parliament so that the Auditor General's report that started the scandal fell right on Paul Martin's lap on his first day as prime minister?

          It's hard to see how you bury a scandal of that magnitude, especially from a new prime minister who was installed in part because he promised better.

          Yes, Martin made the tactical error of screaming fire when he said he was mad as hell and wanted to get to the bottom of it. But he had to do something, didn't he? Public pressure usually appoints commissions of inquiries, not politicians.

          • Hmmm. Not sure. I don't remember the actual timeline of events but that sure sounds right. Man those two HATED each other no? People are pointing fingers at Ignatieff and Dion as the downfall of the Grits, but had Martin and Chretien gotten along we would NOT be discussing the downfall of the Liberal Party.

            That aside, I still think if Adscam had just been left to the RCMP and arrests were made, it would NOT have had the same impact as it ended up having. Personally I always thought the Auberge Grande-Mere scandal was far uglier than Adscam but hardly anyone remembers THAT one (well, YOU probably do, brother).

          • The Dion-Iggy split goes farther back than the Chretien-Martin divide. In fact, it has its roots in the Trudeau-Turner differences regarding an approach to Quebec and national unity. For all intents and purposes, the Trudeau/Chretien approach to the issue is dead. Even Dion catered to Quebec soft nationalists.

            I watched Steve Paikin host a show on TVO last night regarding the current state of the Liberal party. Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail had an interesting proposition. He thinks one of the first orders of business for Liberals in the House is to table a motion restating Canada's bilingual language laws, which would put the NDP in a bind regarding its currrent push to have Quebec's laws rule supreme in the province.

            However, I think such a move would just open up old wounds, both in Quebec and within the Liberal party. They need to start looking ahead. Separatism isn't the issue it once was. It's been contained.
            The movement is being run by small-timers like Duceppe and Marois. They don't need to be given any more ammunition or attention than they deserve.

          • Ironically, in my humble opinion, it would behoove the Conservatives to recruit Dion to handle Quebec.

          • It goes back even further then that. Remember Paul Martin Sr.? Louis St Laurent?

  4. The spectre of a long-game chess player looms above current events.
    A shame, and interesting, people are still mis-underestimating someone.

  5. Interesting to see how intent forces were to kill the Liberal party. Not see it reformed. Not see it improved. But see it buried six feet under.

    • Reform and improvement is the Liberal's responsibility, not it's opponents.

    • There is a real pratical question about what useful purpose the Liberal Party serves. The ballyhooed 'centrism' of the Liberal Party was never much more than crass political expediency backed up by hard-core patronage politics.

      In election over election it infuriated New Democrats and conservatives alike by campaigning (inauthentically) from the left and demonizing the right, only to abandon that record once they were elected to office.

      A broad based, authentic centre-left and centre-right party can handle the job of representing the centre just fine. Both Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton have hard-core ideological partisans that they must keep in the tent by tossing the occassional bone — but the real battle is over the Canadian centre.

      The real long-term battle is based on two profoundly different assumptions about where that centre actually lies. Harper believes that Canada is a fundamentally conservative country, Layton believes it is a fundamentally left-wing one. In contrast, the Liberals believe the centre happens to be wherever they are sitting on any given day.

      • If what you say is true, then a genuine realignment won't be complete until there is only on major party on the left. Until that happens, looks like smooth riding for Stephen Harper, doesn't it? Hashtag success.

      • Truth, you are correct IMO. the Liberal Party used to stand for something and not be "centrist", but morphed into a vehicle for the aquisition and exercise of power, certainly with their stunning hypocrisy on free trade, which was the real beginning of their ultimate demise. Chretien forestalled this by picking up the pieces when Mulroney's coalition inevitably blew apart, something Jack Layton is going to experience first hand.

        If the separtists try to mount a comeback, the Federalist option will not necessarily default to the Liberals, in fact most likely will not, which is their last best hope for a stay of execution. With 18 more seats in Ontario and the West, national unity will not be the great driver of Ontario votes as it was under Chretien. There is no easy road ahead for the Grits, their traditional power base was fed from the trough, all those communications and lawyer types may not be in for a 10 year project with no probablity of being paid.

  6. "Many Liberals continue to believe their betrayal by leftist voters and a thoroughly uncooperative NDP was fundamentally illegitimate ….. “John Godfrey told me — I said, ‘Why are you running for the leadership?' and he said, ‘To get back the million and a half votes we lent you,' ” Martin said ….. But the collapse of Canada's governing party “ain't gonna happen.” This would be more credible ….. "

    Libs seem to think they own all the votes in Canada and are lending them to other parties, as show of their generosity I guess. Maybe Libs need to stop thinking of votes as theirs and realize they are up for grabs and people need to be sold.

    It is funny from article that Libs have been squawking about 800,000 voters sitting at home for at least 3 elections now which makes for over 2 million people staying at home and not voting Lib, which I don't believe to be true.

    Libs need to stop deluding themselves that there are loads of people sitting at home just waiting to vote Lib.

    • I agree. Much of Team Iggy's strategy was focused on getting back the Liberal voters who didn't show up for Dion in 2008. I thought it was an incredibly short-sighted strategy, and events proved this to be true. Nowhere was this proven more true than in Kitchener, where the Liberals were sure they could get back two seats taken away by slim margins in 2008, and that they had hoped to get back in 2011 with the deposed MPs of 2008. Of course, the winning margins for the Conservatives in those ridings this time around were even bigger than last time around. Hashtag fail.

  7. I agree that the Tories & NDP benefit from the collapse of the Liberals.
    The Liberals made many promises to win power in 1993 such as scrapping the GST, renegotiating the free trade agreement,providing child care spaces etc. They never kept those promises. Furthermore they eliminated the deficit by slashing transfer payment to the provinces & cutting the civil service. They never campaigned on these issues.

    They deserve what happened to them.

    It is up to them to rebuild like the PC's did in 1993.

    Looking forward to a sequel to Mr Wells's Right Side Up.

  8. No. But I read an article that outlined the Liberals GOTV strategy in K-W. Both Telegdi and Redman lost by the closest of margins in 2008. So, Liberals thought all they had to was get a few more of their supporters out to vote this time, and both former MPs would be vaulted back into power.

    Again, this was part of a larger strategy the Liberals had of getting out their vote. And, again, I thought it was very short-sighted and vulnerable to bigger dynamics that usually play out during campaigns – not to mention how incumbency usually entrenches support for parties once they make breakthroughs like the Conservatives have in Kitchener and all over the place in Ontario, especially.

    There were once big thinkers in the Liberal Party of Canada. They seem to have gone away.

  9. Very astute analysis and one that I certainly agree with – for quite some time now both my boy Stevie and Jacko have been slicing and dicing away at the liberal Party a form of politcial Good Cop Bad Cop sort of strategy and it has payed off in spades – there are people in the Liberal Party that actually hate harper so much that they think he is their main enemy and will actually encourage ABC or anything else they think will hurt harper without stopping to think and really investigate who their real enemy is. Harper isn't the Liberals main enemy as he wants the party to last as long as possible so he can continue to harvest off the centre right and those that realize the Lib's main enemy is the NDP and always has been! this is the true brilliance of how Stevie boy has moved the chessmen around the board – there are actually Lib's out there who think they and the NDP are sort of friends with a common enemy .- Jacko too has outplayed and outfoxed the Lib's – the best part was when Jack BRILLIANTLY turned on Iggy at the debates and stuck a knife right in the heart of the party with the promotion and attendance line !!! too perfect and oh so deadly as the surge started as of that moment !

  10. I asked a long-time Liberal strategist whether he realized the party is being double-teamed, and he said, “Sure.” But the collapse of Canada's governing party “ain't gonna happen.”

    Too funny.

  11. It's certainly a very interesting political science experiment we're running in this country eh? You know, destroying a viable opposition.

    I wonder if Layton fully realizes that his only real accomplishment over the past decade is to have helped Harper create a one party state?

    I think we all know that the NDP will form government when hell freezes over, and no, the weather here in winter isn't enough jack.

    Most Canadians are center to center-right. A party that can't capture at least fiscally conservative center-right voters, has a snowball's chance in hell of getting elected.

    So I suppose that for now congratulations are in order: Mr. Harper, you truly are a genius. Too bad it's more in the vein of Dr. Evil, but still cheers. LOL

    • Oh, I know. Its almost funny that Canadians think they can survive without the Liberal party. And to think, they call US arrogant. You'll rue the day Canada! And when you come crawling back for our help to save the nation, don't think it will come without some serious grovelling.

      • Oh Ha ha.

        My point is that the NDP history and branding is so entrenched that it practically precludes them from gaining the fiscally conservative vote unless they completely change the nature of their party.

        And without that vote they can't win government, let alone win a majority.

        Unless the Liberals rebuild or another party fills its shoes, we no longer have an alternative government party that can garner fiscal conservative votes. We've essentially moved to a one party state with an eternal opposition party for quite some time to come.

        Jokes about "arrogance" can only take you so far. At some point we're going to need to replace this government for one reason or another.

        You want that party to be the NDP?

        I'm more comfortable with Harper, and I can't stand the guy.

  12. Seriously? Wow. Well goes to show you how quickly the lessons of the past can be forgotten.

    Like the Glass-Steagall act, just to pull something out of my hat.

  13. Layton is a repellent little toady.

    • That he is … That is is …. but so are the rest, but I think that's just me.

      Did you notice how "polished" his image was made for his ads – he looked very crisp and clear in the foreground while the people around were somewhat muted and filtered. Do you know how much that costs to edit into a moving image, frame by bloody frame so that the primary subject looks bathed in light (almost Christ like) when no one else is within that light and there is no shadows made by the light?

      Canadians should worry about who was paying for that …. Did the liberals piss off George Soros somehow or does Soros see a way to make money by destabilizing Canada (as he has done in other places)?

  14. Hahahahahaha Oh please, please please …. Hahahahahaha

    An example of liberal arrogance or wonderful satire?

    Iggy teaching political science in Toronto ….. now that's freaking hilarious! Hahahahahaha

    Maybe you should wonder why George Soros used a number of fronts to both fund and gather youth support for the NDP.

  15. Philosopher King, you must know that nature abhors a vacuum. As Socrates says in Crito, Chill, dude.

  16. Uh, the country has been saved … from Liberals. Sorry to burst the bubble.

    I have been going over the Stats Can website, some amazing numbers shake out. For example, there are only 4 private sector full time employees for each government worker in this country; works out to about 1 in 10 people work for the government in the general population. Long term, it is pretty obvious that this is not sustainable. You think about what it means, 4 full time salaried employees are paying the way for 6 other people (children, retired, unemployed, that government worker, various under employed people, etc.).

    The country does need to be saved all right, but not from Conservatives, it needs to be saved from the Leviathan. What is really amazing is that as early as 1651, people saw this big government thing taking us all down, and yet here it is actually happening.

    As for the grovelling, please hold your breath until that happens.

  17. All of our expert media did everything in their power to have the Conservatives defeated. Is it possible that no one listens to them? You all look pretty pathetic.

  18. Politics is not for the faint of heart nor nice people. The most successful are ruthless, mean and eogtistical.
    I think Dr. Ignatieff is better suited for the university classrooms -a place of learning, thinking and writing.

  19. Yes, particularly as the population ages with the demographic of the boomers moving into a more conservative part of their lives.

  20. All it ever stood for was that it recognized that Quebec could be pandered to and that goes back to the conscription crisis in WWI. Most Quebecers do not have a natural affinity for the Rest of Canada and much of the the Rest of Canada does not have a natural affinity for Quebec. The Liberals pretended that was not so. In trying to make a legal place in the Rest of Canada for Quebecers Trudeau got a lot of people's goat.

    The Liberals deserve a decent burial.

  21. The Harper Jackals' strategy: DIVIDE AND CONQUER

    The Tories started deregulating in '07. Had Harper come into power 5 years earlier, Canada's economy would have been messed up. The guy is a Republican Tea Party nutjob at heart. But he knows he's got to gain balance to keep his job! This will give Canadians interesting but cruel theatre soon…
    Losing the Liberal Party on the Democratic scene will make this country closer to the disaster south of the border, unfortunately, even though Layton harbors no such intentions.
    We must be vigilant next 4 years and not let Harper's subversive tactics dismantle the country and promote unfair TAxation for the middle class, women and seniors.
    CANADIANS FOR FAIR TAXATION will make sure we water the TEA PARTY'S deleterious brew….

  22. Phil King may be right! But it's a cruel "poli-scie experiment" to destroy a country's heart ("vital core" Iggy called it) and open the blue and pink doors to the Tea Party nutjobs from south of the border who are currently debating $363 billion corporate tax cuts while decimating Medicare and Medicaid by half trillion! 66% of Americans filed for bankuptcy because they can't pay their medical bills. It's ZERO percentage in Canada. The purely EVIL genius of our Great Leader Steve will be more transparent in the next 4 years to awaken Canucks from their dangerous poli-scie slumber…
    Good comment — although I vehemently object to your "congratulations to Harper" for winning about 24 more seats with only 4% popular vote increase! With proportional representation, we would have REAL democracy. Laughable, if we weren't stuck the next 4 years with such a "petty and vindictive"(according to American ambassador Wilkins!) PM.

  23. Really? Didn't Iggy snear at Layton at the debates "you'll never be in power"? Who's measuring the drapes for Stornoway again? You didn't notice that one of Jack's platforms was a TAX CREDIT rather than a program? Who ever expected to see that?

    Just keep wearing those blinders…