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The Liberals: From natural governing party to the political wilderness

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There is much to be said about the utter failure of Michael Ignatieff's Liberal Party during the recent election campaign. Here I'm going to look at the demise of the "Natural Governing Party" from a historical perspective.

Since 1984, when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives won a large majority of federal ridings in Quebec, the federal Liberal Party has failed to win a majority of seats in Quebec in any subsequent election, although they came close in 2000. Contrast the last three decades with the era from 1896 to 1984.

In 1896, Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier led his party to victory in a large majority of Quebec seats on his way to power. Since 1896, the Conservatives have won a majority of federal seats in Quebec only three times, in 1958, 1984 and 1988. Beginning in 1993 and in every federal election since then until the NDP swept Quebec on May 2, the Bloc Quebecois has won a majority of federal seats in Quebec.

What made the Liberal Party "the natural governing party" of Canada for over eighty years following 1896 was that it could almost always count on winning a majority of seats in Quebec, usually a very substantial majority. (The term "natural governing party" simply means the party that can usually be expected to win elections.) With Quebec almost always safely in its column the day an election was called, the Liberals had only to do reasonably well in the rest of Canada to win power.

Look at it another way. In only seven elections from 1896 through 1988 -- those of 1911, 1917, 1925, 1930, 1957, 1962 and 1979 (four of the last five of these producing short-lived Conservative minority governments) -- did the party winning a majority of seats in Quebec fail to win the election. Throughout this period, the Liberal Party never won power without winning a majority of seats in Quebec.

During the elections from 1993 through 2000, the Liberal Party successfully masked the loss of its ability to win a majority of seats in Quebec for two reasons, both of them not destined to endure for the long-term. The first of these was the Liberal Party's success in winning an overwhelming majority of seats in vote rich Ontario. The second reason, strongly related to the first, was the division of the political right into two major parties from 1993 to 2003 when the Conservative Party of Canada was founded.

Why did the Liberals lose their grip on Quebec? In 1984 and 1988, after decades of dominating Quebec, the Liberals came up against the phenomenon of Brian Mulroney, a politician from the north shore of the St. Lawrence who was linguistically as much a Francophone as an Anglophone. There had never previously been a Conservative leader like Mulroney. And his timing was ideal. By 1984, the Quebecois were fed up with the great political wars of the preceding two decades between the two giants of the age, Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque. Moreover, by 1984, Canadians, including the Quebecois, were tired of the Trudeau government, after several years of sharp recession and the unseemly spectacle of Liberals rewarding their own with plush appointments in the months leading up to the election.

Beyond Mulroney, there was another and more important reason why the Liberals lost Quebec -- Quebec nationalism.

Pierre Trudeau's liberalism had an enormous impact on Canada, but in Quebec it was a highly divisive force. In the 1968 election campaign, Pierre Trudeau sailed to victory, not only because of the attractiveness of his vision of a Just Society, but in English Canada he was that very special politician, a French Canadian who insisted on making no concessions to Quebec nationalism. He opposed any form of special status for Quebec and insisted that bilingualism and fairness toward the country's two major linguistic communities was the responsibility of Ottawa and all of the provinces. The fate of Francophone Canada, he argued, was not the exclusive problem of Quebec. In English Canada, this was heady stuff. Here was a charismatic Francophone saying that the Quebec nationalists had got it all wrong.

Trudeau's eventual success in patriating the Constitution and in entrenching the Charter of Rights in 1982 was an unqualified success everywhere but in Quebec. In English Canada, the Charter soon became a pillar of the national identity, making English Canadians much more a "rights-based" people than they had been. In Quebec, while the ideas of a written constitution and a Charter of Rights were not anathema, the fact that these were imposed from Ottawa, against the explicit opposition of Rene Levesque's Quebec government, enormously reduced their legitimacy.

Quebec governments suffered no serious legitimacy problem when they used the Notwithstanding provision in the Constitution to override the Charter to achieve their cultural, linguistic or educational objectives. As this "social values" conflict evolved between English Canadians and Quebec nationalists after 1982, quite distinct positions developed on questions such as multiculturalism. Although multiculturalism has recently come under fire in many circles in English Canada, it was seen for several decades as a pillar of Canadian society.

Quebec developed its own concept, called Interculturalism, with Quebecois intellectuals and political leaders making the case that while other cultures have a role to play in Quebec, that role had to be measured against a standard of "reasonable accommodation" that spelled out how far Quebec should go in accommodating other cultures.

Two recent examples will suffice. The Quebec National Assembly has passed legislation prohibiting women who wear the niqab or burqa from obtaining services from public and para-governmental institutions, including doctors' offices and health clinics, as well as government-funded schools, colleges and universities. In addition, the Quebec National Assembly refused admission to a group of Sikh men wearing the Kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to a human rights hearing, on the grounds that this violated security. When asked if such a step was a violation of multiculturalism, a spokesperson for the Parti Quebecois replied that multiculturalism is a Canadian value not a Quebec value.

Shifting the periodic debates between English Canada and Quebec from the ground of pragmatic accommodation between the two linguistic communities to a clash of values can have long-term negative consequences for Canadian federalism.

What is clear is that Trudeau's conception of Canada and of Quebec's place in it, as simply one province among ten, has been rejected by a majority of Quebecois. No provincial political party in Quebec, and this includes the Quebec Liberals, has been prepared to live within the confines of the Trudeau vision. During the debate about the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, Pierre Trudeau who was retired from politics delivered a speech in Montreal, declaiming his opposition to the idea of recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society" in the Constitution. He would certainly have opposed the Harper government's resolution, supported by the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc that Quebec constitutes a nation within Canada -- the Bloc naturally did not agree with the final part of the proposition.

Trudeau's long struggle against Quebec nationalism, while arguably successful, had the consequence of weakening the Liberal Party in Quebec.

When to this were added the political response in Quebec to the Clarity Act of 2000 and to the Sponsorship Scandal, which blew up in 2004, the cumulative resentment against the federal Liberals in Quebec was immense. The Chretien government, with Stephane Dion taking the lead on it, promulgated the Clarity Act to insist that for a Quebec government to use a victory in a sovereignty referendum to take Quebec out of Confederation, the referendum would have to be clear as to its intent and the majority favouring it had to be decisive.

In addition to the deterioration of the Liberal Party's standing in Quebec, there has been the long-term erosion of the party's viability in Western Canada.

The Liberals succeeded in winning most of the farmer Progressives into their ranks, during the 1920s and 1930s (with the exception of a brief period in the mid 1920s and 1930-35 when the Conservatives were in power) the federal Liberals depended on the twin pillars of Quebec and the West (especially Saskatchewan) to win power. (In their huge majority victory in 1935, the Liberals won 56 of 82 seats in Ontario, adding to their dominance in Quebec, the West, and the Maritimes in that election.)

By the time of the 1945 election, the Liberals were already slipping in the West, with both the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Social Credit performing strongly in the region; even the Ontario centred Progressive Conservatives showed strength there. In their massive electoral victory of 1949 -- the Liberals won 191 of 262 seats -- the Liberals dominated all of the major regions of the country. (The only province they lost was Alberta where they took 5 seats compared to the 10 won by the Social Credit.) Again, in the 1953 election, the Liberals won a large majority, although it was reduced from four years earlier.

In 1957, a very significant shift occurred that pointed the way to a future in which the Liberal Party's fortunes would decline in the West. After twenty-two years of Liberal majority government, John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives won a minority electoral victory, taking 112 of the 265 seats. While the Liberals held onto a large majority of seats in Quebec, they were demolished in the West where most of the seats were shared among the CCF, the PCs and the Social Credit. In their massive victory the following year -- Diefenbaker won 208 of 265 seats -- the PCs dominated in every region. The Liberals, winning only 48 seats, did not take a single seat in the four western provinces.

In 1962, with Diefenbaker reduced to a minority government, with 116 of the 265 seats, the Liberals took 99 seats. Significantly, while the Liberals came back strongly in Central Canada -- they won only 35 seats in Quebec because of the rise of the Creditistes (Social Credit) under Real Caouette who took 26 seats -- they managed to win only 6 seats in the West where Diefenbaker held on strongly. The following year, 1963, in another election, Lester Pearson's Liberals won a minority victory, taking 128 of 265 seats, with Diefenbaker's PCs winning 95 seats. In this hour of defeat Diefenbaker held onto a large majority of seats in all three Prairie Provinces, with the newly formed NDP winning 9 seats in B.C. to the Liberals 7, and the PCs 4 in that province. Again two years later, in 1965, the Liberals had to settle for another minority with 131 of 265 seats, while Diefenbaker won 97 seats, clinging stubbornly to his prairie base, while the Liberals managed to take only 8 seats in the West.

A pattern was taking shape. The Liberal Party was becoming the party of Central Canada, and it was on the skids in the West. That was certainly to be the case with the party's new leader Pierre Trudeau, who was elevated to the party leadership and won a majority electoral victory in 1968. In his first election victory, Trudeau's Liberals took 154 of 265 seats with Robert Stanfield's PCs settling for 72 seats. In 1968, Trudeau won 16 seats in B.C. -- he was very popular on the West Coast in urban areas, but the PCs beat him handily in the prairies winning 20 seats to his 11. In 1972, the Trudeau Liberals were thrown back on their Quebec base to sustain them as a minority government. They won 109 seats overall out of 264, just two seats more than the Conservatives. Without his 56 seats in Quebec and 36 in Ontario (four fewer than the Tories), Trudeau would have lost power. The Liberals won only 7 seats in the West. In 1974, Trudeau got his majority back, winning 141 seats with the PCs reduced to 95. Between them, Quebec and Ontario provided 115 of the Liberal seats, with the party carrying 8 seats in B.C. and 5 in the prairies. The Liberals had to rely on Central Canada as its political engine.

In 1979, the PCs under Joe Clark won 136 seats out of 282 to win a minority victory, with the Liberals reduced to 114. In the West, the new citadel of the Conservative Party, the Liberals picked up only 3 seats. Trudeau was back the following year, 1980, with his final hurrah, a majority government. His party won 147 seats out of 282 to 103 for Joe Clark's Conservatives. But the new majority pointed to Trudeau's dependence on Central Canada where he won 126 seats, and carried only 2 in the four western provinces. In the West, Trudeau meant one thing only -- being left out of what looked like an increasingly distant Ottawa.

In 1984, Brian Mulroney's PCs carried every region in the country, winning 211 seats out of 282, while John Turner's Liberals scraped together only 40. Quebec was now gone from the Liberal column -- in that province, the Liberals won only 17 seats to 58 for the Tories. And the Liberals have not won a majority of seats in Quebec in any federal election since then. The Quebec pillar was gone and so too was the Western pillar, which had been eroding for decades. The Liberals carried only 2 seats in the West in 1984.

In 1993, when Jean Chretien stormed to a majority victory against a divided right, he ended up with 177 seats out of 295, with the PCs reduced to 2 seats, the Bloc Quebecois winning 54 and the Reform Party 52. The Liberals did better in the West than in recent elections, carrying 27 seats, 12 of them in Manitoba. But they were far behind the Reform Party with its 51 western seats. And in Quebec, the party won only 19 seats. The story of Chretien's victory as it would be the story of his three majorities was Ontario, where the party carried a stunning 98 seats out of 99. In 1997, the Liberals managed 101 of the 103 seats in Ontario out of their total caucus of 155. In Quebec, they took 26 seats, and in the West a total of 15. The fragility of the Liberals was there for all to see. In 2000, it was the same basic story with the Liberals winning 172 of the 301 seats, to the 66 seats taken by the Canadian Alliance. In the West, the Liberals won 14 seats and in Quebec 36, only 2 seats behind the Bloc, but again the story was Ontario with its 100 Liberal seats.

From there the story of Liberal decline can be quickly told. In 2004, the Liberals under Paul Martin held onto power with 135 seats, a minority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. The new Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, won 99 seats. Martin managed to win 14 seats in the West and 21 in Quebec. His Ontario citadel was under attack. He held onto 75 seats, to the Conservatives 24. In 2006, the party of the united right, the Conservatives, won a minority victory with 124 seats to the Liberals' 103. This time the Liberals were down to 54 seats in Ontario, 13 in Quebec, and 14 in the West. In 2008, the Conservatives gained seats, but still fell short of a majority, winning 143 seats to 77 for the Liberals. This time, the Conservatives won a majority of seats in Ontario, 51, to the Liberals with 38. In the West, the Conservative Party's bastion, the Liberals won 7 seats and took 14 in Quebec.

We have looked at why the Liberal Party fell on hard times in Quebec. What caused its long demise in the West? It should be noted that each of the four western provinces has its own political culture, and what moves politics in Alberta as compared to B.C., for instance, can be quite different. Nonetheless, it is helpful to examine the fortunes of the Liberals in the West as a whole.

In part, the Liberal problem in the West was its long association with Quebec and bilingualism. In part, the idea grew in the West that the Liberals cared only about Toronto and Montreal and didn't concern themselves with "outer Canada."

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Trudeau government's petroleum policies deeply alienated the provincial governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan as well as the powerful petroleum industry. Beginning in the autumn of 1973 and continuing in subsequent years, the Trudeau government fixed the price of domestic petroleum well below the rising world price. Meanwhile the Trudeau government authorized the sale of Canadian petroleum to the United States at the world price and collected the difference between the domestic and export price as an export tax.

In 1980, the Trudeau government introduced the National Energy Policy (NEP), which established the goal of achieving fifty per cent Canadian ownership of the petroleum industry by 1990. This goal was to be achieved by expanding Petro Canada, the publicly owned petroleum that had been established in 1975, and that had grown by buying out the assets of a number of foreign owned petroleum firms. In addition, the goal was to be realized by promoting the expansion of privately owned petroleum firms. These firms were to benefit from a change to tax system that imposed higher taxes on foreign owned than on Canadian owned petroleum companies. This tax differential was to provide capital for Petroleum Incentive Program (PIP) grants to be made to domestically owned petroleum companies to aid them in expanding their operations.

This set of policies, together with the negative effects of a global slowdown of the petroleum industry, opened the Liberals to sustained attacks from the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments and the petroleum industry (not to mention the U.S. government) as hostile of the petroleum sector and responsible for its problems.

Once the unusual Liberal dominance in the elections of 1993, 1997 and 2000 -- largely attributable to the division on the right, the party faced a much more problematic future. As the details of the Sponsorship Scandal struck home with the public in the winter of 2004 the changed realities that confronted the Liberal Party were plainly visible.

Of course, other factors -- changing economic conditions and the quality of leadership -- have played their part in influencing the fortunes of the Liberal Party.

If anything, the Liberals got lucky bounces on the economy. The election of 1993 -- Chretien's first victory -- came at just the right time for the Liberals, allowing them to capitalize on the vast unpopularity of Brian Mulroney (even though the Tories were running under newly anointed leader, Kim Campbell), and the unhappiness generated by the sharp economic downtown of the early 1990s.

Briefly, we turn to the issue of leadership.

Rusty and awkward in public, when he was first elected leader of the Liberal Party and served briefly as prime minister, until defeated by Brian Mulroney's PCs in 1984, John Turner grew in stature and grace as the years passed. By the time he faced Mulroney for the second time in an election in 1988, Turner had become a formidable campaigner. In the second English language television leaders' debate of the campaign, his sharp attack on Mulroney on the issue of free trade briefly propelled the Liberals into first place ahead of the Tories.

Jean Chretien, Turner's successor, was often written off as a light-weight before he won the election of 1993. Having held many cabinet positions under Pierre Trudeau, he was not a stand out in any of them. But he did win three successive majority governments. Luck had a lot to do with this, the luck of being up against a weak and divided opposition. Despite his lack of gravitas at times, Chretien was an effective communicator, especially in English Canada. He had learned the hard lessons of a political pugilist through his decades of experience.

Paul Martin was sworn in as prime minister in December 2003, three years into Chretien's final mandate. Martin was personable and a good listener -- a rarity in politics -- who didn't assume that that he was smarter than everyone around him. He combined a genuine, progressive concern for the well-being of Canadians with a tough, unbending commitment to the neo-liberal ethos. Unlike Chretien, Martin was not lucky. He inherited the Sponsorship Scandal from his predecessor. When it blew up on his watch, he was never able to recover from it.

Stephane Dion, the surprise winner of the 2006 Liberal leadership race, was unpopular in his home province of Quebec, in large measure because he was seen as the author of the Clarity Act, and was completely unsympathetic to Quebec nationalism. As Liberal leader, he never succeeded in winning a large following in English Canada. He was the only Liberal leader who only led his party in one federal election and only the second Liberal leader never to become prime minister.

Michael Ignatieff failed to ignite major affection from the Canadian people. A highly accomplished intellectual, Ignatieff spent decades outside the country in Britain and the United States, a biographical fact that has come home to haunt him in his quest for political success. While in the U.S., he supported the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He has since written that he was wrong about that. Ignatieff pulled the plug on the idea of a Liberal-NDP coalition government when he took over from Dion as interim Liberal leader in December 2008. During the two years prior to the election on May 2, Ignatieff failed to develop a consistent line of attack on the Harper government. He settled on the broad issue of the Harper government's consistent disdain for parliament and the threat this poses to Canadian democracy.

What was missing in the Liberal campaign was a connection with the concerns of Canadians in a society where the tectonic plates have been shifting. In an age of growing inequality, with an ever-wider gap between the rich and the rest, the Liberal record and approach could not connect. Ignatieff was right about the Harper threat to democracy. What he could not perceive was the gathering momentum of discontent with the state of Canadian society among those who are not rich or seriously affluent.

The Liberals were already dead in Quebec and in the West. The rest, they say, is history.

This article was first posted on James Laxer's blog.

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