The ghosts of Liberal backrooms past

Sure, there are divisions in the Liberal party. There are divisions in every party.

To Canadian political journalists, Liberal fratricide is mother’s milk. Trudeau-Turner begat Turner-Chrétien begat Chrétien-Martin, and Dion-Ignatieff begat Ignatieff-Rae. Liberals only stand behind their leaders, it is said, to stab them in the back.

What rubbish. Sure, there are divisions in the Liberal party. There are divisions in every party. Take an old-time Newfoundland Tory for a pint, and ask him what he thinks of the Reform Party. In the months before the last election, I met at least one New Democrat MP who couldn’t stand Jack Layton—and don’t even get him started on Tom Mulcair.

Political people are, well, political, and that’s both a vice and a virtue. What makes the Liberals different is that internecine warfare is part of the party’s modern mythology, perpetuated by a persistent minority of aging backroom boys who’ve never met a dead horse they don’t want to beat.

Want to improve the way the Liberal Party is portrayed in the press? Forget this convention, just hack into a couple of address books and delete all of the reporters. Problem solved.

Most Liberals I have ever worked with bear no resemblance to the anonymous sources you’ll find quoted in the gossip columns of Parliament Hill. We were Chrétien Liberals, then we were Martin Liberals. We were Dion Liberals, then we were Ignatieff Liberals. Some weren’t Liberals at all, until we joined the party because it matched our beliefs.

So it’s more than a little frustrating when every decision that the Liberal party makes—who should be party president, how we should choose our next leader, who our next leader should be—is framed as a stand-off between the same old factions. That is rarely, if ever, the case. Yet the sins of the past are visited upon new generations of Liberals, who had nothing to do with their commission.

Of course, some people in the party simply don’t get it. When I was working for Michael Ignatieff, one Liberal organizer from out west once approached me after a Christmas party to congratulate me on the leader’s speech.

“That was quite a performance your leader gave tonight,” he told me.

“Thank you,” I said. “But he’s your leader, too.”

“No he’s not,” came the reply. “My leader is Bob Rae.”

It was the first and only time I have ever felt like I was part of a leadership feud, and it wasn’t by choice. But sometimes bad partisans happen to good parties. And when they get their hands on a megaphone, we all suffer.

So as events unfold this weekend, remember this: 2012 is not 2003, nor is it 1990 or 1984. If it were, after all, some of the people running for party office wouldn’t be born, let alone on the ballot.

We need new thinking, not just from the Liberal party, but from the people who describe it to Canadians. Let the ghosts of backrooms past rest in peace.

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