Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Crisis of Faith: The Liberal Party of Canada

A crisis of faith occurs when a person's worldview is fundamentally challenged and requires, usually, a rapid and drastic alteration to confront the new reality. This is what has happened to the Liberal Party of Canada.

Between 1993 and 2006 the Liberal Party held power in Canada. For most of that period the country and party was under the leadership of Jean Chretien (1993-2003). Chretien's successor Paul Martin began an era of failing leadership for the Liberals. Martin very much earned the moniker Mr. Dithers from his flip-flopping on policies and being chronically indecisive. With the combination of mounting negative views of Martin and the corruption charges of Adscam and the Sponsorship scandal the Liberal party lost power in the 2006 election.

However, looking back it is fairly clear that the Liberal majorities of the 1990s and 2000s were largely fueled not by any grand vision or leadership, but by the fractured Canadian political landscape. The Liberals under Chretien only ever won little more than 40% of the popular vote, which in our system is enough for massive majorities. Soon as a credible alternative could be put to the Liberals - a united Conservative Party - they were elected to government.

Say what you will about Stephen Harper, love him or hate him, but he has made serious missteps in government, mistakes the Liberals should have been able to exploit, but the Conservatives have only gained in succeeding elections. In 2008 under Dion the Liberals sunk to a 26.2% of the popular vote, only one time was it less, in 1867 against Macdonald's Conservatives.

Ignatieff like Dion and Martin before him is struggling to gain traction. Why? I believe it is because the Liberals don't stand for anything any more. The party occupies the centre of the political spectrum, so unlike the NDP, Conservatives or Bloc cannot derive massive support from an ideological base, especially considering the centre is contested to some extent by the Greens, and the previously named parties - especially the Conservatives.

Liberal leaders have been forced to lift policies from other parties. Dion's Green Shift was a direct attempt to usurp the Green Party, and the deal with Elizabeth May cooperate to an extent in the election in Central Nova clearly illustrated a need to find some kind of identity.

I consider myself an informed person in terms of Canadian politics, and I cannot really state firmly what the Liberals stand for. This tells me they stand for nothing. The Liberal identity was as the "natural governing party of Canada". After four and half years of Conservative governance that's a hard claim to make. The Liberals were a centrist governing party, and without holding the reigns of power their relevance is being sapped away to stronger, more principled parties - the Conservatives, the Bloc, the NDP and the Greens.

If the Liberals hope to unseat the Harper government hey need to create a cohesive message of who they are and what they believe. A July 6 poll showed the Liberals at 23.9%. At that range the Conservatives could form a majority and the Liberals may be eclipsed as the Official Opposition. The Liberals have gone through three leaders, and created no original ideas. Leadership isn't a flippant choice, people have to want to follow, but first you have to have a real destination.

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