Now, faced with a long sentence as the third party and a Tory majority, the powerless Liberals are finally learning to oppose. They will need to, or face extinction.

No one grows up dreaming of being the Leader of the Opposition. A wry commonplace holds that opposition is not a task at which one wishes to become particularly adept in any long-term way. Opposition is what comes of losing; it is not a role to which one aspires.

For six years, the Liberal Party has largely foundered in opposition. Unable to mount a coherent and resonant critique of the Harper government, weakened by discontinuity of leadership and plagued by technological backwardness, the Liberals have fallen much further behind than anyone would have predicted on January 23, 2006. Coming off of a wobbly election victory in 2004 and a painful, but easily survivable, defeat two years later, the Grits have since nosedived to third-party status over the subsequent two disastrous elections. By all of the key performance indicators, the Liberal Party of Canada has been notably unsuccessful at meeting the demands of the opposition role.

Failure at opposition politics is a more serious matter than traditionally thought. More is at stake than simply a longer period in the wilderness or the sacking of a leader. Federal Liberals have found to their horror that the penalty for being bad at opposition in a multi-party system is further demotion. Last May 2, the Grits were busted to the probationary status of third party, with either rebirth or extinction as the binary and fairly immediate potential outcomes. Simply put, Liberals have found they must now either learn the opposition role or die.

Much though the Liberals have struggled and failed at opposition, there are recent signs they are finally mastering the task. Relegated to third-party status in a majority Parliament, stripped of illusions of an easy return to office and with an ocean of time on their hands, the Grits are at last learning how the game is played on the left side of the Speaker’s chair. Powerlessness is teaching the Grits some long-overdue lessons, and the party is beginning to be schooled in this unlooked-for discipline. And not a moment too soon. Failure to oppose in the current circumstances will likely result in the party’s final demise.

Establishing a compelling alternative narrative is not the only challenge the Liberals must overcome in order to survive. They must also remodel their badly outdated capacities to fight modern political campaigns. Human resources are another key factor, with installing an effective leader the first and perhaps greatest challenge. But getting those factors right is only part of the battle. The opposition must oppose.

The essential task of the opposition is to respond to government initiatives in the public square and develop policy offline, to ultimately create a clear and convincing narrative that a wrongheaded government must be replaced by the opposition in the next election. This narrative must also be delivered credibly in order to persuade a sufficient number of voters to install a new party.

Over the past six years and to varying degrees, Liberals have struggled with this imperative, trying several other means of displacing the Conservatives. They have raised issues of process and style, at times generating a genuine upswing. For example, the government slide over Afghan prisoner mistreatment and the long-form census furor each allowed the Liberals to rally, only to slip away as Parliament rose or as the government staged a policy offensive to change the frame. Alternatively, a big-idea policy démarche was offered in Stephane Dion’s Green Shift, before inadequate stimulation of public demand, a poor selling effort and the lack of a credible salesman turned a potential game-changing asset into an election liability.

In the most spectacular episode, the freshly defeated Liberals in 2008 sought to bypass the election mechanism entirely and plunged into a coalition arrangement with the NDP and Bloc Québécois. The country was wholly unprepared for this development; it turned out the Liberals were as well, essentially disowning the project halfway through its execution.

Finally, Michael Ignatieff’s Grits in 2011 triggered an election aiming to “allow the government to defeat itself.” The Liberal strategy was to dispute relatively small tranches of the Tories agenda and count on the government’s rough style and mistreatment of Parliament to carry a campaign. This effort was even less successful than previous ones. It seems, then, as if the Grits have attempted everything but the obvious. Liberals have tried acai berries, tapeworms and liposuction — anything to get healthy except eating less and exercising daily.

Absent the sine qua non of opposition — a clear, compelling and different offering — the Liberals’ political health has deteriorated sharply. Without a fundamental and clearly articulated argument from the Grits, the Harper Conservative government has been allowed to portray itself as it wishes: a reasonable, moderate, middle-of-the-road operation. This portrayal has carried the Tories to success in historically Liberal constituencies that were un-reachable just half a decade ago. For its part, Jack Layton’s NDP has done epic damage to the Grits by pointing out just how narrow the Liberal argument with the Conservatives had become. This failure-to-oppose played a considerable role in the debacle of 2011.

Federal Liberals have found to their horror that the penalty for being bad at opposition in a multi-party system is further demotion. Last May 2, the Grits were busted to the probationary status of third party, with either rebirth or extinction as the binary and fairly immediate potential outcomes.

The causes of the chronic failure-to-oppose are numerous; it’s not all that surprising the Grits have been slow learners when it comes to opposition politics. Start with the intellectual DNA of a federal Liberal: incumbent, consensus-seeking, conflict-avoiding, bridgebuilding and insider. None of these traits predispose an individual toward opposition politics. Most Grit MPs and candidates come into politics to manage the machinery of Canadian society incrementally and positively forward along its existing general course. The politics of dissent and disruption do not come naturally to such folks. If there is a child out there growing up dreaming of being an Opposition leader, he probably isn’t planning on a career in Liberal politics.

Context has been perhaps even more important than character. In fairness, the recent history of the Liberals in opposition has had more than its share of chimerical opportunities and big, initially promising strikes of what turned out to be fool’s gold.

Liberals certainly did not appear to be in for a decade of opposition when Stephen Harper’s minority government came to life in January 2006. To begin with, Grits had lost to the Conservatives by a relatively narrow popular vote margin of 36 percent to 30 percent, with a spread in the seat count of only 21 seats or 6 percent. Moreover, Harper’s minority was on a weak footing. It commanded only 40 percent of Commons seats, proportionally the smallest governing caucus in Canadian history. With almost two-thirds of the House piled up to the ideological left of the government, an early election appeared probable and likely to be unleashed on terms unfavourable to the Conservatives. In these circumstances, many Liberals reasonably expected an opportunity to return to government in the near term.

In the situation, expending energy on developing a coherent counternarrative to the Tories appeared a waste of limited time and resources. After all, the Liberals had mainly lost power over issues of ethics. With this dross burned off by electoral defeat and two changes of leader, it did not seem unreasonable that the Liberals’ underlying appeal would shine forth again on its own. Moreover, a program for governing was ready to hand: the unrealized remnants of former prime minister Paul Martin’s agenda known as the “three K’s.” Implementation of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the Kelowna Accord for uplifting Aboriginal Canada and the national child care program (or “Kids”) made for a fairly complete offering. These were well-conceived, supportable policies commanding a party consensus and a wide public following. Why reinvent the wheel?

Harper’s tactics drew the Liberals further from developing a strong counter-narrative. From the uniting of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance in 2003 through to the 2011 majority triumph, the Conservatives consistently presented to their opponents a very narrow target to shoot at. This approach went well beyond the powder-blue pullovers and Beatles’ singalongs that became its visual signatures. The 2004 and 2006 campaigns were basically a cat-and-mouse game in which the Liberals sought to “out” Harper as a radical force in national politics. The Conservatives sought to keep the policy differentiation to a minimum and confine the disagreement to one of ethics. In office, Harper presented to the opposition-dominated parliament an apparently moderate, incremental suite of policies. His standard approach to opposition attacks was deflection or changing the subject, rather than direct confrontation. Changes to policy occurred with little fanfare, leaving it for those querulous opposition parties to raise a ruckus and appear immoderate and unreasonable.

The sole deviation from the pattern was in the financial panic of 2008, when the re-elected minority government sought to apply its Chicago-school economic remedies, dissenting Canada from a global consensus for stimulus. This, along with the needless provocation of eliminating public party financing, provided, for the only time, enough glue to bring the opposition parties together and seriously challenge the government for power. Once this near-death experience was behind it, however the Harper government reverted to type, playing the opposition’s coalition antics as the virage of an unstable and motley crew, in contrast to the composed, reasonable and steady government. So, given a Conservative alignment with moderate, reasonable public opinion most of the time, why stand offside the apparent consensus?

The final ingredient in the draft of forgetfulness diverting the Grits from their paramount task was leadership, the opiate of the Liberals. There is little to add to the abundant literature of Grit leadership politicking. Suffice it to say that the discontinuities created by two changes of leaders in the past six years of opposition dramatically hindered the chances of any coherent policy narrative to gel in a way that could challenge the government. After all, why tie the hands of the next leader?

And so, what began as an initial impulse in the aftermath of 2006 was elevated to a grand strategy. Narrow works. No big ideas. After all, the Liberals had tried bold policy and failed. So had the Conservatives — with similar results. Clearly, the jury was in. In a recessionary time, the voters wanted sound management and a steady hand on the tiller. The Liberals would attack the government on process and style, without fundamentally challenging its precepts, such as its economic and fiscal policy, its environmental policy, its energy strategy or its approach to core social programs. And if all else fails, put the next guy in charge.

The final ingredient in the draft of forgetfulness diverting the Grits from their paramount task was leadership, the opiate of the Liberals.

Both character and context thus pointed the Liberals away from the fundamentals of opposition. As Fernand Braudel wrote, “Men do not make history, rather it is history above all that makes men and absolves them of blame.”

But if history is forgiving, others are less so. Jack Layton’s New Democrats, in particular, battened upon the tremendous vulnerability opened by the Liberals’ failure to oppose. The story of the NDP’s ascent under Layton requires a well-researched, objective treatment at book-length, but a few lines here may suffice to begin a sketch. For decades, the NDP’s criticism of the Liberals as a party of shysters and ideological weathervanes had been a staple wherever politicians, journalists, academics and senior civil servants drank sherry together.

Under Jack Layton and his “project” team, the NDP took the conversation out of the elite common room and directly to the electoral water cooler. From the 2004 campaign’s ads comparing Martin’s Liberals to Premier Mike Harris’s PCs, through 2006’s calls for progressive voters to abandon “the smoking hulk” of the Liberal Party, to the devastating attack on Michael Ignatieff in the 2011 televised leaders’ debates, the NDP hunted down Liberal voters methodically — and very effectively for almost a decade. The core message was relentless: there’s no real difference between Liberals and Conservatives. And while Liberals (the author included) sputtered in bewilderment at this contention, more and more voters seemed to agree with each passing campaign.

As they did with the Conservatives’ strategy of narrowing, the Liberals have played into the hands of their New Democrat opponents and their strategy. The Liberals’ policy twists and turns —not only the lurch of the Green Shift and the subsequent near-abandonment of the environmental theme, but several decades’ worth of branding do-overs accompanying each change of leader — have created an authenticity gap. What are the Liberals, really? The NDP exploited this brilliantly by asking the question again and again, and wherever possible pointing out similarities between the Liberal offering and the Conservatives’.

“Given that Mr. Ignatieff agrees with Mr. Harper on substantially all of the key issues before the country,” wrote the NDP’s chief strategist, Brian Topp, last April, “Mr. Layton is, on the issues and in much of the country, the most credible alternative to Mr. Harper.” This devastating line of argument has done serious damage to the Liberals first in English Canada, and then in Quebec, not only in 2011 but throughout Layton’s entire tenure as leader. The Liberal response has been generally to ignore the NDP. At most, Grits would counter, with fingers wagging (again, author mea culpa), that only the Liberals contend against Conservatives for government. This response the NDP adroitly characterized as disrespectful of voters’ prerogative to choose, further fuelling their relentless characterization of the Grits as an arrogant, entitled and out-of-touch bunch convinced of their divine right to power.

The repeat pattern of Liberal delusion — an imagined nearness-to-power which has mis-governed strategic decision-making — seems at last to have been dispelled by the election catastrophe of 2011. Since then, the Liberals appear to have adjusted their mindset substantially. They are organizing their affairs toward the long-haul timeline of majority, carefully ordering their priorities in accordance with their limited resources and picking smarter battles against which to leverage the limited reach of their voice in the national conversation.

The best example of learning the discipline of powerlessness has been the Liberal decision to kick the leadership habit, at least for a year or two. In the election’s immediate aftermath, Liberals inside and outside the Ottawa bubble made a conscious decision to push their leadership campaign off until 2013, in order to give the party time and space to reorganize its affairs.

This is a dramatic departure for a party that has tended to harness its entire developmental strategy to leadership politics. Every decision, from the procurement of voter-engagement software to the fundamental policy offering to Canadians, has been wholly or partly mounted on the vehicle of a leadership effort…which would then morph into an election readiness initiative…and finally another electoral campaign…leading to defeat and the resumption of the cycle. For the Liberals, then, 2011’s de-coupling of an organizational, technological and financial overhaul of the party from the leadership process is more than just a quit-smoking resolution; it’s a major lifestyle change.

Secondly, Liberals are taking their time about developing an offering to Canadians. The organizers of the recent Ottawa convention worked hard to make room for party reform debate and to take the spotlight away from any programmatic policy discussion that would be premature at this stage of the electoral cycle.

With the advent of majority government, Mr. Harper’s long- range plans have now come into full view, at last giving Liberals a sizable target to shoot at along a broad front.

Between the adjusted leadership calendar and the altered convention agenda, Liberals were able to focus tightly on the urgent business of remodelling the party according to a more open and contemporary architecture of voter engagement. Neither the long leadership timeline nor the reform-focused convention would have been possible in the hair-trigger minority situations of the past six years.

Third, some promising external developments are giving the Liberals some new political openings. The most obvious is the Harper government’s decision to issue loyalty rewards to its activist base early in the mandate. The rollout of royalizations, registry cancellations, retirement rollbacks and heavy-handed security regimes has given some substance to the Liberals’ critique of the Harper government as out of step with Canada’s broad traditions of politics and government. The tactical opportunity of the moment has been effectively exploited by Interim Leader Bob Rae — surely the premier opposition politician of his generation, especially when contrasted with his current NDP counterpart.

Of greater significance is that with the advent of majority government, Mr. Harper’s long-range plans have now come into full view, at last giving Liberals a sizable target to shoot at along a broad front. The Conservatives’ campaign 2011 fiscal plan spells out not only a commitment to bring the budget into balance, but a timeline and a goal — another round of income tax cuts — with which moderate and sensible people can easily take issue. This February’s debate about Old Age Security was a good example of how the new political dynamics of the majority Conservative agenda work. Liberals and others were able plausibly to argue that the motive for pushing back the age of OAS qualification was not the soundness of the program, but rather, the Tories’ fiscal plan and its tax cuts. This is an exposure Harper would probably not have taken on in a minority parliament and shows how his majority government commitment to a long-term conservative agenda creates new vulnerabilities for his opponents to exploit.

Moreover, the Conservative majority game plan has at last engaged with the health care issue, albeit with the longest barge pole that could be crafted. For all the considerable cunning of the “here’s-your-cheque-we’re-outta-here” position imposed by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a choice has been made. Again, it is one that can be criticized without appearing unreasonable. It’s taken a couple of months, but provinces such as Quebec are beginning to take issue with the Tories’ “unilateral disengagement” from the health care file. This may be a less compelling attack than would have been made had Ottawa made other choices, but the chance to talk about health care is almost always a boon to the Liberals. (A test of their newfound abilities will be how they respond to the inevitable NDP charges that Flaherty has done less damage than the Liberals did in the 1995 budget.)

A good narrative makes sense of a set of seemingly disconnected facts. The “disengagement” story — Rae terms it “the politics of abandonment” — is a potentially powerful description of not only the government’s style, but its overall policy agenda. Since taking power, the Harper government has arguably dismantled Ottawa’s environmental policy, energy strategy, broadcasting framework and telecommunications agenda, to name a few. With a majority, it can now be said to be perhaps disengaging from health care and retirement security. Both the fiscal framework and the core conservative belief set — a smaller Ottawa in the federation and in the economy — provide a visible and undeniable motive for this abandonment, the key to any narrative structure.

Ontario, post-Don Drummond’s sobering fiscal report, seems a less promising alliance partner for the Tory West, and perhaps a more plausible one for post-industrial Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Liberals would do well to consider this.

Along with the conservative ideological motive comes another critical narrative element: consequences. Objective analysis argues that the main beneficiaries of the new federal health care position will be Alberta and Saskatchewan. The health care issue will track with developments in two other forthcoming areas of the federal-provincial relationship: equalization and infrastructure financing.

On all three fronts, a “two Canadas” pattern may be emerging, and herein lies the potential for the kind of broad opposition story that can make a real difference in an election campaign.

One dimension of the “two Canadas” story would have to do with the effect of ideologically motivated Conservative restraint on the pillars of middle-class life in Canada. There is no question that the separation of socioeconomic groups in Canada has led to a number of social ills and is leaving most on the wrong side of the divide.

Liberals can oppose this, linking in voters’ minds a current position with the party’s tradition as the party of middleclass Canada.

A second dimension would be regional in nature. As Premier Jean Charest has poignantly noted, Canada now has two economies: “Oil, gas and potash — and others.” If the Liberals can convincingly tag the Conservatives as favouring the commodity economies of their political heartland at the expense of the rest, they will be launched upon some of the broadest and most powerful currents in our political history. Again, these are currents with which the Liberals are traditionally associated, which would help restore some of the brand values the Liberals have accidentally shed over the past several years.

Some have argued that a new electoral alliance between Ontario and the burgeoning West has taken shape, displacing a traditional governing alliance between Ontario and Quebec. Others would point to a very different Ontario emerging that is not as likely to feel as good about federal economic management in 2015 as it did in 2011. Ontario, post-Don Drummond’s sobering fiscal report, seems a less promising alliance partner for the Tory West, and perhaps a more plausible one for post-industrial Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Liberals would do well to consider this.

Quebec will be the pivot in this drama. If the province reacts to these tectonic shifts in the federation by further disengagement, the Conservative reshaping of Canada is likely to go lamented, but essentially unimpeded. If, however, Quebec voters begin to take a more active role in shaping the federation around them, their choices will be critical. The potential exists, in fact, for the emergence of one of the two opposition parties in much the same alignment as was experienced in the 1970s and early 1980s. A Quebec-based party facing a western-based party, with Ontario and the Atlantic holding the balance, could be in the offing.

This is the real prize the Liberals are playing for: the chance to contend seriously with Harper’s government with a narrative and demographic and regional bases of support that truly challenge the foundations of Conservative power. The real question is, will the Liberals actually oppose the majority Conservative offering?

No policy, narrative or coalition strategy will renew the Liberal lease on life without money, riding-level organization, strong candidates and a compelling leader. Nonetheless, if armed with the discipline, lessons learned and opportunities afforded by recent catastrophe, Liberals may find themselves on the rising side of fortune’s wheel once again. The pattern is older than Exodus and as contemporary as the latest celebrity comeback. There are no shortcuts. Time in the wilderness is a gift, if used wisely. Rebirth, and even return, is possible for those who embrace exile and its harsh disciplines.

Photo: WorldStock / Shutterstock