The Liberals: Controlled flight into terrain -

The Liberals: Controlled flight into terrain

Paul Wells on the party’s delusions


Photograph by Blair Gable

“A party needs seven years to come back from an election defeat,” Martin Cauchon told me, index finger jutting forward to push his point at me. “I lived through 1984-91. I saw it. Things are really starting to happen now. This party is coming back.”

Cauchon, you will recall, was the federal minister of justice under Jean Chrétien. His seven-year thing will sound like a misprint, because in 1991 the Liberals were still two years away from winning power back, but it made some sense. It took most of 1991 for Jean Chrétien to stop being a really bad opposition leader and get his sea legs back. After that, his party was on a pretty steady road to victory. And since Cauchon was transparently trying to come up with some reason why today’s Liberal party should be any different from the ones that lost 37, 32, 18 and 43 seats in the elections of 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011, this was relatively harmless as number games go. Seven years from 2006 is…oooh. 2013! Just in time for victory!

Of course the whole thing is horse poo. I lived through 1979-1980. I saw the Liberals come back from defeat in nine months. I lived through 1980-1984. I saw the Progressive Conservatives come back in four years. I did not live through 1935-1957, but there are books and they tell me the Conservatives took three times seven years to come back from defeat. It takes an arbitrary number of years for a party to come back from defeat, unless it can’t. The best thing that can be said for Cauchon’s thesis is that it helps illustrate how anyone can believe in astrology.

But then, a party that refuses to believe Canadians aren’t buying what it’s selling will cast about for mystical explanations for events. Bob Rae consoled Michael Ignatieff on Friday night by telling him that elections are “a crap shoot.” This sounded to some in the press stands like contempt for democracy, but I think it’s closer to incomprehension of it. Damnedest thing. People vote and then, I don’t know. Something. Here’s a list of the people in Canada who, by virtue of their biographies, would be likeliest to view elections as a crap shoot:

1. Joe Clark.

2. Bob Rae.

I’m not even being cute here. Both gentlemen were just walking down the street when, one day, each was suddenly in charge of a government. A short time later, each was out. Damnedest thing. Somewhere along the line, Rae managed to get a reputation as a keen student of politics. To those of us who lived through 1987-1990, it’s not impossible to recall that he was lucky enough to be standing nearby while David Peterson led one of the most increasingly out-of-touch governments in the history of Confederation — the Meech, the tax hikes, the cufflinks, the pointless election — and that Ontarians were so desperate by the end of it that they were willing to let Bob Rae try running the joint for a few years. Then they found out what that’s like and changed their minds. Like Clark, he resembles nothing more than a lottery winner who spends the rest of his life telling people the best way to get rich is to buy lottery tickets.

Oh, come on, Paul. It takes more than luck to win an election. It takes hard work. It takes an understanding of this beautiful nation. It takes a modern organization. In which case, the Liberals are in like Flynn, because they are spending the entire weekend telling one another that nobody works harder or understands this gorgeous land and its fine, decent people than the Liberals. As for the modern organization, that’s coming right up. After that, life will be one big express train to the “progressive era” Bob Rae predicted for 2015, the one he expects will conveniently not be led by the party that picked up 6, 10, 7 and 67 seats in the elections of 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011.

Like Martin Cauchon’s seven-year theory, this one is a beguiling mix of things that are true and things that are not even on the street truth lives on. It is true that hard work is better than the other kind and that a modern organization simplifies tasks.

But it may be worth gently noting, to the astonishing number of Liberals who got up on the stage of the Ottawa Convention Centre this weekend to declare that only their party understands Canada, that an Abacus survey a year ago found that Canadians viewed the Liberals as the national party that least “understands the problems facing Canada,” “looks after the interests of people like me,” or “defends the interests of people in my province.”

That’s a really big problem for Liberals.

This convention is custom-designed not to fix it. I’m starting to think political conventions are dangerous for unsuccessful political parties because they encourage false hope. Joe Clark couldn’t stop congratulating himself in, I’m thinking maybe 2000, for leading “the only national party that could hold a convention in Quebec.” The convention was in Montreal  (UPDATE: Oops. Quebec City). Which is easier for most (UPDATE: well, some) Canadians to get to than Ottawa. And, contrary to what Clark seemed to be implying, it’s actually not true that Quebecers tend to mob and beat members of political parties they disagree with. So really anyone could hold a convention there.

Similarly, I keep running into Liberals this weekend who are delighted by the “turnout” and the “energy” of their event, as though those were signs of something. I don’t have the heart to remind them they’re in a convention centre, which makes millions of dollars off organizations that fill it year-round with turnout and energy. Upcoming events at this same venue include the Autoshow, the NHL Fan Fair, the Helicopter Association of Canada’s 16th Annual Conference and Trade Show, and Sexapalooza. None of them is going to lead the next government either.

What wins elections is ideas large numbers of Canadians find attractive, ideally large numbers of Canadians who didn’t vote for your party the last six or eight times you asked. At a time of widespread economic uncertainty approaching mass panic, the ideas likeliest to intrigue Canadians are the ones closest to their own preoccupations about money, family and community. No, that’s not me swallowing the Harper koolaid: it’s a pretty good summary of the contrast Jean Chrétien drew with the Mulroney Conservatives when he ran his denim-vs.-Gucci campaign in 1993.

I ran into two friends at the convention who asked me, in the tone of the Liberal times, whether Canada should abolish the monarchy. I pointed out that most Canadians could not possibly care less. (As a kind of bonus, the ones who do care are divided in surprising ways.) Meanwhile, on the convention’s first day, NDP leadership candidate Peggy Nash unveiled an innovation platform that was uneven, but superior in important ways to anything any Liberal has produced in a half decade. The NDP leadership candidates are unanimous in supporting some form of carbon pricing. The Liberals, who bet all their marbles on carbon pricing only four years ago, are not considering any resolution on the question this weekend. But they’re all over the pot legalization debate that holds the nation in the grip of apathy.

Nash could say something coherent because she is the leader of, at least, her own campaign. Rae is, by his own promise, not leader of the Liberals, and maybe a third of the party gets very angry at him when he acts like he should be. As a few Liberals used to point out, none of the party’s historic game-changing conventions was held in a leadership vacuum. Kingston in 1960 was a vehicle for stamping the Liberals with Lester Pearson’s ideas. Aylmer in 1991 was Kabuki theatre designed to exorcise John Turner’s policies on trade and the constitution and upload Chrétien’s.

A thoughtful young Liberal named Taylor Owen published an article in the Ottawa Citizen last weekend calling for a “Clause IV moment,” after the historic moment in 1994 when British Labour’s new leader, Tony Blair, got his party to abolish the constitutional clause calling on any Labour government to nationalize the means of production. Let’s do that in Ottawa, Owen said.

But “doing that” would depend on recognizing the original Clause IV moment for what it was. It struck to the heart of government’s relationship with a modern society — it was profoundly policy-based, sweeping and important to the real lives of real people. It was a frank admission that the party, until then, had been very far over on the wrong side of history in at least one big way. And it was imposed by a new leader using all the tools of legitimacy and brute force that only a new leader commands. Pot legalization isn’t in the same class. Re-asking all the policies that nobody voted for last time isn’t in the same class. And nothing in the same class is possible during an extended leadership vacuum.

Peter C. Newman is everywhere at this convention, and because his new book says discouraging things about the Liberals, speaker after speaker feels the need to go up to the stage microphone and proclaim that the Liberals aren’t dead. Well, that’s obvious. I’m having a very good time at this convention. Like most people in politics, Liberals have big hearts and a lot of energy, and they’re relieved to come to Ottawa and be reminded they’re not alone, and there’s a bit of old home week going on.

But it’s worth asking whether all the energy and all the hard work have anything to do with the real challenges facing the party.

Students of flight safety are familiar with the terrifying, paradoxical notion of “controlled flight into terrain.” That’s when a well-functioning aircraft, with a conscious and alert flight crew, somehow flies into a mountain or the sea or a cornfield before anyone on board notices what is happening. The flight crew isn’t dead when this happens, or not until it does. They would be very upset if a prominent author tried to tell them they were dead. And in most cases they are working hard, in good spirits, until the last disaster happens. It’s just that they are distracted or oblivious, so none of their hard work does anything to change their course.


The Liberals: Controlled flight into terrain

  1. I hope the Liberals will be discussing NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen’s proposal for joint nomination meetings. If both parties are serious about preventing another Conservative majority, this is the way to do it.  

    • Or perhaps it’s the perfect way to guarantee another Tory majority.

      Or maybe not. I don’t know. But it’s careless to suggest that the way to beat a Tory majority is to simply hold joint nomination meetings. It’s over-simplistic, it ignores a lot of potential problems, and it does nothing to sell the Liberal brand… Hmm, on second thought, that kind of thinking would fit in perfectly with this weekend’s Liberal convention…

    • That would be a logistical and political horror show that the Cons would line up to watch. If the two parties are going to share the House, they might as well get married.

  2. Sorry about the italics. I’m typing this on an iPhone and it didn’t respond as I expected.

  3. Taylor Owen sent a nice note pointing out that, while he’s younger than me and left of centre in outlook, he doesn’t fit most definitions of “young Liberal.” Duly noted.

    • What are most definitions of young Liberal? 

      The only one I know: someone who is young, and Liberal.

  4. Paul, I can’t quite figure out where you’re coming from with your attitude to the Liberal Party. Do you really think it’s on its way out, or do you just want it to be gone?

    • If the Liberals are as incapable of change as Paul Wells seems to be suggesting the Liberals to be, then a quick painless death would be at least aesthetically preferable to drawn-out agonies.

    • I think Wells is calling it a he sees it. There is nothing in this convention that should convince Liberals that they have found the path to rebirth. In fact adapting the “supporters” resolution may in fact hurry their march towards oblivion.

      What happens if they open up the party to two tier Liberals and few new people take the bait? If this happens then they will be deemed as having failed and a sign of further decline. Of course there will be the flash mob supporters who have no interest in the Liberal party but want to negatively influence the party. 

  5. The elites of the Liberal party and its interim soon to be permanent leader have any brains at all they will read this column, ruminate on it and read it again each morning when they get up. Booze and meeting old friends can convince a group of individuals of a lot of things even that they are on the comeback trail.

     In this case they are heading for the cliff and they are going to fall over it. Putting Rae as permaent leader and tequila Sheila as President of the party will certainly send a powerful message to Canadians that the Liberal party is not interested in renewal. Instead it wants to continue to try and convince itself that by trying to sell the old failed policies and people to Canadians that somehow they are going to win.

    • Copps didn’t win.

      • That’s a good start although I understand that Crawley is a confidante of McGuinty i.e. windmills.
        However, I give credit to the membership in electing someone “new” to guide the party.
        Its a good start. Now if they can resist Rae Days they may be one further step from the edge of the cliff.

        • I am sure the LPC appreciates your approval.

          • They should. It doesn’t come very often. Now that they want to legalize marijuana we can all have a joint together and be happy.

          • Out of touch Dean del Maestro just weighed in – says if marijuana is legalized teenagers will smoke it.  You have to wonder where and how he grew up. 

          • Message to Jan……most people do not smoke marijuana. Anybody who needs a substance to make their life better is in for a world of hurt either now or in the future.

          • How’s prohibition working so far, h?

          • That doesn’t mean you legalize bad behaviour.

          • Keep up the good work, JanBC – grass is definitely the winning ticket for widespread proggie electoral success.

  6. So who’s running for Sexapalooza leader?

    • Sheila Copps?

      • I’ve heard that her sex life isn’t bad…

  7. I agree that the problems lined up in front of them.  I’m not even sure they, the leadership, really has a good grasp of how to speak to issues in a way the public will line up for.

    However, there are some strengths that I’m not hearing discussed either.

  8. Very thoughtful commentary. Thanks.

  9. “Carbon pricing”

    The leftists holy grail.   While Solyndra after Solyndra like companies fail under the reality that “alternative energy” is economically unfeasable, and while our economy (and hence standard of living) is dependent on affordable energy,

    the ecosocialists continue on, certain of their righteous path that they will save us all from a certain planet warming firey fate, undeterred by the fact that it will be the downtrodden and those in the developing world who will suffer most for penalizing the use of affordable energy.

    All this at a time when the uncertainty in the science as to whether man is even having any material impact on our climate, exponentially increases with each passing month.

    And of course, all issues which our intrepid media (overwhelmingly left leaning/anti-capitilaist) dare not delve into.

    • “The leftists holy grail” — What?

      A Pigovian tax on negative externalities is one of the few things that left, centrist, and right economists can all agree on.   And that there are negative externalities from air pollution – and CO2 in particular – is also not even remotely a controversial issue.   What are you even talking about?

      • Actually, it’s very controversial whether there are negative externalities from CO2, to anyone who has been paying attention.

  10. sorry — duplicate.

  11. sorry — duplicate.

  12. sorry — duplicate.

  13. I think this is missing the point.

    Most of the delegates here were expressly avoiding public policy – and you saw that in the vote counts, which were high for many of the party executive offices and constitutional changes, but low for much of the policy platform issues, so that “die hards” got to run the show there a bit.

    And this is entirely appropriate.   The issue right now is starting to rebuild the infrastructure of the party — getting marginaly attached people into the party by letting them become “supporters” rather  than having to decide to become card-carrying members, significant changes considered to how to choose the leader, etc, trying to enforce party choices on the leader (dissapointed about that one), etc.  And then the plan is to spend the next two years using that new infrastructure to reach out to people and make policy chioces that make sense to larger swaths of Canada.

    If your preferred approach — insiders making serious policy choices _now_, before there is even a leader elected and before that two-year period of outreach — was what happened, what would have been the point?   Who would have cared that the current small cadre of party members made decisions about (say) carbon pricing, decisions which the future leader may or may not feel constrained by?   

    I think the focus on the internals of the party, with the aim for focusing on policy 2 years from now, is exactly the correct medium-term view, even if it doesn’t make for very compelling stories to media observers.

    • Ummm, if they were “expressly avoiding public policy”, then wtf were they doing passing that resolution about legalization of marijuana?  That sure seems like public policy to me . . .

  14. It just seems to me the Libs have been moving left,  and the NDP have been moving right.  So now the Libs have few differences from the NDP, other than the fact the NDP is less arrogant and corrupt.  Both the Libs and NDP believe in big government, big social programs, are anti-business, and so on.  Why do the Liberals exist?

    • Actual differences between the parties are probably pretty minor, except the Conservatives have to do some dumb things like spike the census and tank the gun registry to make $ off thier supporters, and the NDP will keep searching for harmless but minor regulatory changes like capping credit card interest.

    • To provide an non-ideological centre party that can move quickly in whatever direction the situation requires.  This is pragmatism, aka “intelligent practice,” and involves respect for facts.  
      Also, the LPC is NOT antibusiness, but it would be against business running roughshod over everybody else.  It’s about finding the right balance, and understanding how to run a country properly.

      • “it would be against business running roughshod over everybody else”

        Oh, so you mean they are anti-business.

        “To provide an non-ideological centre party that can move quickly in whatever direction the situation requires. This is pragmatism, aka “intelligent practice,” and involves respect for facts.”

        “It’s about finding the right balance, and understanding how to run a country properly”

        That’s a whole lot of words that say absolutely nothing. Wow, respecting facts! Who doesn’t like facts?

      • That sure isn’t the Liberal party of which you speak. They have shown that they cannot put forward new policies that appeal to the broad spectrum of public opinion. They simple bounce from pillar to post trying to push old policies that have been rejected at least four times in general elections. They are bankrupt of new ideas.

  15.  The Liberals, who bet all their marbles on carbon pricing only four years ago, are not considering any resolution on the question this weekend.

    My impression from the peanut gallery was that it was principally Dion and a few close to him, in close consultation with his Green coalition leader, who sort of cooked this up and imposed his idea on the party without a great deal of consultation and buy-in. 

    No buy-in means bye-out.

    Good idea.  Really bad implementation. Lost for a generation.

    • None of the resolutions passed at this convention are binding. Rather, they give the new executive direction re how the party feels about the various issues brought forward. The main business of this convention was about party structure and organization; a policy convention will likely come later.  But I’m no expert; all I know is from reading around on where there’s tons of information for people interested in facts.

    • Carbon tax was an Ignatieff idea during the 2006 leadership campaign.

      If you’re going to try to limit CO2 emissions, it’s clearly the way to go.  And that’s the real question: are people willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do that.  If so, carbon tax is the best option.  If not, well, not.

  16. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Macleans comment system allowed us to delete our comments? It’s happened to me in the past where I accidentally post the same thing twice, and I’m unable to remove one of the redundant comments.

    • No

    • Yes

    • Maybe


    While I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, it should be noted that almost all of Saturday, and most of Sunday morning, seem to have been devoted to discussions on policy. Even the many Critics Corner sessions seem to revolve around discussions on policy.

    If the priority was to avoid policy discussions and focus on rebuilding the infrastructure, someone should have told the people who prepared the convention’s program.

    • My previous comment was a response to “guest” a few comments above, but it seems to have appeared as a new comment. Thanks, Macleans, for your awesome commenting system!

  18.  I’m reading this and I’m not sure whether Paul Wells is writing about the event I attended.

     Firstly, urgency and hard work were the word. Expecting Bob Rae to tell Ignatieff to go to hell at the speech is unrealistic. The whole parting with Ignatieff part was purely political; one had to hear everything else to get a sense of urgency. And the sense was there.

     Secondly, everyone in the room while the whole supporter thing was crammed through noticed how the old guard (who largely opposed it) was rendered irrelevant. It doesn’t mean that they are completely irrelevant, but that was a watershed moment of sorts – that and pot legalization voted in. It already changed the mood quite radically. A lot of amendments that didn’t get through are likely to be delayed rather than cancelled.

  19. The Liberals are so clueless right now the will probably be capitoning some stuff from this story in their party literature. “Liberals: We’re working hard ! And in good spirits !”

  20. I would think a heartfelt apology from the Liberal party to Canadians for years of campaign lies, flip/flops, policies enacted purely for political gain etc…. and a promise that we understand this is our last chance and we have changed would go far. Maybe from the old guard.

  21. I feel

  22. A scathing though always interesting Wells column. I feel though sir that you are underestimating the potential of legalizing pot to be a very good issue for the Liberals. Everyone makes jokes about pot policy, even Rae, but for a lot of people organized crime, grow ops and the drift of mainstream people into contempt of the laws of the land, the issue is deadly serious. It would be popular in areas winnable for the libs – BC and Quebec. It would also be a palatable and relatively responsible way to pay for big-government spending, given that Harper has framed future GST increases as toxic. I can’t think of another single issue where people under 40 are more disconnected from current policy, even amongst Tory voters.

    • I’m in favour of legalization and taxation of pot myself, but politically I wonder:  as far as I know this does not differentiate the Liberals from the NDP, so I don’t see how the Liberals gain any strategic electoral advantage from this.  It seems to me it would lead to the same kind of vote-splitting we saw last election.

      • I hear what you’re saying. I could imagine a scenario though where the NDP avoids this issue as they need credibility on the economy rather than be painted by the wacky left brush; meanwhile the Liberals could say they’re the ones to implement pot legalization in a competent, technocratic manner. I always tell my Liberal friends that the best part of their brand is the competent technocrat part.. Deep in their hearts they want to run as do-gooders though …

  23. Isn’t it amazing that when the country is in the toilet economically, the country always turns toward conservative principles!!

  24. ” Upcoming events at this same venue include the Autoshow, the NHL Fan Fair, the Helicopter Association of Canada’s 16th Annual Conference and Trade Show, and Sexapalooza.”

    It might be worth noting that all but one of those events would fully expect to significantly surpass the 3,000-attendee number that turned out for this convention.  Just sayin…