In a very typically Canadian way, voters chose quiet, moderate change on election night. There was no revolution. But how do we rec- oncile the electoral victory of the most right wing federal party this country has seen in one hundred years with national polls suggesting strong sup- port for the liberal ”œvalues” that Paul Martin campaigned on but lost? Simple " enough Canadians did not believe Paul Martin to trust him again, even with a minority. This leader was not the leader his entourage, known as ”œthe board,” believed he was.
There is a tragic element to this. Martin once told me when he was preparing for a political career that any leader had to be willing to be defeated for doing the right thing. Well and good. His demeanour at his final news conference suggests he believes he accomplished much and fought the good fight against what he and his people clearly felt were the new conservative forces of evil.
But a leader also has to find his or her priorities and governing themes and stick to them. Martin in his brief tenure earned the sobriquet of Mr. Dithers and seemed like a man in search of something to believe in until the end. The media feasted on this lack of a consistent vision.
At first Martin was seen on the right of a party that had already been moving in that direction for years. Both in his campaign for the leadership and in his early months of governing, Martin vacillated on support for going to Iraq, joining in a missile defence program with the Americans, imple- menting deep corporate tax cuts, recog- nition and support for asymmetrical federalism, seeming to weaken the fed- eral presence in public health care.
Come election time and acting as if he had found religion, Martin and his infamous spin team portrayed him and his party as the champions of all that was fair and just in Canada. But the media, perhaps reflecting the voters’ frustration, dis- appointment and appetite for change, weren’t buying. They also tired quickly of the helter skelter search for winning lines and what seemed like endless off-the-cuff poli- cy pronouncements. And his danger- ous, wide-open daily scrums invited the media to dominate the agenda.
While entire books could (and no doubt will) be written on the strategic and tactical flaws of the cam- paign itself, what saved Martin and his party from political obliteration in the dying days of the election campaign was this simple fact: the Liberals, more than the current version of the Conservatives, represent the main- stream of Canadian thinking, particu- larly in large, ethnically diverse urban areas. Even Martin’s unbelievably clumsy handling of the head-tax apol- ogy to the Chinese community could not seriously damage the Trudeau pact between the party and immigrant communities. This alone goes a long way to explaining the Liberals’ continuing hold on major urban seats.
In addition, Stephen Harper’s end- of-campaign musings about the politi- cization of the Supreme Court, his con- tinued opposition to same-sex marriage and his reluctance to publicly affirm the right of women to have abortions all had an impact on driving away the centrist voters he so desperately court- ed. Women in particular distrusted him, and he earned that distrust.
The Liberal Party of Canada, the party of Pearson and Trudeau; the party of idealism, hope and the radical centre now has an amazing opportuni- ty to heal very real internal wounds, replenish the war chest, reconnect with grassroots members and, most importantly, redefine who it is through a clear, coherent policy vision (we have just witnessed how trying to be everything to everyone ensures you are nothing to anybody come election time). Finally, the party must do all this in a climate of realpolitik with no strong leader in sight.
But let’s not feel too sorry for the rather large Liberal family on the hill. MPs and former ministers suddenly liberated from rigid PMO supervision will be free to pick the issues with which to attack the new government. They will enjoy it. And in a minority government situation the opposition has lots of room to define issues " mainstream issues " and to be scrupu- lously vigilant.
The best option for the Liberals with this dearth of early leadership charisma would be to take a long- term, grassroots, policy-based and extremely focused approach to rebuilding the party " the exact opposite to the Martin style. This may be, despite the joys of opposition, a boring approach " but, as Jim Coutts and Tom Kent have pointed out in earlier articles in Policy Options, it is oh so necessary.