A centrist party that has lost its centre

Paul Wells on Dalton McGuinty stepping down and the Liberal party's climb ahead

Chris Young

Dalton McGuinty remains such a gifted political performer that when Ontario’s premier announced his retirement from politics, throat catching, eyes misting, it was easy to forget the context.

The context is that two recent polls put his Ontario Liberal party in third place, about 15 points behind the opposition NDP and Conservatives. McGuinty’s energy minister, Chris Bentley, stands accused by opposition MPPs of being in contempt of the legislature over an apparent failure to disclose all of the reasoning behind the cancellation of two gas-fired energy plants. There was talk of adding McGuinty and the government house leader to the list of Liberals facing contempt motions.

McGuinty won three elections in a row, but with less of a pop every time. To say the least, he had no guarantee of winning the next. It is a familiar trajectory for Liberals in Canada these days. The question is whether it can be reversed.

Let us get the good news for Canada’s assorted Liberal parties out of the way quickly. Today, parties carrying the Liberal name continue to govern in Canada’s largest and third-largest provinces by population, Ontario and British Columbia, as well as the smallest, Prince Edward Island.

Okay, we’re done with the good news. Liberals in Ontario and B.C. could hardly have a more tenuous hold on power. Both have been down in the polls so long that it looks like up to them. B.C. Premier Christy Clark speculates now and then about jettisoning her party’s name, which is a bit confusing anyway because the B.C. Liberals are a centre-right coalition that little resembles the federal party.

Liberals do form the official opposition in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. But given the steady drumbeat of salacious revelations from a commission of inquiry about the financing of Jean Charest’s former government in Quebec, it is unlikely the Liberals would do as well today as they did in September’s election.

Liberal parties are in third place in Alberta, Manitoba and the Yukon, the only territory where members of the legislature have party affiliations. In Saskatchewan in the last election the provincial Liberals didn’t even win one vote in 100.

In federal politics, the Liberals have lost seats and vote share in each of the last four elections. If they lose much more support they will start to owe votes to the other parties.

The federal Liberals’ problems began long before the current slump, Carleton University journalism prof Paul Adams argues in his new book Power Trap. “Arguably the Liberal party has been in decline since the 1950s,” he writes, “and there has been no ‘natural governing party’ since.” The federal Liberals have had no real presence in the Prairie West in a half-century. They have not won a majority of Quebec seats since 1980. Since 2004, when a united Conservative party put an end to the vote-splitting that produced a decade-long near-monopoly of Liberal seats in Ontario, the Liberals have lost another bucket of Ontario seats each time they went to bat.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives reliably depict the Liberals as high-taxing statists who cannot imagine leaving a dollar in your pocket when they could spend it on daycare or a fancy census instead. Intriguingly, Adams argues nearly the opposite: that the Liberals’ long-standing “progressive impulses” were “quietly muted in a largely collaborative project” between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin during the almost nine years Martin served in Chrétien’s cabinet.

The Liberals’ 1993 Red Book included promises to renegotiate NAFTA, to boost immigration levels and to create 50,000 daycare spaces. None was implemented. To Adams (whose book argues, probably in vain, for a Liberal-NDP merger), the result was that the Liberals blew their credibility as defenders of activist government.

“As you stare at the wreckage of what was arguably the most successful party in the history of the democratic world, there are various explanations for its utter demagnetization in 2011,” Adams writes. “Some of them were very long-term. But one of them, surely, must have been its wilful refusal to differentiate its policies from those of the Conservatives.”

Well, which is it? Are the Liberals incurable tax-and-spenders or are they a pale copy of the Conservatives? In the jurisdictions where Liberal disease is most advanced—Saskatchewan and Manitoba for many years, and increasingly now at the federal level—it’s both. The great danger for a centrist party is that it will forget how to argue persuasively for a centre.

None of these trends is necessarily irreversible. Canadian political history rarely moves in straight lines for long. But the decline of Liberal parties across most of the West, Liberal-branded crises in all of the three largest provinces and the federal party’s enduring slump all suggest a robust trend.

When they get in a tight spot, Liberals like to present themselves as the only moderate solution in a field of radicals. Justin Trudeau did it again when he announced his leadership candidacy. It is a spiel that reflects Liberals’ enduring wish for an imaginary fight that would be easy to win instead of the one they’re in. In fact, Liberals’ problems would vanish if the other parties would oblige them by behaving as ideologues. Conservative and social-democratic parties have sharply moderated their messages. There is no longer anything the NDP wants to nationalize, and the party likes to brag that it has delivered more balanced budgets where it has formed governments than Liberals have. Meanwhile, Stephen Harper repeatedly votes against his own backbenchers when they propose measures that would reopen the abortion debate. If Harper and Tom Mulcair were wild-eyed freaks, there would be acres of room for a centrist party. They aren’t, so there isn’t.

In fact, if the country’s assorted Liberal parties are in the mood for advice from the “department of easier said than done,” they should waste no more time seeking to present themselves as the middle ground between extremes. Instead they should find some extreme worth defending. What social end is so important that it’s worth taxing to achieve? What fights are worth fighting?

The decline of Liberal parties in Canada produces a kind of optical illusion. The centre isn’t disappearing, it is becoming crowded. Nothing about the Liberal name ensures the endurance of Liberal parties. Loyalty will not save them. Wit and heart will, or nothing will.