The Liberal crisis

Only Justin Trudeau, who has seemed to rule out a run, rivals Rae for generating interest

The Liberal Crisis

Photograph by Blair Gable

Mike Crawley, the new president of the Liberal Party of Canada, may be a youthful 43, but he boasts a surprisingly long history of stepping up when the party finds itself in dire circumstances. A few months after then-leader John Turner led the Liberals to a soul-sapping defeat against Brian Mulroney’s ascendant Conservatives in the 1984 election, Crawley opted to join the losing side. Growing up in an Ottawa family that didn’t care much about politics, he was nonetheless a teenaged true believer. “My first event was a hoity-toity fundraising reception that I got a free ticket to,” he remembers. “I showed up, didn’t know anybody—a geeky 15-year-old with all these people in nice suits. Even though I was just 15, I thought I could have some influence, and that attracted me.”

Since Liberals elected him to head their national board of directors at a convention early this year, Crawley has taken on a behind-the-scenes rebuilding challenge even more daunting than what confronted his elders in the party back in the dark days of the mid-1980s. Turner had at least clung to official Opposition status. But in the May 2, 2011, election, Michael Ignatieff led the Liberals to a third-place humbling, as the NDP vaulted over them to become the government-in-waiting. A party laid so low normally looks to a leader for direction. But the Liberals put off picking Ignatieff’s permanent successor until spring 2013. That left Crawley and his board to map out two or three years of painful recuperation. His diagnosis of the Liberal malaise is blunt enough to come from a disdainful Tory or New Democrat. “The root of the party’s problem,” he told Maclean’s, “is that it’s gradually become more and more closed both to new people and new ideas.”

In fact, critics have long slammed the federal Liberals as a closed club. In the past, however, that club always offered the cachet of power, or close proximity to it. Losing three elections in a row under three leaders—Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Ignatieff—wiped out any aura of exclusivity. So now the Liberals are trying to reconnect even with sympathetic Canadians too wary to sign a membership card. As of this week, the party began inviting mere “supporters” to register, just by entering their names and email addresses on the Liberal website. No initiation fee is charged.

The new not-quite-Grits will get to vote for the next leader, but not nominate local candidates for MP, participate fully at the riding association level, or vote at policy conventions. Crawley optimistically predicts “hundreds of thousands” of supporters will eventually enlist, compared to the current 40,000 to 60,000 full-fledged members. The inspiration for the move originates partly with France’s historically cliquish Socialists, who gave themselves a populist boost last year by opening their presidential nomination contest to voting by non-members.

Liberals hotly debated the proposal to create and empower the new supporter class in January at their convention in Ottawa. Those who argued for the innovation predicted big things. “It will make the Liberal party the most open in Canada,” said Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison, “changing the party from a club to a modern political movement.” Even if the supporter category proves that potent, though, the Liberals still need not just tentative backers, but regular cash contributors. The Conservative party’s fearsome machine—producer of waves of blisteringly negative advertising—is fuelled by a massive fundraising advantage. Figures for the first three months of 2012, released this week, show the Tories raised more than $5 million from 36,269 individuals, while the Liberals pulled in $2.4 million from 22,870 donors.

But that’s not as bad for Liberals as it might look to outsiders. The party’s fundraising gathered steam during Ignatieff’s losing campaign last spring and stayed relatively healthy, measured by recent standards, even after the dismal election result. It raised $10.3 million in 2011, far back of the Conservatives’ $23 million, but well ahead of the NDP’s $7.5 million. Compare that to the measly $5.9 million the Liberals raised in 2008, their previous losing election year. It seems 2011’s near-death experience jolted at least some Liberals and their sympathizers into finally donating, whereas the 2008 loss inspired mostly apathy.

Still, top Liberal strategists admit privately that the current pace of fundraising isn’t enough to both run the party properly between campaigns and fill the $25-million war chest needed to fight the next election, expected in 2015. As well, the party is soliciting earmarked donations expressly to pay for TV ads they plan to air to define their new leader next year—and counter the anticipated onslaught of Tory attack ads, like those that convinced many unsure voters Dion was “not a leader” and Ignatieff an expat carpetbagger who “didn’t come back for you.”

Choosing that next leader is of course a prime preoccupation of many Liberals. After last year’s election, the party decided to put off the selection until 2013. Bob Rae, the veteran Toronto MP who was once Ontario’s NDP premier, took on the job of interim leader—after vowing not to run for the permanent position. Rae, now 63, said last year that “it’s important for the party to look very much to a new generation of leadership.” More recently, though, he’s suggested that only strictures set down by the national executive—not his own pledge—prevent him from throwing his hat in the ring.

Crawley says the executive will clarify its stance within weeks. Most Liberal insiders expect them to declare Rae free to run if he first steps down from the interim leadership.

“The whole objective is that by the beginning of summer there will be clarity in terms of the rules for the leadership, candidate eligibility, all of those matters,” Crawley said. Another senior Liberal official, who asked not to be named, said the party’s aim is to make sure if Rae decides to change his mind and run, “it won’t be messy or dramatic.”

There can be no separating the chances of a Liberal revival from the leadership question. In Stephen Harper, they face a proven winner who, at only 53, could easily lead his Tories into two more campaigns. Thomas Mulcair, 57, chosen by the NDP earlier this year to succeed the late Jack Layton, is looking like a formidably disciplined rival. But no clear field of would-be Liberal leaders is forming. Liberal MPs who might apply to fill the vacancy—like New Brunswick’s Dominic LeBlanc, Quebec’s Marc Garneau, Ontario’s David McGuinty and B.C.’s Joyce Murray—remain tentative. Only Justin Trudeau, who has seemed to rule out a run, rivals Rae for generating interest.

Until the leadership race takes off, Crawley’s methodical overhaul of the party’s unwieldy apparatus will remain the main action in the Liberal camp. Recently, his board took what could be watershed steps to catch up to the more streamlined Tory and NDP operations. The Liberals’ provincial and territorial wings, and the party’s branches devoted to seniors, youth, Aboriginals and women, will no longer be guaranteed a slice of party revenues. Instead, according to Crawley, from now on they will have to submit annual plans and ask for funding from national headquarters. “The Liberal party has developed over the years into a bit of a beast with a lot of subgroups within it who go off on their own and follow their own agenda,” Crawley says, asserting those days are over.

No matter how efficient the party becomes, it’s the message, not management style, that matters to voters. Many Liberals argue that Rae’s bravura debating skills have won them a higher profile than their third-place standing in the House would normally allow. If that’s so, however, it’s not reflected in polls released since Mulcair won the NDP leadership in March. At least three put the NDP nearly tied with Harper’s Conservatives with between 30 and 35 per cent support, with the Liberals trailing by about 10 points. Crawley waves off Ottawa’s inveterate obsession with horse-race numbers. “In terms of over the next 12 to 18 months,” he says, “being obsessed with every poll, that’s a mug’s game.”

Instead, Crawley and other senior Liberals are focused on finding new policies to pitch, ideas that would give them the potential—under the right leader—to ride an updraft during a campaign. The problem is that the party has recently tried bold and basic platforms—and failed miserably with both. Dion’s daring “Green Shift” would have taxed fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with offsetting cuts to personal and corporate taxes. Voters didn’t buy the concept. Ignatieff’s more modest five-point “Family Pack” tried to outdo Harper at offering easy-to-understand niche programs, from help for families paying for college or university, to tax breaks for energy-saving home renovations. Again, no sale on election day.

Burned twice by such different platforms, many Liberals are taking their time about dreaming up the next one. Perhaps inevitably, some of the early discussion is over which way to lean—left to rebuff the rising NDP, or right to challenge the governing Tories. Some Liberals argue they must avoid the temptation to frame their choice in those terms. “It would be a mistake to try to emulate the NDP economic policy, in the same way it would be a mistake to emulate the Conservative social policy,” Brison says.

But the classic Liberal centre-straddling approach carries the risk that the party can end up looking bland or blurry. The examples of other developed nations—including the U.S. and Britain, France and Australia—show how democratic politics can tend to resolve itself into a two-party, left-right choice. Canada was long the exception, with the Liberals staking out the enviable middle ground between choices further toward either end of the ideological spectrum.

It’s not just MPs and Crawley’s crew who are arguing over repositioning the party. Liberals report grassroots debate sparked by last year’s brush with annihilation. Katie Telford, a former senior federal party strategist now pitching in as a volunteer Toronto riding president, says the grim post-election mood has gradually given way to hashing out new ideas at surprisingly well-attended local Liberal meetings. “The reason people keep coming is because they want to be part of the solution,” Telford says.

Back in the early sixties—in the wake of John Diefenbaker’s massive majority win for the Tories in 1958 and the creation of the social-democratic NDP in 1961—some also predicted the Liberals would be squeezed out as a polarized party system took hold. Instead, Lester Pearson led the Liberals back to power in 1963, ushering in an era of innovation, including universal health care and the public pension system, and paving the way for Pierre Trudeau’s long run in office.

Crawley points to the new ideas of the 1960s, rather than the internal party restructuring that followed Turner’s 1984 defeat, as the template for what must happen over the next three years. “The Liberal party has to figure out what its agenda is going to be, not just for the next election, but for the next 10, 15 years,” he says.

But evidence of ideas that ambitious being hatched is hard to find. Asked for examples, Crawley points to how 77 per cent of delegates to the Liberal convention in January voted to legalize and regulate marijuana. The next leader won’t be bound to put that into an election platform, but the membership’s will was clear. Of course, not all prominent Liberals put the emphasis on the contentious drug policy issue. Ottawa MP McGuinty, for instance, calls for a plan to improve private sector pensions, especially as resentment of public sector retirement packages mounts, along with restoring the traditional Liberal focus on health care. Former MP Gerard Kennedy, who lost his Toronto seat to the NDP last year, calls for a policy thrust to counter the income inequality that inspired last year’s Occupy movement.

Yet the marijuana issue competes for attention in Liberal circles with more mainstream policy preoccupations. Vancouver MP Joyce Murray says the party plans to consult widely on legalizing pot, and touts the push as the clearest sign of Liberal willingness to engage in risky policy debate. And she notes that Mulcair quickly ruled out any similar interest on behalf of the NDP. “We know the war on drugs doesn’t work. That’s clear. Who has the courage to tackle this problem? The Liberal Party of Canada,” Murray says. “That’s the Liberal heritage. When you do something that’s brave and radical, 30 years later it’s the fabric of Canada.”

That three-decade time frame is much on Liberal minds, after they celebrated the 30th anniversary on April 17 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien was on hand with Rae for a Liberal rally marking the occasion in Toronto. Both Harper and Mulcair, citing Pierre Trudeau’s 1982 constitutional reforms as divisive in Quebec, passed on toasting the Charter. So it was a chance for Liberals to remind themselves of how their history in power sets them apart, before they returned to the mostly grinding work of trying to make sure, after a punishing series of setbacks, that power might still have a place in their future.

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