Like Gordon Lightfoot on Twitter or Mark Twain in another time and place, it now seems that the rumours of the Liberal Party's death have been exaggerated.
On the 30th of April last year, I arrived with Michael Ignatieff’s campaign tour at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto, which was to be the Liberal home base for the final stretch of the election campaign. It turned out to be the epicentre of the Liberal implosion. I had seen the polls and I knew that things hadn’t gone well but I wasn’t prepared for what the next few days had in store for the Liberal Party of Canada.
As of the time of our arrival at the Sheraton there was still a plan that involved staff and volunteers dispersed to ridings across the region for election day. Trains and hotels had been booked. Hope had not been lost. On the morning of Sunday May 1, the last day of the campaign, I was informed that people would no longer be going to these ridings but instead to Davenport and, of all places, Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Ignatieff’s own riding. Part of my task was making sure the hotels and trains were cancelled. Clearly the final round of internal polls over the weekend hadn’t been very good. It was equally clear that the Liberals were in trouble in Fortress Toronto, the party’s impregnable redoubt. The math was not difficult: if Toronto was at risk, the rest of the country was already lost.
Bright and early the next morning Ignatieff and his team were out working the subway stops and touring his riding delivering lunches to volunteers’ homes to thank them. Anyone who was available was dispatched to help get the vote out to see if the party’s feet could be pulled out of the fire. As I worked at the hotel getting things ready for the evening’s events (which were looking more like a wake than a celebration), I was inundated with e-mail messages and texts from people who were sharing information with me based on what they were seeing, and very little of it was encouraging. As the Atlantic polls began to close, I got in touch with some people down east to get results TV stations in Toronto couldn’t share with me while the polls remained open in the rest of the country. The Liberals had lost two MPs in Newfoundland and then one in Nova Scotia. Then the picture got clearer: aside from one seat, the Liberals were wiped out in New Brunswick, where the Conservatives took eight seats and the NDP retained one. The orange tide started crashing into Quebec.
I headed downstairs and toured the ballroom floor. The mood was sombre and the crowd in the room was sparse. As the rest of the results came in, I watched some of my friends lose their seats and, with that, many other friends losing their jobs. This was more than my party losing; it was professional carnage and the livelihoods for many people — a sad reality associated with life in politics.
As the night went on, things just kept getting worse. We were on pins and needles as we waited to see if the dreaded majority government was going to become a reality. The leader had yet to address the room as his seat was still said to be in play, but looking at the numbers it was clear it had been lost. As the buses carrying all the volunteers and staff that had worked so hard arrived, the room filled up and eventually Ignatieff and his wife arrived on the stage. There were lots of tears in the crowd combined with lots of cheers.
What an odd moment. For the life of me I couldn’t tell you what Ignatieff said because I was unable to process what had just happened. He’d lost his seat and the mighty Liberal Party had been reduced to third-party status for the first time in its history. As the crowd cleared and we went to commiserate over drinks, there were lots of whispers about whether he would stay on as leader. At some point in the haze of the night we were told that he would be holding a press conference in the morning. This did not stop any of us from continuing on with the festivities. Thirty-four seats. No one ever imagined it was possible. How could this have happened?
In the days and months that followed, we kept hearing that the Liberal Party was on a death march: worst defeat in the party’s history; only Liberal leader to have ever lost his seat; no geographic base left; decimated outside of a few urban cores — the list of reasons for gloom was long. But like Gordon Lightfoot on Twitter or Mark Twain in another time and place, it now seems that the rumours of the party’s death have been exaggerated. In the intervening 10 months, there have certainly been signs of life and progress on a number of fronts:
- We’ve seen the party adapt to its new reality and finally realize some of the errors that many have been pointing out for years in the way that things are run.
- We’ve had two successful fundraising quarters, where the third party raised more than the Official Opposition.
- Bob Rae has done an outstanding job as the interim leader, and the incredible experience within our small caucus has made it so that the party is more effective in the House than the Official Opposition.
- The party has also been very successful at keeping itself in the media — on a daily basis you can find a plethora of stories about the Liberal Party, many more than those about the Official Opposition.
- We had an outstanding convention where over 3,000 people fought their way through the hardships of a Canadian winter to get to Ottawa for a weekend in the middle of January.
- A young guy wearing jeans and a sports coat beat out a Liberal legend for the party presidency, and again the party got lots of media attention and continued to reassert its relevance.
The convention was remarkable in many ways, but most impressive in how upbeat and positive delegates were — certainly no one was acting like they were members of a dying party.
The Liberal Party of Canada still has many things going for it. It is one of the best brands in the history of politics in the world with a nationwide organization of members. Obviously we wouldn’t find ourselves in the situation we’re in now if there weren’t things that needed work. Perhaps we should look to some of the reasons that the Conservatives have been so successful. Things like having the advantage of extra-political organizations furthering the progress of the conservative movement while directly benefiting the Conservative Party and an outstanding fundraising machine.
What better way than to use some of the same tactics they’ve been using to kick us in the rear? Will this be easy? Not at all. However, it is what Liberals need to do. This will involve a cultural shift in the way the party is run, the messaging that is used. A lot of what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working and it’s time we realized it. The greatest lesson one can take out of Tom Flanagan’s book Harper’s Team is that you always need to be asking for money.
Since the last election a lot of things have happened in Canadian politics and in the Liberal Party. Primarily, Bob Rae was appointed the interim leader of the party. An outstanding orator and political strategist, he has been making his presence felt in the House and in the media. Rae and the small but savvy Liberal caucus have substantially raised the party’s profile, even from the far corner of the House. They have been fishing where the fish are. By this I mean they’re making sure to do fundraising in places like Toronto and media in Ottawa.
That said, let’s not overlook the fact that while the Liberals are having good days in the House and in the media, it is largely at the expense of the NDP, whose front bench is out touring the country in a leadership race that hardly anyone has noticed, and being led by a woman, Nycole Turmel, who is more suited to the back bench than the spotlight.
Liberals have been doing some smart things to start off the rebuilding and revival. A great example of this is that every riding association in the country has had meetings to discuss how they saw the Liberal Party reviving itself, how they could help and what they wanted to see changed. They all contributed to a white paper that former president Alf Apps released late last year. This white paper contains great ideas about the way forward, and while some of them weren’t very popular — like the removal of protected seats — the focus was clearly on the need for more money and members as well as a removal of the general malaise that can be found in many riding associations.
The Liberal Party of Canada should never have riding associations being deregistered by Elections Canada. That is absolutely unacceptable but it has happened several times since the election. The Liberal Party isn’t the only party to have had this occur, but as part of the rebuild, Liberals must make sure they have 308 (and soon to be 338) active and vibrant riding associations.
The outcome of the election, disastrous as it was for Liberals, has come with several positives.
First, the party membership seems to feel more involved and feel that they have a greater say in the future direction of the party since we bottomed out. The need for hard work seems to have resonated all the way down to the riding association membership. Returning to a four-year election cycle allows the party time to get its mechanics to work on the problems that have been plaguing it since Liberals lost government in 2006, in some cases longer, and allows its fundraisers time to refine their tactics and approach to make sure that the coffers are prepared for the realities of the end of the per vote subsidy.
Obviously, knowing that an election and its $30-million price tag isn’t around the corner allows for a little bit of breathing room at headquarters in downtown Ottawa. The cut and eventual elimination of the $1.95 per vote taxpayer-funded subsidy is the most notable event that has taken place since the election. Liberals all knew it was going to come, since the Conservatives campaigned on it. How Liberals go about dealing with it will be the greatest test that the party has faced in a generation. As the party’s new president, Mike Crawley, said many times during the presidential campaign and at the convention, the opportunity to reinvent and remodel a political party, particularly one as large and historically relevant and successful as the Liberal Party, doesn’t come along very often. This will be the true test of the mettle of the party and its membership. Its survival and future success will be determined in the next four years.
The new Ottawa Convention Centre was a lively place in the middle of January. There was a positive and vibrant mood there, and by night there were overflowing hospitality suites in the adjacent Westin Hotel and long line-ups to get into the bars in the Byward Market, around the parliamentary precinct. One thing Liberals will never be accused of is not knowing how to have a good time.
Like many Liberals, I have grown tired of the term “grassroots engagement” but that’s what we saw at the convention. Each of the party’s critics held discussions on their portfolios and they were all well attended. This was not only an opportunity for the caucus members to provide the membership with an outline of their portfolios, but also an opportunity for them to listen to ideas from the members.
While this was a policy convention, the main focus of most delegates and the media was on the election of the new board members, and in particular, the party presidency. Although there were five people running, everyone knew it would come down to a race between Mike Crawley and Sheila Copps: a relatively unknown lifelong Liberal who represented the future, versus a former party juggernaut, though clearly one from another era.
In the end Crawley won by a very small margin — 26 votes. While Copps was a very important part of the Liberal past it was an important decision for the party to have moved forward with someone fresh and new. The role of the president must be to work the backrooms, raise money, increase the membership and work on the mechanics of the party. As former national director of the Liberal Party Jamie Carroll tweeted at the time, “great news: Crawley wins LPC presidency! Let’s never speak of him again.”
Even the keenest watcher of Canadian politics would have a hard time telling you who the presidents of the other parties are and that’s kind of the point. The Liberal Party has 35 MPs and over 40 senators who can be the public face of the party. But it’s quite a good sign that a young man who wore jeans all weekend ended up as the party president. As his campaign slogan said: A bold new red.
Aside from a very strong brand, the Liberal Party of Canada has quite a few things going for it. Quite apart from the 35 MPs, those 40 Liberal senators can bring a lot of value added to the rebuilding of the party. Many of them have been around politics for quite some time and know the game very well. The Senate is often dismissed as a home to partisan hacks; I do not agree. However, if there was ever a time to have some partisan hacks around, ones with political skills, it would be now.
After the Progressive Conservative Party was reduced to two MPs in 1993, their Senate caucus was invaluable in their rebuild. Their Senate caucus in those days gave them space, office budgets and staff. Sounds like a good idea to me. A political organization can always use more people developing policy and mastering specific files. Liberals need to be using every tool at their disposal and the Senate fits that bill. The key to renewal will be to focus on getting good at the little things and using resources wisely.
What is it that the Conservatives have done to be so successful? First, they’ve got a whole part of the political spectrum to themselves and issues that fire up their base and make them give money. Their greatest strength is issues-based fundraising. One can only imagine how much money they have raised on the back of the gun registry.
As much as the Conservatives are a political party, they are also a movement and with that comes a lot of extra political assistance. They have large well-funded interest groups like the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Manning Centre for Building Democracy furthering their cause, putting together policy and training future generations of staffers and politicians. It is well known that many of their MPs and ministers have come out of these groups, but if one looks a little more closely it’s also clear that many PMO and ministers’ staffers have also come through those ranks.
These organizations have helped create space for the Conservative Party to pull the political spectrum to the right. The lens that the Conservative Party looks through is based on government being too big and that is something that resonates with many Canadians. Canadians know — at least they think they know — what the Conservatives are selling. They are well organized and disciplined and are quick to define any opposition before it can define itself. Everyone knows that the Conservatives out fundraise all the other parties combined. Much of this can be credited to the issues-based approach but let’s not overlook the fact that they likely spend a lot of money to raise all the money they do.
The Conservatives have large groups of true believers because they’re a movement. These people give them money, volunteer their time and believe in what they’re doing because they believe there is a clear purpose. With these true believers comes a culture.
While Liberals aren’t a movement party, they can do a better job of taking care of their own backyard. Charity begins at home. Members of caucus should all donate the $1,200 per year allowed by law. Their staff members should also step up. The Liberal Party needs money and everyone needs to start pitching in.
It is said that nostalgia is the denial of a painful present. I think this is something that Liberals should stop and think about. Yes, Liberals are indeed the party that delivered the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that has championed so many issues in the pursuit of a better Canada. Those are certainly things to be very proud of as Liberals and as Canadians. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be enough to entice Canadians to vote for us any more.
One doesn’t have to look too far to find a pundit, journalist, partisan or even just a regular Canadian pointing out that they don’t know what the Liberal Party stands for or represents. This is clearly the greatest problem facing the party. The Liberal Party of Canada is at its best when it is defining the centre of Canadian politics and at its worst when it is chasing the centre. If you think about that, it kind of explains why we haven’t been doing so well lately.
Part of that has to do with the spectrum shifting but it has more to do with the much discussed perception that the Liberal Party doesn’t really stand for anything. For a party to be successful it must have a clear purpose that energizes voters and makes them feel a sense of pride and ownership.
I’m not going to suggest what the party should stand for. I’ll leave that up to smarter people, but the questions we should all be asking ourselves are these: What is the lens that we want to be looking through, and what is the lens that we want people looking at us through? What is the biggest opportunity we have to pursue our values and what is the biggest challenge we have as a country?
These questions seem quite relevant in the pursuit of revival and renewal. The Liberal Party of Canada must talk to Canadians about Canada and the wellbeing of its citizens. Very few people want to hear a party talk about itself. Discussing tactics like being in a constant campaign when in front of media or in press releases seems like a missed opportunity to talk about things that people actually care about. The average Liberal doesn’t care to hear about these things, so imagine the weight it carries with the average Canadian. I tuned out quite some time ago. There’s nothing wrong with being in a permanent campaign, but the party may as well just do it instead of talking about it. No one cares how the sausage is made but they’re satisfied if it tastes delicious when it comes off the barbecue.
Let’s always keep in mind that the Conservatives benefit the most from a poor state of democracy. Their base will always show up to vote. Who doesn’t vote? For the most part, it’s people under the age of 45, so let’s try to find ways to get them engaged and involved. Let’s find out what they care about. It might be Canada’s place in the world, inequality, the environment — making our economy green and clean. All of these things come down to one question: What is the role of government?
We should be asking that question in order to determine just what it is that might get these people to the polling stations. In between now and the next election, we should be getting ourselves ready for a serious fight. Aside from righting our ship and reworking the way we do business, we shouldn’t ever be doing anything that isn’t focused on getting money, increasing the membership or getting media coverage.
I’ve always wondered why Liberals and progressives haven’t developed their own extra political tools. It seems like the NDP might have something going with this Broadbent Institute, but Liberals seem to be sitting on their hands. Why don’t we have our own version of the Manning Centre? Before the end of the good old days of political financing, the unions helped the NDP buy a building. What did Liberals do? Seems like we did nothing. The Ontario Liberals at Queen’s Park have the support of the Working Families Coalition and that seems to be going pretty well for them. It’s high time that we developed our own version of the NCC and the Manning Centre since it doesn’t seem like the Liberal Party can fight on all of these fronts by itself.
Yes, it will certainly take a lot of money and time, but if it’s deemed to be in the interest of taking our democracy back and having progressive governance return to our country, it will be worthwhile.
Canada needs an organization that will be a catalyst for progressive ideas in the political marketplace and a strong voice to counter the noise, imbalance and outright lies found in much of today’s public discourse. The Liberal Party of Canada has been on the forefront of these battles for as long as Canada has existed. It would seem necessary for us to be at the forefront again. It’s time to get even.
Before anyone gets caught up in the bounce in the poll numbers, the media coverage and the relative success of the last few months, let’s keep in mind that the Conservatives are still way out in front, that the next election is nearly four years away and that the NDP doesn’t have a leader. What Liberals need to be doing is working on our party and rebuilding it into something that matters to Canada and means something to Canadians.