The other day, a woman phoned from the CBC. ”œProfessor Morton, why are so many people leaving their parties these days?”

She had no lack of examples " mostly eastern Tories fleeing the clammy embrace of the Canadian Alliance; but also Keith Martin, the occasional Medecin sans frontiéres from Esquimalt, who confirmed the worst suspicions of CA nean- derthals by joining the Liberals; or Jean Lapierre, Liberal-turned Bloc québécois-turned Liberal, who plans to manage Quebec for Paul Martin. One might even mention Sheila Copps’ well-publicized phone chat with NDP leader Jack Layton, Ontario MP and John Bryden bolting the Liberals, blaming Paul Martin on the way out, and joining the Conservatives.

”œIs it possible,” I rejoined, ”œthat the parties have been leaving their members?”

Well, is it?

After three successive Liberal majorities for Jean Chrétien, and a fourth still possible for his ungrateful heir, the competition should be changing their marketing strategy. Unlike some decades of the old century, Canada for the past ten years has been under substantially conservative manage- ment. Yet the official holders of the brand, the Reform-Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, have not had so much as a whiff of power. Instead it has been the Liberals who skinned the social programs Brian Mulroney did not dare touch, expanded the Free-Trade Agreement to Ronald Reagan’s original North America-wide dream, and eased the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy while holding fast to the Goods and Services Tax. Who needed Jean Charest or Joe Clark? Especially who needed Preston Manning or Stockwell Day, whose social conser- vatism sent shudders through much of Quebec and Ontario?

The undignified haste with which Peter MacKay forgot his leadership-win- ning pledge never to negotiate merger with the Alliance will arm political cyn- ics with evidence for years. In fact, MacKay was under orders from his financial backers to get his outfit out of business fast. If, after more than a decade in the wilderness, right-wingers had even a hope of a comeback, it almost always vanished the moment Tory and Alliance candidates faced each other across every main street in Ontario and the Maritimes. With Paul Martin’s Liberals in office and likely to stay there, Canada’s corporate establish- ment had no imaginable use for three competing right-wing parties. If David Orchard couldn’t get that message, he and his pals could join the Liberals or, even better, the NDP. Indeed, it might serve the socialists right to have to put up with Orchard’s righteous factionalism.

Back in the 1960s, Canada’s last real reforming age, a small but youthful NDP provided most of the agenda for the Pearson Liberals. The faded green program the New Democrats adopted at their 1961 found- ing convention was a fair agenda of fed- eral policy, from universal medical care insurance to federally-funded urban renewal, from the Canadian Development Corporation to recognition of the Communist regime in Beijing. With some of its neatest ideas purloined and its batty kind of nuclear neutralism drained away, the NDP became conser- vative in its own way. From the 1970s, its leaders defended the social democracy Canada unconsciously became in the postwar years. Youngsters who grew up in a home-owning, holiday-taking, uni- versity-bound Canada, where a cancer-ridden mother no longer meant family bankruptcy, had no notion that these conditions were won by union-backed socialists squeezing power-seeking Liberals.

Even worse, when the NDP won provincial power " and by 1991, half of all Canadians lived under a socialist government " their reforms had dwindled to mere tinkering, some of it inept. The NDP’s electoral collapse in 1993, comparable to the death throes of the CCF, owed nothing to Ed Broadbent or even his lacklustre suc- cessors, and everything to the per- formance of his provincial partners, Bob Rae, Mike Harcourt, Roy Romanow and the already beaten Howard Pawley. All that remained was a tiny, battered federal caucus with barely the energy to say ”œNo” to what- ever the Chrétien government did. Weary, demoralized backers closed their cheque books and went home in despair. Some of them, polls show, even voted Reform.

Absent the NDP, Liberal politics in the 1990s took on a right-wing tilt. Jean Chrétien was a populist with a strong distaste for the self-important, but he was, above all, an inland waters sailor, watching the wind and keeping off the foreshore. Since the reefs were all to the starboard, they guided his course. Just holding the tiller was pleas- ure enough for the little guy from Shawinigan, especially when it made his patrician colleagues squirm. Paul Martin was one of them, but he bided his time, cultivated the rancorous jeal- ousies of those excluded from the Chrétien circle, captured riding associa- tions beyond the prime minister’s purview and by mid-2003, months before Chrétien quit on December 12th, Martin had the keys to the Liberal party in his pocket.

The pundits who wrote so know- ingly of invincible prime ministerial power were wrong. Whether through love, fear or hope of gain, even a dic- tator like Saddam Hussein needed loy- alty. So did Chrétien. A venerable culture of caucus discipline, cultivated by Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, had grown into a parliamentary system that gives durable power only to disciplined ranks of MPs. After Chrétien had unveiled his last, mini- mal cabinet shuffle, ten years of deferred gratification exploded. Countless unfulfilled ambitions could only be satisfied by rebellion. Scores of ambitious would-be cabinet ministers could gain portfolios and perquisites only from Paul Martin. When Martin finally gained power last December, even the face-saving courtesies of intra-party conflict vanished in thin air. Only a small handful of ministers who had made their peace with Martin could stay. The rest were toast.

Talk of democratic deficits and new status for backbenchers masked a revo- lution in MP self-esteem that will mat- ter more than any new name-change on the political right. For veteran poli- tics-watchers, the once disciplined levies of liberalism are a memory. No wonder the defectors went straight to the Liberal caucus: it had become the only exciting party on the hill.

Of course, revolutions are easier to start than to stop. If Martin could depose Chrétien, can someone now depose Martin? How many MPs believe they have the talent for the top job? How soon will embittered Chrétienites use their new leisure and their old contact lists? Will only devoutly loyal Martinites win nomina- tions and seats in the next election? Currently bored by the parliamentary spectacle, will Canadians begin to find it too exciting? The media may rejoice but since when have they had any seri- ous commitment to rational policy and sensible management?

A major delight of politics is the unexpected. In the Chrétien years, an inept, predictable opposition left serious criticism of the government to the auditor general. Huge cost overruns and mismanagement in HRDC and the gun registry were successfully sloughed off by prime-ministerial denial. Many well-connected Montrealers, with the apparent exception of Paul Martin, could detect a faint whiff of corruption among pro-federalist ad agencies involved in a so-called sponsorship pro- gram, hurriedly rigged in the wake of the tiny ”œno” side victory in the 1995 referendum. An earlier auditor general’s report hurried Alfonso Gagliano out of the cabinet and off to Denmark, per- haps to experience a country with allegedly the cleanest politics in Europe. In early February 2004, when Auditor General Sheila Fraser turned sponsor- ship into a $100 million scandal, Paul Martin embraced the issue as a chance to practice a new openness in politics and promptly demonstrated his prede- cessor’s cynical wisdom. All at once, it was Martin, not Chrétien, in the media spotlight, and his effort to look like a brand new regime hit the trash can. Not since the Mulroney years had Canadians been given a clearer call to ”œvote the rascals out,” and Paul Martin himself sent the signal.

Until the sponsorship scandal, Canadians had expected a spring gener- al election, an easy Martin victory, and a fast fade for Jean Chrétien and his pals. Former Progressive Conservatives, pollsters told us, preferred Paul Martin to the likeliest Conservative leader, Stephen Harper.

Ripping a page from Brian Mulroney’s play book, Martin co-opted his old pal, Jean Lapierre, as his Quebec boss, much as Mulroney took Lucien Bouchard aboard his Tory machine in 1984. The hard line architect of the fed- eral Clarity Act, Stéphane Dion, got the boot, and Lapierre would have a man- date to stamp out Dion supporters in the Quebec Liberal organization. For sover- eignists, the welcome mat would be out and the Bloc québécois would fade.

This was vital for Martin and his managers. Even if the Alliance takeover cannot work miracles, Ontario cannot remain wall-to-wall Liberal, as it has been since 1993. Targeting soft sovereignist votes was logical. Sensible Canadians would see that marginalizing separatists forever would be tragically stupid.

What non-Quebecers may not know is that sovereignty support was on the rise in Quebec long before Conan O’Brien, Don Cherry and the sponsorship scandal combined to insult Quebecers.

L’Actualité said it all with a cover por- traying Treasury Board chair and former IRPP president Monique Jérôme-Forget confessing: ”œHoney, I just shrunk the state.” Elected with promises of tax cuts, fee-freezes and ”œrestructuration” " read ”œprivatization” " Jean Charest’s Liberals have been making themselves highly unpopular with voters this winter. Add their attacks on the public sector to the fat deficit that seems to be standard inheritance for new provincial govern- ments in Canada these days, and the fed- eralist honeymoon in Quebec is history.

Even without the sponsorship scandal, Paul Martin’s Liberals may get little lift from Charest. As of February, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc is looking at pro-sovereignty numbers
running as high as 47 percent. Jean Lapierre might help Martin win over tired separatists but he will need luck and some breaks that are currently out of sight.

A possible break could come from the Conservative leadership race. The chief excitement, as the campaign nears the wire, is whether unilingual Belinda Stronach’s Quebec agents, mobilized by Brian Mulroney and John Laschinger, can buy enough delegates from moribund riding associations to match dedicated Harper loyalists from Alberta and B.C. If the Quebec ringers and the western pointy-heads ever met, it would not be a pretty sight for Canadian unity. Prudently, Conservative organizers only plan a media show for their lead- ership meeting in Toronto. But if Harper loses to Stronach the way party insiders have been promising, count on explosions of indignation from the West and enough responsive outrage in Quebec to shake even the sponsor- ship scandal from the headlines.

The happiest national party in 2004 should be the NDP. Without a seat in Parliament, new leader Jack Layton has been as busy as a bobble doll. A Ryerson University professor and for- mer Toronto alderman, Layton has so far delighted the media by being dif- ferent. He has even given the NDP its first Quebec-born, bilingual leader. [Quebec-bred David Lewis was born in Poland and spoke only passable French.] Significant coverage has awakened the sleeping faithful and opened their cheque books. Party membership tops 100,000, and the party of the common people promises to spend up to $12 million on the 2004 campaign. Layton can remind Canadians that if they haven’t enjoyed the past ten years of growing wealth and deepening poverty, the best single explanation has been the lack of New Democrats in Parliament.

The NDP rise explained why Paul Martin told Maclean’s last Christmas that he considered himself ”œcentre-left.” His February Throne Speech hinted that he might even mean it, with phrases about the poor, and handing cities back payments for a Goods and Service Tax that Martin pledged in the old Liberal Red Book to abolish. Of course, as Liberal spinmeisters and historians who remember William Lyon Mackenzie King assured us, the Throne Speech was devised precisely to deflate Layton and the NDP, and then fade. Bay Street already considers Martin a leftie, but so is Stephen Harper, and almost anyone else who trolls for votes. By more conventional standards, Paul Martin is safely right of centre, as are almost all the Liberals in his cabinet and inner circle.

If any defecting Tories were seri- ously red, they would have tiptoed past the Liberal caucus door and joined Canada’s Tory Reds, the NDP. Canada’s history reminds us that Tories have nationalized more than the NDP ever threatened to take over, from Ontario Hydro and the Canadian National Railway to the CBC. When John Diefenbaker chose an eminent Tory, Emmett Hall, to report on Canada’s health system, surely he earned at least a supporting role with Tommy Douglas as an archi- tect of Medicare.

In 2004, not even Jack Layton dares promise a victory for the NDP. Even if he imagined it possible, Layton would keep quiet, well aware that voters may want more voice for the NDP but not real power. Besides, has any prime minister " or even any US president " worn a mous- tache and won? Shave it, Jack, or lose it.

Despite their sponsorship tribula- tions, federal Liberals have discreet reasons for confidence. For all their dumping on the departed Chrétien, the Martinites did not derail his much-publicized election expense reforms. No longer, we are told, will federal politics be financed by greedy corporations or arrogant trade unions. While ample loopholes have been pre-bored into the legislation, the intent of the Chrétien package is that a wealthy donor will be limited to a mere $5,000 in donations. Taxpayers will make up the shortfall, paying much more of the cost of get- ting our politicians elected. Elections Canada predicts that our bill will rise from $7 million to $22 million for the coming campaign.

Will we pay all parties and candi- dates equally, so that a Liberal, say, and a resurrected Rhino candidate can squander equally? Never. Will taxpayers indicate their party preferences on their T-1s? Don’t be an idiot! No, Mr. Chrétien insisted, we will remember whom we loved last time, and distrib- ute the taxpayers’ largesse according to those past preferences. In his campaign finance reform, with funding to parties based on their performance in the pre- vious election, Jean Chrétien generous- ly gave Paul Martin the most money to spend. With its scant showing last time, Layton’s NDP will have the least. With two parties’ loot to share, in case you were worrying, the new Canadian Conservatives should do fine.

Meanwhile, as Chief Elections Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley has warned, veteran MPs can still sit on millions in trust funds accumulated secretly over the years to wage election and nomination battles. Donors to politicians’ trust funds may not get a tax rebate but the beneficiaries get money they deeply appreciate.

Back in 1957, after 22 years in office, the Liberals boasted that they could run Louis St-Laurent ”œstuffed” if need be, against the prairie firebrand, John Diefenbaker. They lost. In 2004, Paul Martin has to persuade Canadian voters that, as finance minister and vice-chair of the Treasury Board, he didn’t have a clue about the squander- ing of a hundred million of their dol- lars, but that he still has clues enough to be our prime minister. The other parties have the equally difficult job of proving that they could run the coun- try in the public interest without an ideological bloodbath. If they can’t, we’ll probably get the Liberals again, and we’ll deserve them.