Alf App's paper on rebuilding the Liberal Party of Canada is definitely worth reading. On a tactical level, it contains a lot of good ideas. It also provides a unique and informative perspective on the inner-workings of the Liberal Party, especially the extra-parliamentary organization and how it relates to the parliamentary organization.
But Alf's analysis misses a few crucial points, some of which I've already discussed in my earlier post on the roadmap recommendations.
First, there is no discussion or acknowledgment of the rise of the Green Party of Canada since 2003. In fact, there is barely any mention of the Green Party at all. In my experience, the Green Party is supported by a wide range of very reasonable people. Remarkably, the GPC increased its popular vote by 800% from 2000 to 2008 before sliding back to just over 540,000 votes in the last election. One of my provisional theories, based mostly on my own dealings with Green supporters, is that they are quite often either disaffected Progressive Conservatives or disaffected Liberals. The Green Party is also quite popular among young people. Understanding why former PCs, former Liberals and younger people vote Green is key to rebuilding our base of supporters.
Second, the paper does not adequately confront a series of uncomfortable truths:
- Alienation of the West since the Diefenbaker era, reinforced by the National Energy Policy brought in under Trudeau (there are zero mentions of energy policy in the document) and subsequent deficit of talented and experienced Liberal politicians elected in the West (there have been a few)
- The damage done to the credibility of the Liberal Party by the Chretien/Martin infighting and the sponsorship scandal, especially in Québec
- The departure of a significant number of successful Liberal politicians with experience in cabinet (Chretien, Rock, Manley, Martin, Copps, Graham, McLellan, Peterson, Robillard, Boudria, Pettigrew, Stewart, Mitchell, Collenette, Caplan, Anderson, Cauchon), including virtually all of the ministers with experience in economic or international portfolios except John McCallum, Ralph Goodale and Reg Alcock (who has since passed away).
- The disastrous attempt, shortly after the election in 2008, to form a governing coalition with the NDP, supported by the Bloc Québecois
- The interim-to-ratified-Leader path that Ignatieff followed, and its influence on how he was perceived by Canadians
- The successive selection of two Leaders (Dion, 2 years; and Ignatieff, 2.5 years) who were not well liked by Canadians and who quit as Leader after leading the party to defeat in one election
This chart from the Pundit's Guide shows the cumulative effect of these events. The decline started showing up after the 2000 election.
The alienation of the West is a huge problem and one that has, in fact, gotten worse in recent years. In 2004, running against the new Conservative Party and Stephen Harper, the Liberal Party received 22% of the vote, won two seats and placed second in every other riding (26). In 2011, the LPC received 9.3% of the vote and only placed second in three ridings. In 2008, local Liberal candidates in Alberta only spent 24% of the spending limit (presumably 2011 was just as bad, or worse). We need to listen to folks in the West and propose policies that reasonable people will support. Exaggerating the danger posed by the Conservatives will be counterproductive for us, especially in the West. Many of the ideas in the roadmap regarding EDAs will apply in the West, especially Alberta.
The sponsorship scandal: any time it comes up, we need to apologize for it happening while we were the government. Paul Martin's address to Canadians was actually very good in this regard:
I want to talk to you directly tonight – about the problems in the sponsorship program; about how I’ve responded to them as your prime minister; and about the timing of the next general election.
Let me speak plainly: what happened with the sponsorship file occurred on the watch of a Liberal government. Those who were in power are to be held responsible. And that includes me.
I was the Minister of Finance. Knowing what I've learned this past year, I am sorry that we weren’t more vigilant - that I wasn't more vigilant. Public money was misdirected and misused. That’s unacceptable.
But the Conservatives love to keep bringing it up and we need to respond responsibly when they do because it was very serious failure of governance. For example, in 2010, in response to David McGuinty's questions in the House of Commons about Rahim Jaffer and Helena Guergis, John Baird said: "Is there a single member in the Liberal caucus who will stand and apologize right now for the Liberal sponsorship scandal? Just one member stand up right now." Rather than continuing on about Jaffer/Guergis, McGuinty should have simply acknowledged that the sponsorship program was a mess and that he was sorry that it happened on the watch of a Liberal government. Beyond being a huge waste of public funds (see the auditor general's report if you've forgotten the details), the sponsorship scandal severely damaged the credibility and morale of Liberal members of parliament, staffers, members and supporters, especially in Québec. We owe them an apology as well.
Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about the retirement of senior Liberal politicians. But we should realize that we no longer have the credibility that these folks provided and that it is up to a younger generation of Liberals to lead the way. There is hope for these aspirants: Stephen Harper was just 34 years old when he was first elected as an MP, 45 when he was Leader of the Opposition and 47 when he became Prime Minister. Rebuilding our party will take a long time, so this younger generation will have to be determined and persistent in the face of adversity.
The attempted coalition, while a perfectly legitimate means of governing, was a terrible idea. Coming as a surprise, in response to a threat to party financing, and in partnership with the NDP and Bloc, this was perhaps the single biggest failure of the Liberal Party since Harper became Prime Minister. I am sure the intentions of those involved were noble, but for the Liberal Party, this one decision tarnished our credibility with voters who do not support the NDP or the Bloc. Here are the main reasons why, in my view:
- It was too soon after the election, so the move appeared anti-democratic.
- The economic update threaten public financing of parties, so the moved looked selfish.
- The person put forward as Prime Minister, Stéphane Dion, had very low personal approval ratings in the polls, so it seemed unjust.
- The coalition would have to depend on the support of the Bloc, but many of our supporters have a distinct antipathy towards the Bloc.
All of these reasons would motivate blue Liberals to support the Conservatives instead of the Liberals. These are exactly the people the Conservatives needed to peel away from the Liberal Party in order to secure their majority government. We could not have made it any easier for the Conservatives.
The appointment and ratification of Ignatieff as Leader was short-sighted. I say this as someone who supported Ignatieff from the start and who believes that he is a good man who did a good job in very bad circumstances. But we should always rely on the considered judgement of our members to choose our Leader. In addition to alienating many of our members, appointing and then ratifying Ignatieff as Leader played right into the way the Conservatives were framing him as an out-of-touch elitist.
Like many of the points above, our successive selection of Dion and Ignatieff as leaders of the party, and their rather short tenures, has further damaged our credibility with voters. Given the scope of the defeats, and the circumstances after the 2008 and 2011 elections, I can understand why both of them resigned. But it is very harmful to be continually introducing a new person as leader of our party. Since Paul Martin in 2006, we have had four others: Bill Graham, Dion, Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Only Dion was selected by members and none were selected using our new weighted one-member, one-vote system. As we look forward to selecting our next Leader in 2012, we should keep this in mind: we need someone who can survive a defeat, if that happens, and who Canadians can come to know over time as a reasonable and better alternative.