The Liberals await heaven's command

Peter C. Newman on how the convention revealed a party still searching for a way back from the brink

Awaiting heaven's command

Blair Gable/Reuters

It was like spending a frigid weekend huddled around the world’s biggest samovar, with 3,200-plus joyful Liberals, not one of them fitting my expectation that they had shifted categories from walking wounded to being the walking dead. Their joy is that, whatever else they might do in a future that remains a distant and ill-defined option, at least they can pretend that dreams still count. That even if the Earth moved last May 2, and left the one-time power barons barren of power, they exist, awaiting heaven’s command.

Assembled, they project the distinct impression that while they are in third—which is like having a one-way ticket to purgatory—they should still be heard. No longer members of Canada’s natural governing party, they are losers searching for a mission. Slip-sliding away, like drunks convinced they are holding up the lampposts. The Grits have yet to earn another chance to head an effective opposition. Beyond that, they can’t count on Bob Rae being the dream candidate who could lead them back to the Treasury benches. He has enough political baggage to fill an airport carousel. For some inexplicable reason, he reminds me of Sir John A. Macdonald’s line, “I do not say that all Grits are horse thieves. But I feel quite sure that all horse thieves are Grits.”

Before they’re taken seriously again, the Grits must correct a potentially fatal absence. The Ottawa delegates scored high on youth (a third were under 25) and gender (half were women) but dismally failed the skin-colour test. Swaths of white stands out in our multi-hued society. Also, the delegates’ decision to legalize marijuana hands Stephen Harper the most effective of cheap shots: I can visualize future Tory ads entirely devoted to attacking the “Marijuana Party.” The up-and-coming generation may swallow that Kool-Aid but parents and grandparents vote, too.

The Liberals’ electoral reforms are daring and dangerous. By allowing anyone to vote on policies and leadership, they leave themselves open to being hijacked. That’s not just a theory. Way back during my youth, the University of Toronto campus included a Communist party. This was at the height of the Cold War, and its membership was not composed of radical Canadian kids but Moscow-directed apparatchiks. A few of us who came from countries then occupied by the Russians—which fit my Czech family background—quietly joined the Communist club, and spread the word. By the time its annual meeting came around, we had a slim majority. We immediately moved a successful motion that the organization immediately be dissolved, and its treasury donated to the Red Cross. It passed without debate.

It did and can happen.

The convention established the fact that this is a new political party. The stars who dominated the Trudeau party were made prominent by their absence. From those glory days, only John Turner, Dick O’Hagan, Jim Coutts and Don Johnston attended.

An interesting convention victory was that of Mike Crawley to succeed Alfred Apps as party president. His opponent was the effervescent Sheila Copps, who assured the assembly that her tennis arm and sex life were flourishing. She was a great politician and Paul Martin was just plain dumb to squeeze her out during his brief tumble as prime minister. But she does evoke the old Liberal party, and this convention turned out to be a cleansing exercise. Sadly, she was not wanted on the party’s next voyage.

Crawley will be a mixed blessing. He was dead right in his declaration that Liberals must get over themselves and forget the notion that there will always be a clearly defined spot for them in Canada’s political firmament: “We have to realize,” he told the delegates, “that every vote we earn in the next election will come from the work we do from this day forward.” True enough. The downside of the Crawley candidacy is that he remains a controversial figure in Ontario’s rural politics because it is his company that is planting wind farms across the province, often in the face of local anger.

What the Liberal party needs, following the free-fall electoral record of Michael Ignatieff, is a leader with a swordsman’s eye for being alert to the counter-thrusts of his opponents—plus the tactical intuitions of a chess master. Such a superior creature has yet to appear on the Liberal horizon.

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