Why no one is in a hurry to lead the Liberals

The party has set an insanely lackadaisical schedule for choosing its next leader

Politics why no one is in a hurry to lead the libs

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

And now we bring you exciting news from the Liberal Party of Canada, where—no, wait! Come back!

The latest news from the Liberals is that Deborah Coyne has entered the race to become, more or less, depending on definitions, the party’s sixth national leader in a decade. (I never know how to count Bill Graham.) This is an exciting development if you’re the sort of person who wishes a conversation about politics were about any other conceivable topic, just, please, not politics, because it’s pretty easy to segue from talking about Deborah Coyne to talking about how Pierre Trudeau was the father of her daughter.

Bam! Suddenly the Liberal Party is about 14 times as interesting as it was a few minutes ago. You can measure this. There are instruments to measure such things.

Coyne’s arrival in the Liberal leadership contest is encouraging for two reasons. First, because while I have already described it as a “race” and a “contest,” so far it is neither. If it were a race or a contest, it would have speed and competition. But the Liberal party executive has decided the party won’t choose a leader until the spring of 2013, so there is no speed. And while there are other candidates, they are not yet titans of Canadian public life. The declared candidates include Shane Geschiere, David Merner and Jonathan Mousley. If you ask me for more information about these gentlemen, I will be obliged to tell you Pierre Trudeau was the father of Deborah Coyne’s daughter.

Coyne is usually described as a “Toronto lawyer and policy consultant.” She is the cousin of our former colleague Andrew Coyne, who sends his regards. She was famous 20 years ago for—well, besides that, she was famous for joining the informal cabal of central government enthusiasts and Quebec special-status skeptics who came together to defeat the Meech Lake Accord. On the weekend that the three-year deadline for ratifying those proposed constitutional amendments passed and the whole deal died, Jean Chrétien hugged Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells on the floor of the Liberal convention in Calgary. It just seemed like a time when Liberals were reaching out in so many ways.

On her website Coyne has a video setting out “a bold vision for Canada.” This includes a carbon tax, as the Liberals appear to have decided to propose one of those in every second election. She’s already told my colleague John Geddes she’d want revenues from the tax to go back to the provinces where they were raised. So the carbon tax wouldn’t leave a federal government any further ahead. A Prime Minister Deborah Coyne would need some other mechanism for meeting what she calls “a huge national commitment to raise funds—the billions and billions of dollars that we need—to fix the crumbling infrastructure and to expand public transit.”

The Conservatives, then, would greet a Coyne-led Liberal party by pointing out that she wants the “permanent tax on everything” they defeated when they ran against Stéphane Dion in 2008, plus some other tax of comparable magnitude. But of course many voters support the notion of a government that wants to do great things even if it means charging taxpayers a higher price. These days, the most common term for such voters is “New Democrats.”

Like every Liberal, Coyne decries a “polarization along an outdated ideological spectrum” that forces voters to choose between Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats. But the Liberals are having a lousy year because most Canadians have no problem with that polarization. The ones who say they will vote Conservative are not, by and large, wishing for some less conservative Conservative party they could support instead. And what may be more surprising is that the voters who say they’ll support the NDP don’t seem to be reluctant, mournful or hamstrung about it.

The Liberals used to complain about national-unity crises and the rise of Quebec separatism while using them—in 1968, 1980 and 1993— to win power. Today their brightest hope is for more “polarization along an outdated ideological spectrum” rather than the suffocating convergence that leaves the beleaguered party so little room to breathe.

But Coyne at least has the right instinct, the same one that made her briefly a figure of national attention during the Meech skirmishes of 1989 and 1990: she is willing to stand up for something she believes in. What she has in common with Shane Geschiere, David Merner and Jonathan Mousley, whoever the hell they are, is a refusal to let the Liberal Party go down without a fight.

They could use some company. The presence of Coyne and Justin Trudeau at leadership debates would be a little weird, but they’d get over it soon enough. Marc Garneau, the navy officer, engineer and astronaut, would be a formidable candidate. These relative heavyweights are in no hurry to commit, and they don’t need to hurry, because their party has set an insanely lackadaisical schedule for choosing its next leader. But in due time, potential leaders should not be shy about getting into the race. The Liberals are not doomed to disappear, but neither are they required by any law of the universe to keep thriving. It’s all up to the Liberals now.


Why no one is in a hurry to lead the Liberals

  1. I just hate when opinion writers such as Wells writes stuff like that. You is are just guessing and likely so far from the facts your words mean nothing but assumptions.

    • Isn’t that part of his job… Guessing. Offering his best informed opinio. Disagree by all means, but Personally I don’t understand your beef.

  2. If the Liberal Party is to stave off complete destruction after the election of 2015 it will need much more than a bevy of new candidates contesting the leadership. It will need the right candidates, ones that will work hard at rebuilding a new big tent coalition of liberal-minded constituencies in every region of the country. This is a tremendous challenge, one that will take a decade or two.

    Deborah Coyne has considerable experience. She played a central role in the demise of Mulroney/Bourassa’s ill-fated Meech Lake Accord. She, with the Team “Canada for All Canadians”, played an even more central role in the defeat of the much worse Charlottetown Consensus Report in the October 1992 Referendum.

    Both times, the anti-Meech, anti-Charlottetown forces included the Manning/Harper/Flanagan ReforIIm Party, a nascent Alberta Party that opposed both flawed constitutional accords but for somewhat different reasons than Trudeau Liberals. The Reform Party despised any and all special deals for Quebec but not for the same reasons as Trudeau Liberals did. Trudeau Liberals rejected special constitutional status for Quebec because it would destroy the Canadian Federation one court case at a time.

    The Reformers wanted a special deal of their own, that is, they wanted a new Belgian style Quebec/ROC deal that would limit the French language and culture to Quebec and only Quebec. This is what many Québécois neo-nationalists and some secesisonist wanted also. If Quebecers did not want this new arrangement, according to Manning/Flanagan/Harper Reformers then they could leave on the terms dictated by the ROC.

    Reform zealots were downright angry at Mulroney for siding with his ally Bourassa in imposing the flawed Meech Lake/Charlottetown deals on Western Canada. Reformers were especially incensed that neither deals included the Triple ‘E’ Senate so dear to the hearts of Western Canadians, especially Burt Brown’s Alberta constituency.

    Yes, the presence of both Justin Trudeau and Deborah Coyne in the race
    for the leadership of the beleaguered LPC will send the media into a
    feeding frenzy. They live on somewhat different planets and the personal
    animosity runs deep.

    • Triple E is DOA. They expect Ontario and Quebec to voluntarily be massively underrepresented in a newly powerful and legitimate Senate? I don’t see how they ever expected that to come to pass.

  3. It’s hilarious watching the Toronto Media Party contort itself in trying to make the Liberal Party relevant, while Canadians yawn, and think to themselves “who cares.”

    • I just wrote a column making fun of the Liberal party and saying almost nobody who isn’t a Liberal cares about it. I worry that my ability to contort has been slighted.

      • Too many big words. Too many deep thoughts. My guess he’d prefer shallower and littler words… Yay Steve oughta do it!

  4. Cons like to pretend that it will take years, and much deep thought and heavy-lifting to restore the Libs, whereas we all know that one dynamic new leader and a few minutes worth of 21st century policies would have them back in govt in short order.

    The election isn’t until 2015 though….so round about 2014 and a half…..

    • Emily,
      The Liberals need feet on the ground at the riding level. My belief is they are really weak in this area and a “dynamic new leader” with out support is cannon fodder.

      • Nah…..riding level is there….they’re just ignoring proceedings at the moment.

        Provide that ‘dynamic new leader’ and you’ll get trampled in the rush.

        • Hate to take the o pinion of a con partisan over yours E but he’s essentially right, many ridings need rebuilding. The good news is this job has started, it’s the primary preoccupation of party bosses right now. Although I do agree that a wide open leadership race should help concentrate minds on policy at long last.

          • The riding people haven’t vanished, died or left the country…..they are all still out there. So are the bank accounts, records and networks.

            When HQ gets tired of farting around, and is ready to roll again….execs will be back in place in ‘nae time atall’.

    • Still dreaming I see.

      • LOL yer the one pretending that the most sucessful political party in the western world for over a century can vanish overnight.

        Wishes aren’t reality, holly.

        • Why not? It happened to the last party you supported, according to you.

          Or was your support for the Progressive Conservatives just another lie?

          • The PCs weren’t as old, or as successful as the Libs…..and they haven’t vanished, they’ve morphed. They will likely morph again.

            Now perhaps you could stop being rude

      • I think you’d rather the next government be Liberal than NDP.

        • Maybe, though it would be interesting to see what would happen if the NDP actually manage to form power without actually putting water in their wine. I mean many in the federal NDP actually still believe in Marxist theory, despite the fact that it has been thoroughly discredited.

  5. As is pointed out, every Liberal decries the polarization of Canadian politics. Funny that Coyne should do the same as she tries to, you know, lead the Liberals.
    Though I suppose it’s true that you no longer have to be an actual Liberal to vote for the Liberal leader.

  6. Funny stuff… especially the part about the “Honorable member from Zoolander”, Deb Coyne’s step son and Trudeau’s oldest kid (that we know of) being a “relative heavyweight”… that was really funny!

  7. “But Coyne at least has the right instinct …she is willing to stand up for something she believes in. What she has in common with Shane Geschiere, David Merner and Jonathan Mousley, whoever the hell they are, is a refusal to let the Liberal Party go down without a fight.”

    Man is that ever true. The principle fault of the liberal leadership has been IMO simply political and moral cowardice. When faced by harper’s challenge they essentially lost their nerve, rolled over and largely played dead. To paraphrase Trudeau’s judgement of levesque they weren’t prepared to run the natural risk of standing by your beliefs – that you might lose. Hopefully veterans like Coyne will not let them lose their nerve again.

    • You can’t honestly believe that the ex mistress of Pierre Trudeau has a chance of winning the leadership. If she does they will be down to 20 seats in the next parliament. Oh what am I saying? Let her run and win.

      • No I don’t but thx for asking.

  8. The picture at the top of the column says everything you need to know about Coyne. She is another academic, elitist who had an affair with a former prime minister. That in itself she disqualify her from running for the leadership. The Libs have enough problems without this kind of stuff in the background. However, she has no shame. She has declared and it will be very interesting to see her and the dauphin going at it during the campaign.

    • She is supposed to feel shame for what exactly?

      • Having sex with an old gargoyle… like a groupie… a gargoyle groupie is not what the “Liberals” should be looking for in terms of leadership…

        • Your hatred of the Trudeaus is a bore. Find someone more contemporary to hate. Better yet get help.

          • Your cock-eyed man love of all things Trudeau is a lot more then colossally boring, it’s creepy. I guess thats why your cult like infatuations of all things Trudeau are now leveled at a screeching hag, who’s only claim to the “LIberal” throne is that she once had sex with the old gargoyle himself. Tell your doctor about your peculiar fetish’s next time you pick up your meds.

      • I guess morals are not an issue for you right?

        • And they are for you?

          • H is having a cultural conflict…between the 19th and the 21st centuries.

    • “The picture at the top of the column says everything you need to know about Coyne.”

      What a thoughtless, drive-by slam. How does the picture say any of this about her? Put yer own mugshot up here and give us all a chance to see what it “says” about you.

      • Frankly with her plain looks and I am talking about whether she looks like a leader of a federal political she looks like she belongs in the NDP. In today’s culture looks are very important. If Ignatieff could not win what chance do you think this woman has? She is still living in the 60’s. Trudeau has been dead for 10 years as has the Charlottetown and Meech Lake Accords if that is her only claim to fame. Other than the big one. She was the mistress of Pierre Trudeau and had an out of wedlock daughter fathered by him. The lefties have a look about them. If I did not know who she was I would have thought she was a Dipper.
        Hey you may not like my comments but the fact is she is going to get a lot worse once the campaign starts and she is facing off against the Dauphin, Justin Trudeau.

        • Lefties have a look about them do they? Can you spot them at 50 yards, Merv?

        • I guess if enough people (like you) uncritically subscribe to and promote such thoughtless, uninformed stereotyping, then you’d be right.She doesn’t stand a chance Preston Manning fell victim to the same facile thinking when he went out and got his make-over. When the transformation was done he was…still Preston Manning…geeky and squeaky, except with designer specs and a new high maintenance coiff.

        • Didn’t some other party get into trouble by asking whether a Liberal leader looked like a Prime Minister?

          • I just realized that you can call yourself simply “Andrew” now, as neither Coyne nor Potter are writing for Macleans anymore. And I agree with you that the look of a Prime Minister is a weak spot for an attack.

  9. I actually don’t see the rush in choosing a new leader since really, a federal election is more than two years away. Why push someone into that hot seat whose just going to get beat up by the well-practiced Conservative machine.

  10. “Whoever the hell they are”? Wells, buddy, one or all three of these men may be the future of Canada for all you know. Just to offer to give so much of their personal time and money to our Country like this earns them our respect. Why don’t you spend a moment finding out who each is before you “whoever the hell they are” them.

    • It’s true that the egg will totally be on my face if Canada ends up being ruled by a triumvirate of fringe Liberal leadership candidates.

  11. What the Liberals need is a “vision” — some issues they believe in, a stated direction they want to move the country in, stated objectives they want to achieve if given a mandate.

    Hate them if you will (and some days I’m close to it), the Conservatives have objectives and outcomes in mind. Anyone who has been paying attention over the years knows where they want to take us — and that’s a long way from the country that the Liberals of old believed in.

  12. I guess the danger when you don’t stand for anything in particular is that its just so easy for the party to disappear or be replaced. Even when the Conservatives were reduced to a tiny rump what they stood for did not and it was only a matter of time till they returned to represent relatively mild Canadian conservative values.

    • We stand for plenty. It just happens to be the stuff most Canadians (used to) take as a given. Fiscal responsibility coupled with compassion, equality of opportunity including generational equality, evidence-based decision making, the rule of law. We seem to believe as a party, and I believe personally, that all the issues are important–there isn’t one issue above all others, although of course one issue will be at the top at any given time. So yes, there isn’t one special interest group we’re going to bat for at the expense of all others, unless that special interest group is called Canadians.

      • “evidence-based decision making”

        Every time I see that meaningless, baseless, silly statement I want to gag. Also, using the word “compassion” is also vomit-inducing (as if somehow Liberals are more caring with their failing policies).

  13. The federal Liberals are doing exactly what they need to be doing right now… Building a real ground game. In the incessant backstabbing for the leadership since the Martinites went after Chreitien, riding associations were overruled and divided against eachother in perpetual leadership races, even when there was no leadership race officially even underway.

    Waiting until 2013 to pick a leader gives the riding associations breathing room to do what they need to do in building a ground game, without constant wooing from this leadership candidate or another vying for delegates. Rae is doing a great job as interim leader, and now that the controversy is over with the endless speculation of whether he’ll run or not, he is free to continue to do a good job and be judged based on the literal merits of what he is actually doing without it constantly being viewed through the prism of whether he may be unfairly using the interim job for future gain.

    The Liberal values in Canada are actually quite strong. There are a ton of Liberals out there. I am a proud Liberal, but I was holding my nose at the polling booth voting for Martin, I was actually happy to vote for Dion (who was constantly being sideswiped by Ignatieff) and I almost stayed home when Ignatieff the American was running as leader. My distaste for the particular leadership candidate, like many other people, has not turned me into an NDP supporter. Collectively there are a ton of rather silent Liberal voters who are waiting for the party to pull up it’s bootstraps and stop squabbling internally. With the vacuum of glorified saviours and the power-hungry johnny come latelys off to pasture, the party will absolutely put together a great platform with a ton of consultation and become a serious force once again.

    We don’t need another Ignatieff with no passion whatsoever. We don’t need another waffling Paul Martin. Ironically, Dion might be the best bench strength to toss into the position, with his newly grown pair of family jewels. He won the leadership fair and square that year against both Rae and Ignatieff, it was they who screwed him over and didn’t help pull the party together.

    We need a scrappy, tough as nails, and passionate leader who stands for something compelling. Not another chump who figures he will be coronated as prime minister.

  14. Enjoyed the Wellsian roundup of the situation, as always.

    The Liberals are in worse shape than I thought if this is indeed what they’re down to. I can’t believe someone more substantive won’t step up to the plate by next year.