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.

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