Why the Liberals are yesterday’s party

Special interests and entrenched fiefdoms doomed the Liberals to electoral defeat, writes Peter C. Newman

Yesterday’s party

Photograph by Cole Garside

Peter C. Newman’s latest political book was supposed to be a close observer’s inside account of the rise of Michael Ignatieff from novelist and Harvard professor to prime minister of Canada, with barely a stop in between. Instead, as Newman followed Ignatieff during his climb to the Liberal leadership and the party’s catastrophic federal election campaign last spring, it became clear that he was chronicling the destruction of the Liberal party. In this excerpt from When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada, Newman describes the Liberals’ abject failure to respond to the Conservatives’ devastating anti-Ignatieff ads and the Liberal leader’s hapless debate performance:

The attack ads defined Ignatieff in a way the Liberals did not—it turned out, could not—answer. Not because the accusations were true, but because they were repeated with brainwashing frequency.

How that lapse happened is the great untold story of the campaign. There was, during the 2011 election, no public proof that anything positive was stirring inside the Liberal camp, but in fact nearly $5 million quietly trickled into Liberal headquarters. Those voluntary contributions were greater than the totals mailed in during the last three elections. The Liberal party’s fundraising was actually quite good, much better than that of the NDP or Bloc. The problem for the Liberals was that the power brokers divided the spoils. The Grits had the highest infrastructure costs of all the political parties—every federal-provincial association demanded their own office budgets and staff, plus there was a commission for every special interest within the party, each with its own budget. The Liberals’ rotten internal culture meant that the power brokers would rather the party die than lose their little fiefdoms. The party thus left its leader helpless to defend himself. Too busy dividing what remained of fundraising dollars and the public subsidy between its fiefdoms and power brokers, the party was unable to save any for the response to the negative advertising that Ignatieff so desperately needed.

Gordon Gibson, who was a former senior aide to Pierre Trudeau as well as a former leader of the B.C. Liberals, put the essential problem most succinctly: “The Liberal party is in great danger of becoming an irrelevance. Alas, that assumes there is still something called the Liberal party. What used to be a genuine, large and co-operative organization of like-minded people has been turned into an empty shell by centralizing leaders, and is now populated largely by celebrity followers and power seekers.”

“It’s not that the money wasn’t there to fight the negative ads,” one of the senior Liberal strategists told me. “We had $23 million in the kitty but nobody could figure out how to get at it. The NDP can run a national party organization and win three times as many seats as we did, on a quarter of our budget. How many regional offices do the Conservatives have? Certainly not the 12 we do.

“Because every Liberal fiefdom demanded their dollars, we didn’t have access to the funds required to answer the Tory propaganda. Not because the party didn’t have money but because we were spending it on stupid things, like provincial and territorial associations and the Women’s Commission, and all these little party subdivisions that demanded their own budgets. Neither the Tories nor the NDP operate like that. Unlike the Conservative party, we’re not a single entity but a coalition of many different subdivisions, commissions, individual fiefdoms, and provincial associations within a federal structure. Everybody covets their budgets and it’s extraordinarily expensive. For example, we’ve had to hire 50 people to staff a simple nomination meeting. Why? Because we’re still yesterday’s party.”

Ignatieff, with his easier manners and his rolled-up shirtsleeves, simply could not meet enough people face to face to counter the relentless impression of the advertising. Liberal candidates reported from their doorstep tours that an inordinate number of people volunteered that they didn’t approve of Michael Ignatieff. When they were asked why, they would parrot the Harper attack ads, word for word. (“He’s not there for you . . . ”). When confronted about that parroting, they would be offended, and insist, “I wasn’t influenced by those ads.”

Guy Giorno, who had been Harper’s chief of staff and ran the Tory 2011 campaign, certainly had no doubts about their supreme significance in the election’s results. “Mr. Ignatieff has no one to blame but himself for not taking the time to respond to the ads,” he declared. “The issue was not the fact that he spent so much time living and teaching abroad. Rather, it was his failure to explain his reasons for returning to Canada. Ordinary Canadians said it looked like he came back just to run for prime minister. You can agree or disagree with the sentiment but that was a real-person reaction. His failure to define himself was his choice.”

There were dozens of stories that Ignatieff refused to rehearse for the English debate in the 2011 campaign because he had been an ace debater at university and didn’t need a refresher course.

In fact, he did rehearse, and quite diligently, with Glenn O’Farrell, a Canadian broadcast executive and former head of the Canadian Broadcasting Association. Not exactly a force of nature as a pretend interrogator. Dumping the ever-wise Rex Murphy, who was responsible for Dion’s unexpectedly good performance two years earlier, was a serious mistake, and might have contributed to Ignatieff’s lacklustre performance in the national televised debate. The Liberals’ own pollster, Michael Marzolini—the chairman and founder of Pollara, one of the best in Canada—was quoted in the Globe and Mail after the election was over, saying that Ignatieff’s dull showing in the leaders’ debates was the beginning of the end. The rise of Jack Layton and the NDP began with Layton so clearly speaking for and to ordinary Canadians during the debates, while Ignatieff just could not make the connection on TV. (Marzolini also complained in mid-campaign to a senior Liberal that the party was paying his fees but paying no attention to his results: “They’ve managed to do the opposite of everything I’ve advised.”)

The ebbs and flows of the campaign were meticulously tracked by other polling companies, of course, none more imaginatively than Angus Reid’s outfit, whose vice-president Mario Conseco provided me with a private briefing that included a minute-by-minute review of that pivotally significant English leaders’ debate. The most dramatic trend during the last two weeks of the campaign was a tectonic shift away from the Liberals. Their retention rate from the previous election was down to 57 per cent, compared to the Tories’ 82 per cent and the NDP’s 85 per cent. This meant that close to a half of the people who had voted Liberal in 2008, when Stéphane Dion was leader, abandoned their choice. “It became clear as the campaign went on that the Liberals would finish below the dreaded Mendoza line,” Conseco concluded (baseball player Mario Mendoza was known for his defensive skills as a shortstop but was a terrible hitter, often batting less than one hit for every five at-bats, excluding walks).

After the first week of the campaign, Ignatieff’s approval rating jumped from 19 to 25 per cent but NDP support moved up from 37 per cent to 43. Then came the English debate, and that was where Ignatieff’s stumble, Harper’s unbeatable lead and Layton’s rise had powerful effects. Harper dominated by the simple tactic of never moving his eyes away from the TV cameraman, which had him looking straight into the camera—directly into the audience’s eyes—while the other participants looked sidewise at one another when asking or answering questions.

Given that Ignatieff was a former professor in the area of international human rights, the expectation was that when debating Layton on Afghanistan, he would shine. Layton, who was not supposed to be a leader in foreign affairs, scored the highest of all with the simple wish: “Bring the troops home from Afghanistan.” Ignatieff’s comeback—“Help the Afghans defend themselves for three more years”—got the segment’s lowest level of approval.

In the final part of the debate, Ignatieff’s summarizing view that the choice on May 2 was “between a Harper government and a Liberal government” went off the bottom of the charts—south of the Mendoza line. (There must be a country and western song about that by now.)

Ignatieff knew he wasn’t going to win two weeks before voting day, including his own riding. The so-called National Liberal Team had assigned only a skeleton crew to Ignatieff’s constituency and did no polling. They paid virtually no attention to the key riding that could easily have been won.

He ended up hoping for 50 seats. And if he had won his own constituency, he would have stuck around until his succession was arranged, rather than exiting to see Bob Rae take over as interim leader. The party’s worst drubbing was in the Toronto area, once the Grits’s private preserve, which went largely Tory. Yet on election night, a few brave souls—or dreamers who refused to credit the nightmare unfolding on their TV sets—were already reorganizing area ridings, not ready to abandon what had been their fortress.

Excerpted from When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada. Copyright © 2011 Dragonmaster Productions Ltd. Reproduced by arrangement with publisher Random House Canada. All rights reserved.

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