The Liberal Party of Canada is a fascinating outfit; a perennial case study for political apprentices.
Sometimes referred to as Canada’s “natural governing party,” because they were in power for much of the 20th century, Liberals cling to that undemocratic-sounding designation, scrambling to find the next big thing to put them back in their “rightful” place.
But as they search for a winning formula, by changing leaders and political staff at a furious pace, the recent past is riddled with dark omens.
We cast our attention back almost seven years ago to Paul Martin, a man Liberals declared the best Finance Minister ever before history had time to render its judgment (and we now know how harmful the mid-1990s cuts to federal transfers were to social programs); a man who took 93% of party delegate votes at the 2003 Liberal leadership convention, trouncing his only opponent, Sheila Copps. It wasn’t a mere leadership win — it was a coronation.
As Prime Minister, Paul Martin declared everything a priority. And when everything is top of the list, nothing is top of the list. Lacking focus, indecisive, given the devastating label “Mr. Dithers” by the Economist, Martin led the “natural governing party” to a minority in 2004 and to defeat in 2006. All the hopes piled high into the heavens by those Liberals who thought Martin would lead them into a 21st century dynasty, came crashing down to earth.
A few Liberal rainmakers began to sniff around for the next Trudeau, the next charismatic leader who would inspire mania; forgetting that Trudeau-mania was a relatively short-lived phenomenon and that he was eventually loathed by many, particularly in the west.
The Liberal poobahs were certain that the next leader for a generation could be found in Michael Ignatieff. Erudite, well-travelled, tremendous political pedigree, this brainy scholar could smile for the cameras, do pirouettes around the robotic Harper and his troglodytic henchmen, and power would be in Liberal hands once again.
But, due to the mechanics of delegate voting, the Liberals’ desire for Tiger Tail melted in favour of vanilla. Stéphane Dion, the nerdy academic who could stand in a room and blend in with the wallpaper, became the new king. Harper and his minions grinned.
Leading one of the worst election results in recent history for the Liberals, Dion’s days were numbered. After an attempt at a coalition with the NDP, supported by the Bloc, Dion faltered further as Harper exploited Canadians’ ignorance of our Parliamentary model to foment support for the Conservative government, while painting Dion et al as crassly craving power in the midst of a recession.
Harper’s manipulation of voters worked. Dion was done. Ignatieff was crowned, without a vote by party members, and contenders Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc bowed out of leadership contention. Once again, the delusional Liberals looked to their new king to lead them into a renewed era of Liberal dominion.
But Ignatieff has not inspired and stimulated and enraptured Canadians. On the rare occasion he has spoken about policy, some don’t see a marked difference between him and Harper. While Canadians may not believe the Conservatives’ contention that Ignatieff is an elitist, out-of-touch academic, there is much uncertainty about who Ignatieff is and what he stands for. All the ice-cream-eating-fluffy-slipper-wearing appearances on This Hour Has 22 Minutes is not going to make Ignatieff a rock star.
The Liberals, knowing that they can’t ditch this guy for another middle-aged, privileged, white male, are stuck with their dance partner. But if only they could find their deus ex machina, that god from the machine who will guide them through this impasse.
Enter Peter Donolo. An unelected political operative, tasked with rehabilitating Ignatieff’s image, and re-making the Opposition Leader’s Office (OLO). Out with the old and in with the, um, old. That’s right, Donolo, Chretien’s communications guru, is back to get rid of old OLO Liberal staff and replace them with older Liberal staff.
Former Quebec Cabinet Minister and supporter of Martin’s 1990 leadership bid, Jean-Marc Fournier, is Ignatieff’s new principle secretary. The new director of communications, Mario Leguë, worked for years in federal and provincial Liberal politics, while the new director of policy, Brian Bohunicky, was a political aide during the Chretien years.
Trying to re-capture that Chretien magic, that winning formula, by turning to yesteryear to make tomorrow better. It’s like the colourization of Bringing up Baby: it looks kind of new, but the story is the same and in fact, the colour looks a bit washed out.
As things stand, Donolo has a Sisyphean task before him; he will only get that boulder so far before it starts rolling down the hill again.
One can only use the material one is given. And a series of changes to the batting line-up isn’t going to transform a bush league ball team into World Series champs.
A winning team starts with strong leadership. And wanting your leader to be the great saviour, doesn’t make him (or her) great.
Donolo can tinker and trim and toil, but the Liberals will be demanding a new leader if this one fails to win the next federal election. Their quixotic quest continues.