Liberal insiders say party must take long look in mirror
OTTAWA — Liberal insiders say their party must stop looking for a “messiah” and instead, start a soul-searching exercise to rebuild its own identity following Monday’s crushing defeat.
With the Liberals falling to third place in popular support for the first time in its history, behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s majority Conservative government and Jack Layton’s New Democrats, most believed that their problems went well beyond the performance of their leader.
“The Liberal party has always suffered from the delusion that all it needs to do to remedy what ails it is wait for a messiah to . . . lead it to power,” said Akaash Maharaj, who was national policy chairman of the federal Liberals for five years up until 2003. “I expect if a messiah were in fact to come to Earth today, he would have better things to do with his time than to lead the Liberal Party of Canada.”
Maharaj, a senior resident at the University of Toronto’s Massey College, said that a focus on leadership in recent years has “distracted” Liberals from examining the identity of the party, which no longer has appeal to the vast majority of Canadians.
Other former Liberal insiders agreed that the party needs to spend some time analyzing what it stands for in order to understand the message being sent by the Canadian people following the recent beating that left them with less than three dozen seats and major losses, including the seat held by outgoing leader Michael Ignatieff who left a job teaching at Harvard University in Boston, to return to Canada as a politician in 2005.
“They need to do many other things first and then ultimately, get a leader that fits with what they decided to do,” said Brooke Jeffrey, a longtime Liberal staffer who authored a book, Divided Loyalties, about the party’s recent history. “We now know that there’s going to be four years, so there’s no rush at all about this.”
Jeffrey, who is now a political-science professor at Concordia University in Montreal, believes the Liberals can still recover, but dismisses musings from a number of defeated candidates who suggested the party should consider a merger with the New Democrats.
Echoing the election night reaction of Ignatieff, she agreed that Canada needs a strong party in the centre of the political spectrum.
“The Liberal party is a centrist party,” she said. “That doesn’t make it bland, vague, or all things to all people. It’s just that it’s not extreme right or extreme left, and in Canada, there have always been three streams of political thought: socialists, liberals and conservatives. And the Liberals occupy that centre ground on the left-right spectrum.”
Ignatieff, who announced his resignation at a news conference in Toronto on Tuesday morning, suggested that the emerging political debates might help his party rebound.
“The surest guarantee of the survival of the Liberal party will be four years of Conservative right-wing government and four years of NDP left-wing opposition,” said Ignatieff, who told reporters he was considering returning to teaching. “And I think after that experience, Canadians will again discover why you have the Liberal party in the centre.”
Francis Scarpaleggia, who was surrounded by an NDP wave but managed to survive and defeat his opponents on Monday night in the western Montreal riding of Lac-Saint-Louis, said he began to sense a shift away from the Liberals about two weeks ago. But he is still not sure what caused the changes and is hoping to work with his colleagues to find some answers.
“This is a big question mark,” he said. “It’s a big mystery. It’s something that our caucus is going to have to consider and devise a response to. We have a lot of thinking to do, going forward.”
But he also noted that the country has a deep and rich Liberal tradition that needs to continue, based on accomplishments of former prime ministers such as Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau.
A number of former or potential leadership candidates, including former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae — re-elected as a Liberal in the riding of Toronto Centre, were not immediately available for an interview with Postmedia News on Tuesday.
Penny Collenette, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who ran as a Liberal candidate in 2008 and had close political ties to former prime minister Jean Chretien, said a debate is a good idea, but believes that many will see this as a chance to rebuild the party based on its own history and values.
“We’re clearly going to have to find that space (in the centre) if we’re not occupying that,” said Collenette. “The party’s damaged but by no means dead.”
Penny is a frequent public policy commentator on national television. During the 2011 federal election, Penny was a commentator for Global TV. Penny tweets @penottawa.
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