A third new Liberal leader pending, but the same old problems

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The 2011 election will be remembered for delivering a Conservative majority to Stephen Harper. With the 41st Parliament convening June 2, Canadians can expect to start discovering how this will affect their lives sooner rather than later. The NDP attaining official opposition status ranks as the most surprising outcome of the election, followed closely by the decimation of the Bloc Québecois which lost official party status. The decline in voter support for the Liberal Party to 18 per cent is the third major events of the 2011 election.

Taken together, it looks suspiciously like the Canadian political landscape has undergone a major transformation. Observers make comparisons with 1993 where the governing Progressive Conservative Party was reduced to two seats, the NDP lost official party status, and the Bloc and the Reform launched their parliamentary careers as regional opposition parties.

One thing is sure, the 2011 election revealed the underlying weakness of the Liberal Party. The once proud "naturally governing" party has been reduced to the third party in the House of Commons. No one knows whether it will bounce back, disappear, or morph into something else.

Liberal weakness goes all the way back to 1956, and the pipeline debate, where the party got itself on the wrong side of western Canada, particularly the prairies, and especially Alberta, by giving public subsidies to American companies to build, and control a pipeline that would export natural gas from Canada. New Tory leader John Diefenbaker took advantage to win a minority government in 1957, and in the 1958 general election, virtually extinguished his two opponents, killing off the Western based CCF (replaced by the NDP in 1961), and reducing the Liberals to a parliamentary rump. The Liberals have never enjoyed support in western Canada since. Ironically hardly anyone remembers that well before Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals first made themselves thoroughly unpopular in Alberta by preferring to support American business over Canadian.

It is important to recognize that without Liberal ownership of Quebec for much of the 20th century, the Conservative Party would be considered the natural governing party. When you take Quebec out of the final seat count, in elections held since Confederation, the Conservatives would have won more elections than they lost, instead of losing most of the time to the Liberals.

The Liberals last won a majority of seats in Quebec in 1980 when Pierre Trudeau led them to his last victory, an overall majority. In the intervening 31 years, the Liberals won three majorities under Jean Chrétien (1993, 1997, 2000) without winning a majority of Quebec seats.

The arrival of the Bloc Québecois, which captured Francophone Quebec for the 20 years after 1993, opened the door for Chrétien to take a tough pro-Canada stance in the rest of the country. His ability to "stand up for Canada" helped him maintain a positive image in Ontario. He so dominated the province, he did not need Quebec to win a majority.

Shut out in the west, weak in Quebec, the share of the vote going to the Liberal Party declined even while they appeared to be strong.

The Liberals profited from a divided opposition for over a decade, until the Reform/Alliance party merged with the former Progressive Conservative party to create the Conservative Party of Canada, in time to face Paul Martin in the 2004 election. In office from 1993 until 2006, the Liberals used their time to introduce a series of pro-business policies that undercut the welfare state policies of funding for social assistance, post-secondary education, healthcare, and regional expansion the Liberal Party had put in place in the 1960s. The Liberal "success" in fighting the deficit alienated voters, particularly in Quebec, who wanted increased social spending on childcare, and homecare, not less concern for family well-being.

The Chrétien Liberals changed the rules on party financing to eliminate large corporate (and trade union) donations, while leaving the political tax credit, available to individual party donors in place. Designed to show the party as free of business influence, the new funding measures revealed that the Liberals did not have an individual donor base, and seemingly had no idea of how to go about acquiring one.

After Stephen Harper and his CPC defeated Martin in 2006, many thought the Liberals could gain back power fairly quickly. All it would take was a strong leader, and time for Canadians to get to know Stephen Harper better. Two elections and two leaders later, Liberal prospects have never been bleaker. Without a base in any region, or a strong party membership, or even an easy to identify party philosophy, who now believes a third new leader will solve the Liberal problems?

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca.

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