Two steps backwards for the Liberals

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Once upon a time there was a Liberal party. The new party president, Mike Crawley, elected this past weekend at the party convention in Ottawa, thinks it needs to change. It is not enough to say "national" and "plan" every time we are confronted with an issue, he opined.

The Liberal party must move beyond its membership, the convention delegates decided on the weekend. From now on, anyone prepared to say they "support" the party will be able to vote in the next party leadership contest. Outsiders will be invited to discuss policy with Liberal caucus members, along with party members.

Interestingly while most of the Ottawa delegates (over 2,500) voted in the race for party president (former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps lost), significantly less (1,744) cast a vote to open the party to non-members.

The very notions new party president Crawley wants to discard -- "national" and "plan" -- were instrumental in the rise of the Liberal party.

The old Liberal party dominated Canadian politics. Its first great leader was Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He was prime minister from 1896 until 1911. Canada underwent an enormous economic boom in that period. The 1879 Conservative national policy -- a revenue tariff, a transcontinental railway, and immigration -- had failed. Unfortunately, a world depression started about when it was introduced.

The same national policy worked wonderfully for over a decade when the Depression lifted just in time for Laurier to form his government. The Liberals did not invent the national policy idea; they did see it work.

Until the constitutional wars of the 1980s, the Liberals owned the issue of national unity. This strength dates back to the Laurier Liberal party, which gathered strength in Quebec, among Roman Catholics and Francophones. It maintained that electoral strength under prime ministers Mackenzie King, Pearson, and Trudeau, until John Turner got caught in the anti-Liberal backlash of 1984.

Despite winning three majority governments, Jean Chrétien did not rebuild Liberal support in Quebec. Instead he maintained his Canada-wide reputation combating nationalist opinion in his home province, winning Anglophone- and Allophone-dominated Montreal ridings easily, and a few others with difficulty.

What candidate for party president Sheila Copps tried to explain, unsuccessfully, was that the Liberal party ceased to belong to its riding association members when in 1991 the leader was given the authority to name candidates for parliament. The party leader had always decided policy, but the membership chose its leader, and its candidates for MP. Why join a party if you could not win a party nomination? Membership languished, predictably.

Now the Liberals have decided that it is good enough just to be a party supporter. But donors fuel the party, and members are needed to do the work to elect a candidate. By weakening its active membership, and donor base, the Liberals are poised to take two steps backwards.

When Jean Chrétien decided to end corporate funding of political parties, he left a poisoned pill for his longtime rival and successor, Paul Martin. The Liberal election-financing act favoured the Reform/Alliance party, with its committed membership base of party donors, not the Liberals with its corporate funders. When Stephen Harper re-branded it as the Conservatives after a takeover of the old Progressive Conservative party, Reform/Alliance was ready to challenge the Liberals.

Under Chrétien and Martin, the big-business wing of the Liberal party had taken control of policy; he who pays the piper calls the tune ... and much more. Social Liberals such as Copps and the Axworthy brothers were marginalized. One of the results of demonizing Quebec nationalism was that Quebec Liberals, the mainstay of social Liberalism, played a diminished role in the party. Since it was social Liberalism that made party members proud to be Liberals, the stage was set for the demise of the party as a national electoral force, dropping 800,000 votes in each of the last three elections. Liberal Premier of Ontario Dalton McGuinty was warmly welcomed in his home city. In his keynote speech to delegates on opening night, to great applause, he sounded a Liberal note: Canadian want a government that builds schools, not prisons. The premier was less impressive when he touted his government for closing old plants, and building new ones with green jobs. What the mayor of Quebec City is not afraid to call "le capitalisme sauvage" is creating havoc in Ontario, and neither the federal Liberal party, or the McGuinty government, knows what to do about it.

Coming out of the Ottawa convention, the Liberal party faces the same three problems it had going into the convention. It has no leader, no money and no policy direction.

Alongside Liberal past success lies past failures. "Muddling through" is a Liberal practice: it once again has pride of place.

Duncan Cameron is rabble.ca's president. He writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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