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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