A few days after winning back a Liberal majority in the 1974 election, Pierre Trudeau invited his national cam- paign committee and media advisers to dinner at 24 Sussex Drive. He reminisced that evening about his father, Charlie, a veteran Quebec campaign organizer for the conservative bleus. Charlie Trudeau spoke with such awe of the vote-getting exploits of what he called the Liberals’ ”œRed Machine” that young Pierre pictured it as a giant unstoppable juggernaut, a magic perpetual motion machine that chewed up and spat out all in its campaign path. That evening, the prime minister looked around at his own rather bedraggled campaign organ- izers, and bemusedly asked us: ”œIs this all there is?”
Pierre Trudeau could well ask the same question today. In recent years, the mythic Red Machine has driven itself unsteadily along the road and sometimes seemed headed straight for a cliff. A period of policy stagnation, the departure of two bruised leaders and rumblings against a barely installed third, loud and divisive intra-party squabbling and a near elec- toral defeat " whatever happened to the Big Red Machine, one of the world’s oldest and most successful political parties? And what are the implications for Canada’s governance, which has been entrusted to the Liberal Party for 75 of the last 105 years?
Writing as a Liberal partisan and party activist for most of my life, and a sympathetic colleague of friends in other par- ties, perhaps I can best summarize my concerns about the current state of the party by contrasting last year’s Liberal leadership convention with the first one I attended in 1958 "as a delegate, it so happened, supporting Paul Martin’s leadership candidacy. Though Paul Sr. came in a distant second, like other opponents of Lester Pearson he was wel- comed back with his supporters and went on to play a distinguished role as Pearson’s external affairs minister. By contrast, the opponents of Paul Jr. were shown the door, and not surprisingly fell to ”œun-Liberal” public squabbling. This was probably predictable given the nature of the 2003 convention and its intra-party prelude.
In 1958, the leadership convention was preceded by and in some meas- ure devoted to refining by party mili- tants of new ideas that would eventually provide the social reform agenda of the Pearson government. In upstairs rooms at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel a core of senior conven- tion delegates consolidated floor reso- lutions and unpaid policy advisors refined them for inclusion in the new leader’s acceptance speech. Three years later in 1961 a Liberal convention was organized to focus exclusively on a set of policy initiatives that would form the platform and shape the issues in the 1962-63 elections and define the legislative agenda when Pearson came to power. I attended this meeting with great expectation, having read in the Edmonton Journal: ”œSome 400 resolu- tions have been drafted by constituen- cy organizations and individual Liberals…Twenty-one subcommittees, on which every delegate and visitor will have a chance to sit, will winnow down the resolutions and feed them to a central policy committee. From there they will go to plenary sessions of the rally for final decision.”
By contrast, the 2003 convention was a lighter-than-air affair of balloons and banners, with a foreign rock singer to add philosophic content. Its sole purpose seemed to be anointing Paul Martin Jr. as party leader and prime minister. A collection of federal lobby- ists, paid Ottawa ministerial staff, pro- fessional organizers, and wealthy businessmen had spent ten years and over $25 million to mount a more or less hostile takeover, as the party elec- toral apparatus was systematically closed to all but one candidate. Meanwhile, the weakest Liberal party president in memory spent two years trying to block election financing reform, convince the public that there was no real need for a leadership con- test, and finally, tried to engineer the withdrawal of the remaining candi- date. This, he cheerfully explained, would save the party the expense of actual balloting, and allow more time for the US-style show-biz spectacle on prime time TV. It was a sad chapter for the same Liberal party which in 1919 had first introduced democratic leader- ship balloting to Canada.
Perhaps no one should have been surprised in the federal election which followed when Liberal signage was painted over with a ”œTeam Mar- tin” logo. Martin advisers opined after two bad polls that the ”œLiberal” brand was no longer useful and would have to go. Many in the party returned the favor by sitting on their hands, or by complaining publicly (no less!) about Paul Martin and his campaign team. For Liberals running against a newly merged Conservative party in English Canada, and a Bloc Quebecois many had left for dead, a minority govern- ment barely snatched back in late campaign was decidedly not a brilliant outcome. In fact, it was ominous.
The question now is whether Martin has the tal- ents, the team and, not least, the desire to get the Red Machine back on the road. The answer is impor- tant not only to Liberal partisans. The Grits are the only Canadian party that has survived for 150 years, and for most of the past 105 years gov- erned the country with some degree of success. Whether they win or lose elec- tions is probably of no great concern to most Canadians. But win or lose, Canadian public life would be far poorer in my view if the Liberals were to lose their cohesion as a broad cen- trist party. Such a development would permanently destroy both a major source of Canadian thinking on the shape of public policy, and a critical link between government and citizen. In the corrupt and ineffectual big-city governments of the Tammany Hall era, we see what happens when parties are too strong. But there are also great dangers Canada should avoid in soci- eties like Singapore where government is efficient and effective but political parties are weak. The weakening of the Liberals is of even greater concern because Canada has already lost (at least for now) its other great historic national party, the Tory party of Macdonald and Cartier.
The thesis of this essay is that the two keys to Grit success were a strong set of Liberal ”œpolicy markers,” and a strong community-based party organi- zation that operated year in and year out " not just in elections. The ero- sion of both explains the Liberals’ cur- rent difficulties.
The current weakening of the Liber- al party began well before the advent of ”œTeam Martin.” It probably would not have occurred but for the neglectfulness of party leaders and their supporters (myself included) dur- ing the five decades since the retire- ment of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Our sins of omission were greatly rein- forced by the evolving political context which has affected all parties. Perhaps the best example of the deterioration in grassroots political participation is that campaign telephone calls that you receive asking for your support are apt to come from a professional phone bank working for two different parties at the same time.
Mackenzie King provided the Liberal gold standard for successful party leadership but his success is often explained with the wrong reasons. Like all parties, Liberals win and lose elections because of a combination of leader, candidates, election machinery, campaign issues and sheer blind circum- stance. None of these factors is particular to Canadian Liberal for- tunes. King, however, is often said to have held power for so long by ruling through a Cabinet coalition of region- al barons, often former premiers with entrenched provincial machines, catering or deferring to their local interests. This is a partial explanation but far from the whole story.
True enough, the British North America Act parliamentary system is ”œsimilar in principle to that of the United Kingdom,” one designed for a small and populous island with more than a millennium of common histo- ry. It never in itself was adequate to govern a vast transcontinental federa- tion with a thinly stretched popula- tion, speaking no common official language. Hence regional coalitions were necessary to gain and successfully exercise power. But that would be true for any Canadian party. What’s more, Lester Pearson and others who worked directly with Mackenzie King told me that he was anything but pas- sively deferential to his regional minis- ters. A former finance minister recalled that King, placed high in a comfort- able chair behind his desk, would keep three or four disputatious ministers squirming for hours on small uncom- fortable stool-like chairs until he got his way on key issues.
He was able to do so in part because he cultivated his own sources of grassroots information. In my southern Alberta hometown, two women active in the Liberal Party and the community regularly wrote informative letters to ”œMr. King” and received not only one or more hand- written replies every year, but an invi- tation to tea at Laurier House. King was in regular touch with thousands of individuals from every corner of the country.
Along with the regional baron the- ory, another popular explanation of Liberal success is that the Grits give their leader unshakable loyalty, while the Tories ”œalways shoot their leader in the back.” John Turner, Jean Chrétien and even Paul Martin might be forgiv- en if they disagree. More important, both theories confuse cause and effect. Barons and loyalists are important, but don’t stick around very long when political failure looms.
In my view, both party loyalty and regional coalitions worked only because of the two fundamental keys to the party’s success that today’s Liberals often seem to have mis- placed: a community-based party organization, and the Liberal policy markers. Neither key can work with- out the other.
What I refer to as ”œpolicy markers” are not platform promises, cam- paign issues or legislative programs. All of these are important but over time are endless in number and changeability, in order to adapt to changing govern- ment priorities and public needs. By contrast, policy markers are political tenets of sufficient consistency and longevity to identify the party to its members and to potential voters. The markers are essential to party identity in order to attract and retain active workers and candidates as well as an increasingly independent elec- torate. Students of politics know that elections are won by hav- ing your issue become the issue for the voters. It is the long-time markers that tell voters they can trust you on your issue.
Some markers have disappeared, like the old Liberal identity as the protagonist for rural Canada and provincial rights. Seventy years in power in Ottawa tends to make a party more centralist, and Canadians have moved en masse from farms and small towns to large cities. The price for los- ing this Liberal marker was clear in recent elections when rural and small- town English Canada voted solidly Conservative, perceiving the Liberals as a party that not only ignores rural Canada but willfully opposes it.
The current policy markers of the Liberal party have evolved over time and are fairly familiar to many Canadians. The most crucial Liberal markers are these:
Reform, which is so central to Liberal identity that it was the party’s name up to and during the leadership of George Brown. The marker has stood for political reform, ranging from the introduc- tion of responsible government under Baldwin and Lafontaine, to battling ruling-class power and patronage abuse at the time of Brown, Mackenzie and Blake, to entrenching a constitutional Charter of Rights under Trudeau. Since the 1920s, the Liberal reform marker has most importantly sig- nified social reform, or the cre- ation and improvement of a modern welfare state.
French-English partnership, which has been essential to success of the party, and ran from pre- Confederation Canada to the era of the Official Languages Act. It is per- sonified by the unbroken French- English party leadership alternance begun with Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Canadian identity, assuring inde- pendence first from Britain, then from the United States, as exem- plified by Laurier’s refusal to send troops to the Boer War and King’s role in creating the Statute of Westminster, Pearson’s stand against the Vietnam War and Jean Chrétien’s on the US invasion of Iraq, and numerous policies foster- ing cultural industries.
Balanced economic management, generally by navigating between strong support for the private sec- tor, and government intervention when necessary to protect or pro- mote the public interest.
Open immigration, which was extended to non-English-speaking Europe by Laurier and Clifford Sifton, and to developing coun- tries by Pearson, accompanied by public institutionalization of mul- ticulturalism.
Some would define the five current Liberal markers a bit differently and no one would deny that other political parties pursued some of the same goals at different times. It is also true that some Liberal leaders contributed less than others to preserving the markers. And that others only did so over excru- ciatingly long periods of time (Mackenzie King), or after a swift kick in the rear from the electorate (Trudeau in 1972 and 1979) or their own caucus (Chrétien in 2001). But these five markers have been part of the Liberal fabric long enough, and pursued con- sistently enough, to have become part of the Liberal identity.
What concerns me now, however, is that in recent years enough of these markers have gotten blurred for enough of the time to raise a serious question about the future of one of the party’s two permanent foundations.
The Liberal approaches to Canadian independence and to bal- anced economic management, for example, need serious rethinking in face of corporate globalization and govern- ment privatization, a new generation of telecommunications, environmental fragility vs. rising world resource requirements, and other geopolitical challenges like US military hegemony. Similarly, the Liberals will have to cope much better with public pre-occupation with terrorism and urban complaints about overburdened infrastructure in our largest cities if they intend to retain their Open Immigration marker.
But it is the Canadian Liberal Party’s two most deeply embedded policy markers that have most clearly begun to unravel. The party’s stewardship of the French-English partnership was called into question with the near-loss of the 1995 Quebec independence referendum, and more recently with the outright loss of nearly every Quebec francophone Commons seat outside the Island of Montreal. Apart from Stephane Dion’s incisive ”œopen letters” to separatist adversaries, Liberal Ottawa in the past decade has struck many Quebec federalists mainly as a source of warmed-over posturing " and more recently, of course, of the chicanery of the ”œsponsorship scandal.” Whatever ongoing investigations show about the extent of criminal activity, many Quebecers already ask if the party of Laurier now believes their loyalties can be bought by plastering Canada logos onto sports arenas.
An even more visible problem has been the Liberals’ increasingly uncer- tain performance on their single most important marker, that of social reform. The apparent weakening began during the middle Trudeau years but greatly accelerated under Jean Chrétien. The chief reasons probably lie in the urgency assigned to control of the federal deficit and, less under- standably, Prime Minister Chrétien’s belief that Canadians wanted a ”œstand pat” government. They may have. But catering to a then-current mood sim- ply accelerated the serious blurring of this vital Liberal marker.
The clearest result, though not the only one, is the widespread deteri- oration of Canada’s public medicare. Less obvious but just as serious was the neglect of child care, welfare, education and environmental initiatives. The medicare system has been brought low not only by federal funding cuts but by neglect of necessary reforms to meet the challenges posed by new drugs and technology, and new concepts of home care and community medicine. Instead of pursuing reform, the Liberals mud- dled through the late 1990s with off- hand campaign promises to throw some money back into the pot.
During last spring’s election cam- paign, travelling in Ontario, B.C. and the Prairies, I met a number of Canadians (including past Liberal vot- ers) who told me they simply no longer believe any party leader’s promises on medicare. As the election outcome showed, the Grits can’t dine out indef- initely on old markers that are not con- stantly renewed. When it fails to deliver by adapting them to the coun- try’s new needs, a ”œgrand old party” becomes what the right and left have called the Liberals " an old-line party.
At September’s First Ministers’ Conference, Prime Minister Martin made modest progress toward move- ment on medicare reform, and toward unfreezing relations with Quebec City. As a Liberal partisan, I have every hope that he can restore much-needed lustre to key Liberal markers with specific new policy initiatives. After all, this is not the first time the Liberal policy markers have been in eclipse. What’s more, Martin is an incurable policy wonk and has always said his political goal is to emulate his father, an archi- tect of Canadian social reform. But to succeed, Martin will have to overcome his tendency to speak in expletives (”œCities! Youth! Aboriginals!”), while dithering over what to do about them.
Martin should also look beyond the professional campaign technicians who ran his leadership and (less successfully) his election campaign to woo back some of the old-line Liberals they alienated, and more importantly, recruit new Liberals with creative ideas to reinvigo- rate the long-standing markers. Only ”œbig tent” parties work in Canada. In the 1920s Mackenzie King found ways to partner with the Progressives " a breakaway prairie reform movement. Liberal leaders who failed this test shut good men out. King’s Liberal successors knew that " and so did former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
In 1979, one reason Joe Clark lost the House of Commons " and his government " was that he systemati- cally excluded Diefenbaker people from the front bench. Mulroney brought them back. In other ways, the Mulroney leadership provides an apt cautionary tale for the challenges Martin and the Liberals now face.
Partisan considerations aside, I had high hopes when Brian Mulroney assumed the Progressive Conservative leadership. Here was a political party that had given a great deal to Canada and a new leader with mainstream eco- nomic and social views and superbly honed political skills. Mulroney promptly won two impressively large majorities based upon campaigning and organizing skills, classical regional coalition building, and several cam- paign issues astutely chosen to attract disaffected Westerners and nationalist Quebecers. But he created no markers and ignored those that Conservatives had in place.
After eight years, the hated Liberal National Energy Policy was gone; Meech Lake and Charlottetown came and were gone; Mulroney was gone; but so, alas, was Canada’s historic Progressive Conservative Party, at least for the fore- seeable future. Mulroney had both the political opportunity and the leadership skills to restore his party for several gen- erations, but failed. In my view he ignored precisely the lesson that Martin will now have to act upon.
It begins with the knowl- edge that individual campaign issues can turn from winners to losers, and interest-based region- al coalitions are not permanent enough to give a party long and healthy life. That can happen only if it nurtures policy markers that have wide appeal, remain intrinsic to the party’s core iden- tity and adaptive to changing national needs. Mulroney failed to act upon that knowledge, and Martin must not.
Firstly, a party’s policy markers are more essential than ever before if one-time issue voters (like Mulroney’s anti-NEP Albertans and pro-Meech Quebecers) are to stick around long enough to become regular " or at least frequent " party sup- porters. When I first worked for the Liberals in post-war Alberta, many still maintained an underlying belief in Liberal reform, a massive homestead poli- cy and a sense that Liberals were building a Canadian identity. But prairie families also could still identify with the federal Liberals partly because they enjoyed an outing to hear Agriculture Minister Jimmy Gardiner deliver a three-hour barn-burner (not including the 45- minute intermission for country fiddle music), or because a grandfather fre- quently reminded them that ”œMr. Laurier” personally got him a good job on the CPR or sorted out his homestead title. But mass federal patronage (unlike plums for the corporate or professional elite) is largely a thing of the past, and satellite dishes on the roof have supplanted polit- ical spell-binders in the curling rink. By eliminating two past sources of party loy- alty, these changes have reinforced a party’s identification with its policy mark- ers as a reason for ongoing voter support.
For the same reason, a party’s pol- icy markers are even more essential than before to attract and retain the thousands of volunteers who serve as workers, counselors and candidates. Politicians can and do ”œbuy” the serv- ices of campaign professionals, either with policy promises (as Mulroney did in Quebec) or literally with money (most commonly in leadership cam- paigns). But it is not the sign of a healthy party. That was obvious when prominent PCs went off to join the Reformers or the Quebec sovereignists in the early 1990s.
In the Liberal party, alarm bells should have gone off well before party veterans in Hamilton and Vancouver began flirting publicly with the NDP. Political ”œprofessionals” like some of those prominent in the Martin leader- ship and election campaigns have an important role to play. But they are no substitute for committed volunteers, including a core of thoughtful men and women who believe their ideas can add to the evolution of Liberal policies.
Unless Martin can restore the credibility of the traditional Liberal markers, the party will probably be unable to address the erosion in recent times of its second pillar of past suc- cess and future prospects, a permanent community-based party organization. But refurbishing policy markers, while necessary, will not be sufficient. For one thing, all party organiza- tions now face a negative cli- mate toward partisan politics, especially among the young.
When several young peo- ple recently called on me for advice about ”œgetting involved in politics,” my suggestion that they learn the ropes by work- ing with a community-active MP in his or her constituency office astonished them. What they really wanted was help finding a paid job at a minis- ter’s office in Ottawa, ”œa valu- able career experience.”
At a time when fewer young (and less young) Canadi- ans even bother to vote, bemoaning the decline of vol- unteer grassroots participation in a political organization may sound self-indulgently nostal- gic. But rightly or wrongly, I believe that politics in general and the federal Liberal Party in particular suffer public indifference in considerable measure precisely because career profes- sionals have come to call the shots. Some professional organizers are essen- tial to help win leadership contests and election campaigns. But when they wholly supplant the influence of those who come to politics as an avocation, the tendency is to transform citizens into government service ”œconsumers,” and communities into target ”œmarkets.”
I doubt that a broad-based Liberal Party will long survive in its present form without the rebirth of its national grassroots organization. I don’t know whether Mr. Martin can reverse the Liberal organizational decline, but the problems he must address are evident:
restoring the party’s policy markers;
recruiting grassroots volunteers;
re-establishing the Liberal Party continuum;
rethinking the use of communications technology and political funding; and
boosting the constituency role of MPs.
Minority government is probably not the time for the kind of full-scale national policy review that then-party president Vincent Massey organized at Port Hope in 1933 or that Walter Gordon and Tom Kent led at Kingston in 1960. But ”œmini-Kingstons” would be fine. So much the better if such pol- icy shops follow the Kingston/Port Hope model and reach outside the party for participants. A few of those invited might even decide to stay around the party, not because they are rabid partisans, but because their poli- cy initiatives are making progress.
But a far more systematic approach is required if Martin is to become the first Liberal prime minister since Mackenzie King to pay serious atten- tion to constituency-level party recruitment. Prime Ministers St- Laurent, Pearson and Trudeau paid lit- tle if any attention to constituency recruitment. In 1963, on my first day at work at the PMO, I had just run the federal Liberal campaign in Alberta and assumed I was expected to provide a bit of much-needed ”œAlberta expert- ise.” I proudly handed Prime Minister Pearson a thick document I had pre- pared on Alberta party strategy " one that outlined how we should deal with the lack of Liberal presence on the Prairies. ”œWe’ll certainly want to take a look at that,” he smiled, tossing it into his in-box. He changed the subject and never mentioned the paper again. He, St-Laurent and Trudeau came late to politics, and party organization and recruitment were not their cup of tea.
By contrast, Paul Martin Jr. has displayed enormous enthusiasm and talent for recruiting during his two- decade-long leadership quest. He also must be aware that he was able to cap- ture the party’s apparatus in part because Chrétien became indifferent to it once he gained office, and Martin will want to avoid the same mistake.
The leadership campaign now behind him, Martin should ensure recruitment is clearly targeted to strengthen the party " and not just to strengthening his own grip on a weak party structure. After a divisive and ham-handed start, a good beginning would be to tear down the Team Martin banners and replace them with the familiar Liberal Party of Canada banner. Winning a leadership race was one mat- ter. But a strong party organization can- not exist without restoring the traditional feeling of Liberal continu- um. Trying to explain why thousands of volunteers keep on devoting a signif- icant portion of their lives to the party, former environment minister John Roberts says: ”œWe always had the view there was something there before we came along, and there would be some- thing there many years later. While we may have contributed in our time, the important thing is that there is a con- tinuum.” Party recruitment is not just a matter of attracting new members, but of retaining old ones, along with their experience and institutional memory.
A related weakness for Martin to correct is the party’s failure to use new communications technologies to broaden its base, not just to test and target voters. Liberal organizers were always notorious importers of US cam- paign techniques from Washington, D.C. They now could more profitably look toward Burlington, Vermont where young Howard Dean supporters revolutionized political recruiting and fundraising via the internet and e-mail.
True enough, many blame mod- ern communications technology for the breakdown between party politics and the citizen. But as Dr. George Gallup used to say about the political polls he helped invent, ”œDon’t blame the temperature on the thermometer.” What is at fault is the way Liberals (and others) have used the technology.
Though sometimes abused, noth- ing is intrinsically wrong about using imagery to help put across ideas, or polling to probe citizens’ needs. But political polling on issues should be asking citizens: ”œWhat’s your take? What information do you need to make an informed judgement?” The party organization has failed to use commu- nications as a means to educate and to initiate discussion on the set of policies that Liberals choose to espouse. In the late 1930s and 1940s, Liberals like Paul Martin Sr. and David Croll devoted eight years to publicly promoting the proposal for the first unemployment insurance plan and persuading the pub- lic to accept the fiscal risk. By contrast, the Liberals’ 2003 election campaign, supposedly devoted to medicare reform, featured ads attacking Stephen Harper’s stand, to the exclusion of spelling out exactly how the Liberals would tackle the reforms.
No politician should play the helpless victim of modern com- munications technology. Instead, Liberals and others can learn from anti-poverty, environmental and com- munity groups who have used the technology to connect more effectively to the public, to publicize issues as well as to raise funds and recruit supporters. Decades ago, politi- cians as different as René Lévesque, Mitchell Sharp and Ernest Manning achieved office after years of attending three or four neighbourhood coffee discussion groups per evening to debate their ideas. Today, community activists are showing that perhaps Web chat rooms are the venue of choice. In the last election, the Liberal win in several seats in Toronto was influ- enced by massive e-mailing from arts and broadcasting groups strongly opposed to Conservative candidates’ cultural policies.
Along with technology, the role of big-money in politics is widely blamed for cutting political parties off from the grassroots; for the last elec- tion, some backbench MPs spent up to $150,000 to get elected. Chrétien’s reform of political financing will do much to deal with the problem of where the money comes from. But Martin also should re-address what party (and government) money in political life is spent for.
When Prime Minis- ter Pearson travelled to Toronto, his hotel would send a courtesy car to pick him up at the airport while his secretary fol- lowed behind in a Toron- to taxicab, lugging the office typewriter on which she typed his speeches. I doubt that our parliamen- tary democracy has been greatly enhanced by the awesome spectacle of more recent prime ministers who travel with their own television stage set, including custom-made podium, offi- cial crest and special backdrop curtain, as well as two or three Ottawa techni- cians to set it all up. Whether paid by government or party, too much money is spent on the imagery of political lead- ership instead of on the reality of it.
Canada’s last few prime ministers have greatly increased government financial support for elected members of Parliament, and all four party lead- ers have spoken of a stronger role for the MP in the House of Commons. That is well and good. But Martin will miss an important opportunity to help lessen estrangement between Canadians and their politicians " including the Liberals " if he simply enables MPs to spend more time and resources in Ottawa.
No less important is to strengthen their presence in the nation’s constituencies, the grassroots commu- nities where the MP can and should play a stronger role as a hinge between citizens and their government. In the case of the Liberal Party, it is probably the individual member of Parliament who can play the most important sin- gle role in kick-starting a rebuilding of the party’s national organization into a functional grassroots part of public life.
Even at a time when partisan poli- tics is not in high repute, I am not dis- couraged about the prospects for building citizen participation at the constituency level. My experience is that people are willing to get involved in party work if they feel that what they do can matter. It perhaps is no accident that our greatest campaign events have taken place in hockey rinks and theatres: politics is drama, an entertaining spectacle in which all par- ticipants have a role.
A well-run election campaign is like a Broadway show: it runs for a few months; intensely engages people’s attention and emotions; involves a cast of characters working together in an atmosphere of high excitement; succeeds by content and presentation but fails without promotional skill…and is highly vulnerable to its critics in the press.
At the active constituency level, the political show never closes, and the volunteer is not in the audience but on the stage. Yet people want to be part of something that not only is entertaining, but that matters and will continue to. This is one of the reasons why restoration of both the Liberal policy markers and the party continu- um are so essential. It also means the party must restore to the center ongo- ing policy discussion and spot issue response at the local constituency level. Quite apart from recruiting members, a successful party must work regularly with community activists who may not have a partisan bone in their body. The goal is not to convert them into campaign workers, party zealots or even necessarily Liberal vot- ers. Rather, it is to better connect the Liberal party to the needs and con- cerns of the community.
For many years now, the party has been dominated by a national execu- tive and powerful PMO-controlled campaign committees, increasingly pre-occupied at the expense of all else with leadership and election cam- paigns. The Liberal constituency organizations led by MPs (including ministers and nominated candidates) can stand up and take the lead in try- ing to break this inward-looking syn- drome. They can do so if they reach out to local citizens and groups who are committed to given issues and ready to consider how they can most effectively pursue those issues in coali- tion with others, including a national political party with access at times to the levers of government. Sometimes the political pendulum will swing too far in this direction of outreach, and become mere cronyism. But right now that is not a danger. Our politics are at the opposite end of the pendulum swing, where parties and citizens are far too isolated from one another.
The Red Machine will not function effectively again without over- coming the disconnect between activist and community groups, which is where the action is, and the nation- al party organization, where the action increasingly isn’t. I am convinced that Liberal MPs and their local supporters can at least start to bridge this gap. That might have been less realistic in the era when MPs shared a one-room office and the services of a sin- gle secretary. Now their resources have expanded to include a research bureau and individual political staffs of their own. It will be a sad irony if these new apparatchiks only occupy time chatting up the old apparatchiks in the PMO and the Ottawa bureaucracy, instead of helping their MP or minister deal with the citizens and organizations in the communi- ties they represent.
During the 1960s, federal Liberals ran what were called ”œcampaign clinics” where experts taught candidates the techniques of electioneering. Perhaps party constituencies could now organize ”œissue clinics” to further educate politicians about public issues seen from the ground up. MPs and party workers would sit down to learn more about the specific concerns and ideas of community groups. Home care deliv- ery requirements, for example, could be tracked by neighbourhood physi- cians, senior citizens and their fami- lies, and representatives of patients’ rights groups and the regional health board. Some Liberal MPs and their staffs could be talking regularly with local environmental activists, while others are following up with those arts and broadcasting groups that expressed public concern during the last election campaign.
A special challenge exists in con- stituencies where for decades no Liberal MP has been elected. One approach there would be for several thoughtful Liberals to partner with a community organization to involve the public in small policy development groups around locally vital issues.
On both sides of the House, a number of MPs (including several Liberal ministers) have made exception- al efforts to understand and serve their communities’ needs. One useful approach for parliamentarians is to spend more constituency time with their ”œkitchen cabinet” of perceptive friends and neighbours. During the Pearson and Trudeau administrations, kitchen cabinets rather than Ottawa were the source of creative initiatives like the Canada Development Corp., Katimavik and the Company of Young Canadians. Focusing more attention in the communities where Canadians live, rather than in Ottawa where politicians mingle with bureaucrats and lobbyists, should also help the Liberals to avert monumental cock-ups like the sponsor- ship or gun registry fiascos.
While the constituencies are the most obvious place for the party to reconnect, community activists will quickly decamp again if they find that the Liberal pipeline gets clogged when it reaches Ottawa. Whether that happens will ultimately be up to the Liberal Party leader. Only with Paul Martin’s active participation and support can the party re-establish its policy markers, recruit new and retain old activists, and re- open its lines to the community. Martin”˜s immediate Liberal and Tory predecessors as PM learned with dismay that diverting all party resources to lead- ership and election victories is ultimate- ly self-defeating, both for the party and for the leader himself.
If the Liberal Party does not correct its course under Martin, some may even- tually propose a more radical way to re-open the party’s pipeline from its constituency grassroots. That would be by amending the party constitution to select and remove its leader, as the British Tory party does, by a majority vote of the parlia- mentary caucus. Despite world- wide prestige and a Commons majority, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was forcibly evicted from 10 Downing Street when her MPs concluded that she had lost touch with the needs and realities of the public.
My own view is that the Liberals’ choice of leader by the party as a whole is a better system and will continue to serve us well. But it is based on the proposition that the Liberal Party of Canada remains able to form gov- ernments of and for our citizens " and that will now require a refurbished set of Liberal policy markers, and a renovated national party organization.