I’m the leader and I want discipline. That’s clear.

Stéphane Dion, March 27, 2008

When he made that plaintive call earlier this spring, Stéphane Dion was responding to the latest melt- down of his Quebec wing. Once again the dissen- sion that began to smoulder with the loss of the Outremont

by-election last September had burst into public flames. Dion’s call for discipline was entirely predictable; it’s the classic response of a leader who has just come under friendly fire. And this was just the latest in the episodic caucus and party rumblings and critiques of his leadership:

  • ”œHe doesn’t listen to anyone/he listens to the wrong people.”

  • ”œHe’s indecisive/He acts too quickly.”

  • ”œWe don’t know where the party stands/He’s moving the party too much to the left/centre/right.”

  • ”œWhy won’t he release the platform now?”

  • ”œHe’s surrounded by fools and yes-men; when’s he gonna get some adult supervision in there to help him?”

Tough comments indeed. But, actually, Dion has a lot of company. At one time or another, exactly those com- ments have been made about every leader of the opposi- tion in my lifetime, Liberal and Conservative. They come with the territory.

At various times over the past 27 years, I have had the privilege of working directly for three leaders of the official opposition, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. Those experiences have led me to conclude that leading the opposition is the most difficult job in the country.

For a party going from government to opposition, there’s a lot more involved than simply moving the leader from the third floor of the Centre Block to the fourth. You’ve just been rejected by several million Canadians at the polls. Across the country, your foot soldiers are down in the dumps, and there’s probably a witch hunt going on for the geniuses who served up the lunatic strategy that just got you thrown from office.

It gets worse. The public service is no longer at your beck and call, so you’re on your own as far as policy and the costing of alternatives are concerned. Scores of talented and dedicated people have just lost their jobs, and much of your institutional memory is leaving with them. And while you are dealing with all of that good news, all eyes turn to the leader, who must now create the plan that will bring you back to office.

To be a successful leader of the opposition requires the negotia- tion of a series of delicate and often conflicting balances:

  • Within the caucus, the leader must be a patient but decisive lis- tener, capable of building consen- sus without yielding to the temptation to substitute his or her judgment for that process.

  • For the party, the leader must develop and articulate overarching strategic political and policy direc- tions, while making timely tactical adjustments in response to events and opportunities as they arise.

  • In running the leader’s office, he or she needs the judgment to pick the right people as closest advis- ers, while retaining the distance and toughness to know when it’s time for them to move on, even when they are close personal friends.

  • To the public, the leader must be the chief inspirational communi- cator, describing a cohesive and comprehensive vision of alterna- tive governance, while nurturing and showcasing a capable and supportive team.

  • And while all those balls are in the air, the leader is ultimately respon- sible for election preparedness, for ensuring that the party has the platform, financial resources, can- didates, organization and strategies to advance a credible alternative in the next election campaign.

At one time or another over the past 18 months, Stéphane Dion has faced criticism for his handling of each of these balances.

To be fair, he’s brought a certain amount of it on himself.

Judging by the constant churn that is visible just below the surface, it’s pretty clear that Dion has yet to find his feet as caucus leader, motiva- tor and consensus builder. Two of his hand-picked candidates have crashed and burned in by-elections, and his Quebec wing continues to squabble over the spoils of defeat.

Strategically, he’s been a disaster, creating his own personal ”œGround- hog Days” by repeatedly threatening to defeat the government, and then being forced to back down. While their fruitless search for scandal with traction dominates most Question Periods, the very mention of a vote on policy causes the Liberals to scurry for the Commons exits to prevent an election for which they are demon- strably not ready.

All that being said, it’s perhaps just a bit too easy for Liberals to lay all of their party’s problems at the feet of the leader. In many ways, their preoc- cupation with leadership also serves to mask a number of bad habits the party has fallen into over the past genera- tion. One is assuming that seizing and retaining government is relatively easy in Canada.

It’s really all the fault of Lucien Bouchard and Preston Manning. When they broke up the grand Mulroney coalition between soft Quebec nation- alists and western Conservatives in the early 1990s, they opened the door to an era of Liberal domination on the national political scene.

With the Bloc blocking much of Quebec, and the PCs and Reform-Alliance fighting each other to the death in the rest of the country, the Liberals spent a full decade living in an electoral fool’s paradise. It was all just too easy.

Jean Chrétien was able to score sig- nificant majorities in three elections with popular votes in the 38 to 41 per- cent range. Only when the new Conservative Party united its formerly warring factions in 2004 did the electoral landscape begin to return to normal. Liberal support dropped to 36.7 percent in that year’s elec- tion, and while Paul Martin retained government, he was reduced to a minority.

Since winning elec- tions had become a walk in the park, it was easy for the Liberals to indulge themselves with the politics of leader- ship. They could have learned from the former Progressive Conservative Party how destructive that preoccupation can be.

In the fall of 1966, then PC Party president Dalton Camp went on an unprecedented national speaking tour. Its purpose was to force Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker, former prime minister and Leader of the official opposition, to submit his continued leadership of the party to a confidence vote at a national convention.

Over the next 18 years, my for- mer party developed what came to be known as the Tory syndrome, our unfailing and repeated tendency to form circular firing squads around our leaders. From John Diefenbaker to Robert Stanfield to Joe Clark, Tories lived in a constant state of leadership turmoil and regicidal plotting.

After a very public fight that tore the party apart, Diefenbaker was ultimately pushed into a leadership convention in 1967. He ran to succeed himself, thereby forcing the party to humiliate him while it was electing Robert Stanfield as the new leader. The estimable Bob Stanfield then endured nine years of cheap shots and second-guessing from Diefenbaker, who remained sitting in the House until his death in 1979.

Following electoral defeats in the elections of 1968, 1972 and 1974, ”œthe best prime minister Canada never had” gave way to Joe Clark in 1976. The spectacular fumbling of the Clark minority government in 1979-80 then began a corrosive three- year struggle over the leadership that was ultimately resolved with the election of Brian Mulroney as leader in 1983. The Tory syndrome was offi- cially put to rest on September 4, 1984, when the Mulroney-led PCs won the biggest parliamentary major- ity in Canadian history.

What does this tour of ancient history have to do with the Liberals of today? In my view, a fair amount, because just as Conservatives were finally killing their leadership demons in the summer of 1984, the Liberals were beginning the process of making the Tory syndrome theirs.

In June of that year, John Turner defeated Jean Chrétien to become Liberal leader and prime minister. Following the worst electoral show- ing for Liberals in their history in September 1984, Turner then faced years of leadership insurgencies led by Chrétien. Between 1984 and 1988, Turner struggled through constant sniping, caucus revolts, a confidence vote at the Liberals’ 1986 conven- tion, and fierce internal policy battles over Meech and the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. The ultimate indig- nity was a thinly veiled Liberal putsch that attempted to replace Turner as leader in the middle of the 1988 federal election.

Turner departed in 1990 and in the contest to succeed him, Chrétien was generally seen to be the ideologi- cal heir to Pierre Trudeau, while Paul Martin assumed the leadership man- tle of the Turner wing of the party. As we all know, Chrétien defeated Martin, but the bitterness of that leadership battle only went under- ground for a while, periodically bub- bling up over the next decade until open warfare broke out over Chrétien’s long goodbye and the inevitable Martin succession.

Given the electoral context of the times, all of this self-indul- gence over leadership was easily sus- tainable for the Liberals between 1993 and 2004. But once Conserva- tives were no longer at each other’s throats and the Bloc began to wane, not so much. And the Liberals also forgot one hard-learned lesson that Conservatives had learned from their earlier Tory syndrome years. If you cannot show the Canadian peo- ple you can manage your own party’s affairs, they are more than likely to take a pass on letting you run their country.

Should Dion be forced to vacate the leadership, the two obvious con- tenders are Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. Both are eminently quali- fied to lead and it would be a stimu- lating battle, but one is going to win, and the other is going to lose. While neither appears to have the ”œgrudge mentality” that characterized the Turner-Chrétien and Chrétien-Martin relationships, Liberals should be holding their breath in the hope that the leadership genie goes back into the bottle and stays there once a vic- tor is declared.

The electoral free ride the Liberals enjoyed between 1993 and 2006 had some other long-term impacts that they have been slow to recognize and address.

When the electoral system moves your leader from 24 Sussex to Stornoway, it’s customary to begin the process of taking stock and renewing not only leadership, but also policies, organization, funding and people. Here, the Liberals have really been slow off the mark, at least in part because as soon as he was elected leader, Dion decreed that his objective was to take down the government as quickly as possible. That’s foreclosed some renewal options the Liberals might have been better to pursue.

On policy, the Liberal response in the current Parliament has been almost totally reactive, and to the extent that Dion has advanced new policy options, they have the feel of being more tactical than deeply con- sidered, more situational than principles-based.

Historical examples and different models of what the Liberals could be doing on policy abound:

  • In 1960, thoughtful Liberals such as Tom Kent, Mitchell Sharp and Allan MacEachen organized the Kingston Conference, which defined a new set of possibilities for the country, and laid out the social security architecture that remains a defining feature of Canada almost 50 years later.

  • Upon assuming the leadership of the PCs in 1983, Brian Mulroney led a comprehensive caucus poli- cy process that reached out extensively to key stake- holders, interest groups and third party experts, and put a modern and relevant face on PC policy and platform.

  • The first Liberal Red Book prepared by Paul Martin and Chavi- va Hosek for the 1993 election campaign instantly became the gold standard for platform pre- sentations. It effectively brand- ed the Liberals as the party of ideas and provided the policy game plan for a decade of Liber- al government.

  • Following the merger of the PC and Alliance parties, Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay man- aged a year-long broadly based grassroots and caucus policy process leading to a major policy conference in Montreal in March 2005. It provided the new party with a comprehensive policy base and ended the public uncertainty about where the party stood on key issues.

These four examples suggest that there are loads of options for reworking party policy. But the point is that there are times in the life of every party when taking that step is both essential and urgent. It’s useful to sit back and consider where the country has been and where it’s going, which issues need attention, and whether your traditional policy prescriptions are still relevant, or need updating.

Take Liberal positioning on the Canadian federation, for example. Forty years after he became prime minister, the Canada of Pierre Trudeau is long gone. The social pro- grams put in place by the Liberals in the 1960s have matured, and largely been broadened and strengthened. Provincial economies are booming, and provincial governments are much more able and sophisticated. They are more than capable today of designing and delivering programs, as well as being electorally responsi- ble for them, without the direction of a ”œFather Knows Best” federal government.

Into this changed environment has stepped Stephen Harper to chart a new course for the federation. It’s a direction based on open federalism, addressing the federal-provincial fiscal imbalance and respecting provincial jurisdictions, while retaining federal leadership and a strong fiscal presence in the key sectors of health care and infrastructure.

To be sure, there have been some bumps along the way, but the Harper approach seems to be working pretty effectively, espe- cially vis-à-vis Quebec. Just as Mulroney brought that province to the table at la Francophonie a generation ago, Harper quickly broke the impasse on Quebec’s long-standing desire for participation at UNESCO. Contrary to frantic Liberal forecasts, the sky did not fall, the federation did not fly apart, and no province has demanded its own seat at the UN.

Perhaps it is no accident that support for sovereignty in Quebec has dropped 10 points on Harper’s watch, and the Bloc Québécois is in decline. Meanwhile, the Liberals appear to be caught in a Trudeau time warp when it comes to federal- provincial relations. Whether the Liberals continue to adhere to the Toronto Star view of the federation is for them to decide, but they might find it worthwhile at least to ask themselves the question.

Another key area where the Liberals need to retool is in fundraising.

Money is the lifeblood of all political organizations. It pays for the necessary communications, out- reach and policy development and the staff that run the national organ- ization. And, yes, it pays for superior election readiness and TV ads between campaigns.

When I became director of research for the PCs in 1981, I found that one of my regular duties was to sign off on the monthly direct mail fundraising letter to party members and supporters.

Twenty-seven years ago, direct mail was still in its infancy, and many thought it was a crazy idea. After all, why bother with a bunch of cheques for $100 when you could score $40,000 from a big bank or energy company? But we persevered, and our donor base slowly grew to provide a happy financial addition to the corpo- rate fundraising that was still the order of the day.

The Reform Party then came along in the late 1980s, founded and built in church basements and com- munity centres across western Canada, where every meeting ended with the passing of the bucket for individual donations. By the time Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay put Canadian Conservatives back together in 2004, both predecessor parties brought with them mature and successful direct mail programs with significant individual donor support.

The results are there for all to see. In 2007, the Conservatives’ 159,000 individual donors contributed $17 million to the party, while the Liberals 35,000 donors made contributions totalling $4.5 million. In both donors and dollars, that’s a four-to-one advan- tage, and it’s huge.

That the Liberals took so long to see the reach and power of direct mail is one of the modern mysteries of Canadian politics. When Jean Chrétien outlawed corporate dona- tions just before he left office, it was not only a stellar blow for the democratization of party financing in Canada, but also a devilish poison pill for his immediate successor. But while Chrétien may have aimed at Martin, he really shot his own party.

Being in opposition is no fun, especially after a 12-year run of unin- terrupted rule. Sometimes, as Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals found in 1980, a shortcut presents itself quickly. You just wait for the other guy to implode, and if he does, government falls back into your lap.

More often than not, though, getting back to government from opposition takes several years in the wilderness, dealing with your leader- ship and doing the heavy lifting to rejuvenate policy and party.

So will it be instant gratification, or the long road back? For the Liberals, it’s a high-stakes bet as to which of these scenarios will prevail.