Hey Liberals, where do we go from here?

Voters are prepared to go about their lives, with or without the party


When did the wheels fall off the Big Red Machine? Ottawa’s chattering classes are obsessed, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when things went wrong for the Liberal Party of Canada. Do we blame Michael Ignatieff’s leadership, the feuds of the Turner-Chretien-Martin years, or Trudeau’s alienation of the West? Is there some other demon lurking in the shadows; was he waiting for us to be distracted by the Conservative foible of the day before snatching electoral victory from our collective, centrist grasp? Welcome, dear readers, to the Liberal Biennial Convention: Blame Game Edition.

I don’t expect discussion this weekend will stray too far from this narrative. This exercise will be as much about moving forward as it will be about diagnosing our institutional ailments. It will be as much about these two issues combined as it will be about hospitality suites. Such is the futility of Ottawa.

Settling the question of what went wrong matters, if only because it will determine how we rebuild.  Take, for example, the presidential race. Each presidential candidate is a storyteller, offering the membership a different historical narrative detailing what went wrong. The bards come from all walks of Liberal life: a grassroots member, a defeated MP, a riding president, a provincial organizer and Nobody’s Baby. The narratives they present are influenced by their own experiences within the party, and like any good story, each features a villain that is to blame.

The presidential vote is about collectively agreeing on one of these narratives. Liberals will be asked to ratify a version of a story that—just by the nature of politics in a large country—few people, if any, were able to see completely. In casting our ballots, we are also stating what is most important for the Liberal party to do moving forward. What do we need to do to get Canadians to like us again?

The candidates offer us these options: championing policies that are sellable at the doorstep, engaging Canadians in substantive dialogue on how to shape the country, redefining the way we think about ourselves so we might better relate to others, or calling on our rich past to carry us forward onto greener pastures. All are valid, and some aspect of each is required to keep us on life support until a new permanent leader is selected. But if Liberals learned anything in May, it’s that elections have winners and losers. Only one narrative will come out on top.

While the decisions made this weekend could determine whether we as Liberals are still relevant on the Canadian political landscape, I don’t think we’ll know that for sure when the convention ends on Sunday. With an agenda composed largely of constitutional amendments, policy discussions and housekeeping debates, it could be impossible to offer the media the single, sexy story that they require in order to tell Canadians that this convention was a success, and that the Liberal Party is back on track.

There will be no third-place leadership candidate sneaking up the middle to snatch victory from the grasp of the well-backed frontrunner. The historic divides among feuding camps are still there, but without a big prize like leadership, most organizers are standing around twiddling their thumbs. There will continue to be questions about Bob Rae’s leadership intentions, because he doesn’t seem to want to answer with a yes or no, and journalists will continue to ask until he does. (In Ottawa, that’s called “creating a buzz.” In the real world, we call this kind of behaviour “annoying.”) I doubt anyone will be better able to describe what it means to be a Liberal after the convention then they were before the convention. And for that reason, it will be easier on Sunday to say that the Liberal Party is dead than it was to make such a statement on Thursday.

What should we be asking ourselves?  My old boss Michael Ignatieff said the Liberal party was the big red tent at the centre of Canadian life. Canadians largely disagreed. Canadians will continue to go about their lives, with or without the Liberal Party. Until we can convince voters that the centre means something, and that we’re in it because we mean something, the best we can hope to do is default to our 2011 campaign strategy: clowns to the left and jokers to the right.

But for better or worse, I’m a Liberal. So here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

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Hey Liberals, where do we go from here?

  1. Lots of political parties have existed in Canada….they’ve crashed and burned, or merged, or rebuilt….

    SoCreds ‘disappeared’

    PC party was down to 2 MPs just a few years ago

    So it’s not the first time this has happened….with any party. 

    Melodrama doesn’t help.

    • I would like to draw attention to your quote, awesome.  TNG FTW.  Also, nice comment.

      • Heh…Live long and prosper.

  2. One possible positive narrative is that Libs are serious about doing things differently and able to tap into the new political zeitgeist. The best way to prove that is to adopt open voting.

    “This is liberalism at its core: recognizing the worth inherent in
    every individual and the ability of free individuals to arrive,
    rationally and collectively, at better decisions, and thus govern
    themselves well. Indeed, the new political culture will be a liberal
    culture. But will it be a Liberal culture?
    Networks and movements
    will succeed; clubs and tribes will fail. Citizens will remain outside
    the partisan bubble as long as it is there.”

    Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/From+Liberal+club+open+network/5980920/story.html#ixzz1jHX17WV1

    • Great article, that I would have missed otherwise.  Thank you.

  3. “Until we can convince voters that the centre means something, and that we’re in it because we mean something …”

    Okay, but what can it mean if your goal is to be in the centre? Isn’t that the same as defining youselves as not the others?

    What happens if the centre shifts towards capital punishment, abortion and private healthcare? Do you plan to shift too? What about if it shifts towards nationalizing all resource industries?

    Being in the center is the same as sitting on the fence as the party of polls with no principles or values unless you define some core values, stick to them and lead not follow.

    • No, we have a leftwing ideology, and a rightwing ideology….we don’t need any more rigid ideologys.

      We need a ‘centre’…..usually called the ‘radical centre’  that can be flexible and practical and move with the times….even lead the times. One that can come up with solutions to problems, and be creative….. not some fixed set of ‘commandments’.

      • WE do need that but it sure isn’t the Liberal party. Campaign like NDPers, govern like Conservatives. flip/flop, lie,
        The center can be fluid but you can’t campaign to get rid of free trade, get elected, and expand it with Mexico.
        You can’t campaign to scrap the GST, get elected, and then keep it for 13 years.
        Holy crap!!!!!!!

        • Why can’t you?

          You do what’s needed for the times, and for solutions.

          Liberals were pro-free trade in what….1911?  Cons were agin it.

          • What the h#ll are you talking about? Campaign in 1911 and govern in 2012? Please read a comment before rebutting it…. WOW…!!

          • The Libs ran on free trade in 1911….the Cons said ‘no truck nor trade with the Yankees’

            By 1988 the Cons were running on free trade, and Libs were opposing it

            Times change, people change….parties need to move with the times.

        • Harper’s flip/flop and lied so many times noone can be bothered to remember his original position. The the demand better accountability platform he ran on in 06 is fading into history now.
          Sure Chretien lied about those things and he changed his mind – good job. The really important thing is he did the right thing eventually – why else would Canadiians have not turfed him out immediately? Even Harper has learnt that lesson – sometimes the best thing you can do is NOT keep a promise. 

          • “sometimes the best thing you can do is NOT keep a promise”

            I think you can only play that game so long. Look at the sorry state of the Liberals. I really do think the Liberal brass must learn this important lesson or they will never return. .

  4. That was for Pascal…sigh

    “Until we can convince voters that the centre means something, and that we’re in it because we mean something, the best we can hope to do is default to our 2011 campaign strategy: clowns to the left and jokers to the right.”
    I’m not sure our blog masters are onside Pascal [ not sure if i am either, although i would like to be].They appear to believe, like alot of other liberals that is our job to connect with other citizens first.

     What on earth does clowns to the left and jokers to the right mean? Guess i’m not a big fan of what appears to be meaningless ambiguity.

    Could you elaborate on the host of reasons people might not want to cough up ten bucks to join the party – cuz i can’t see them?

    • “What on earth does clowns to the left and jokers to the right mean?”

      Psst, kcm it’s from the song Stuck in the Middle With You. A surprisingly old song for such young Liberals. I think they are trying to relate to us with classic rock references ;-)

      • Well now i’m embarrassed…why can’t they stick to Van Morrrson, i might be able to keep up. :)

  5. This comment was deleted.

    • Why do Canadians cross the road?

      To get to the centre.

      Preston Manning.

    • Funny how the Liberals need conventions to figure out what went wrong and you summed it up in one sentence.
      The question is do you think you will hear one Liberal come forward after the convention and say ” We promised, flip/flopped, lied for years and for this we are very sorry Canada. NEVER AGAIN.
        Or do you think you’ll hear about some new Family Pack or National Daycare?????

  6. Did anyone else notice the new Liberal logo with the stem of the Canadian flag making an accent aigu above the “e” in Liberal? It seems like pandering to quebec. Liberals are aware that their rebuilding efforts must begin in Quebec.  How do you think that will play in the West or Ontario for that matter?  Same old same old. Instead of apologizing to Quebec they make a nice new inclusive logo. God I feel wonderful. 

  7. “But for better or worse, I’m a Liberal. “

    A responsible citizen chooses a party based on what is best for the country.  Since what is best for the country is not the same from decade to decade, it is irresponsible to marry oneself to a particular party “for better or worse”.  If “worse” means “worse for Canada”, then you should sure as hell be willing to switch.

  8. The Liberal party is going anywhere except down until it gets rid of some of the old deadwood and the party unite behind the new young Turks…. Justin Trudeau is the answer…. you don’t need policies as such… canadians know where you stand…. what you and we need is a new vision…. get Justin and you will have a Mulroney style win in the very next election….

  9. I meant to say “Isn’t going anywhere except down”

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