The Liberals: Whatever happened to the greatest good for the greatest number?

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Liberal Party fortunes are so bleak that when an EKOS poll put them at 29 per cent support (neck-and-neck with the Harper Conservatives) it was an occasion for celebration ... that is something other than having the good sense to hold a caucus retreat in beautiful Baddeck, Nova Scotia.

Most analysis focuses on lacklustre leadership to explain why the once mighty Liberal Party of Canada stands so low in public esteem. True, Michael Ignatieff remains disliked or not liked by about three out of four Canadians. Agreed, he has yet to reveal any personal gift for electoral politics. Indeed, until his recent Liberal Express bus tour of Canada, he had not shown a real determination to get on with the job he inherited when the Liberal caucus made Stephan Dion step aside.

Liberals are not the only party with leadership problems. Stephen Harper represents the Liberals' best chance to take charge in a minority parliament. As Brian Topp concludes in his blog post, by trying to dump the long gun registry, Harper seems bent on making Ignatieff look good.

Liberals have money problems. The Conservatives have raised $8 million in the first six months of this year, while the Liberals have collected only $3 million. Until direct corporate donations were eliminated, the Liberal party lived off money from the four big banks (CIBC, BMO, RBS, and Scotia) and each of their associated investment brokers. With the eight entities each kicking in about $250,000, Bay Street provided a $ 2 million basic yearly budget for the Liberals. When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien changed the financing rules, it was the party he led that suffered the most, and they have yet to recover.

Money talks, and it talked the Liberals into becoming Bay Street friendly, turning away from the pre-occupations of voters in Quebec for example, worried about health care, and unemployment insurance, and unimpressed by $100 billion worth of tax cuts in the 2000 Paul Martin budget the supposed "reward" after massive budget cuts made by Chrétien and Martin in 1995.

Pollster Nik Nanos told The Hill Times the Liberals "need to put something in the window" so that people have something to judge. If asked what the Liberals stand for, many Canadians would be hard pressed to answer. "A strong banking sector? " Maybe. Many Liberals would be hard placed to come up with a meaningful response.

At one time it meant something to be a Liberal. When Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau announced his candidacy for the parliament of the Province of Canada in 1844, he summarized his program this way: The greatest good for the greatest number. This liberal creed, as identified by British social philosopher Jeremy Bentham as the greatest happiness, still resonates today, but Liberals have lost touch with the ideas that once inspired people to join the party -- and vote for it.

In his first campaign speech, Chauveau (who won, and later became the first premier of Quebec) spoke from the steps of Saint-Roch Church in Quebec City, and talked about the need for education, prosperity through industry, and responsible government. Today the Liberals have nothing memorable to say about democracy, industrial policy, or education, and stand poorly in Francophone Quebec.

At his caucus retreat, Michael Ignatieff talked about the big red Liberal tent, where all Canadians could find a place. It is fair to ask: to do what?

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics, and is president of rabble.ca.

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