Opportunity (finally) knocks for the Liberals

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Mar. 13, 2012.   John Duffy, National Post

For five years, the Liberal Party of Canada has largely foundered in opposition. Unable to mount a coherent and resonant critique of the Harper government, weakened by discontinuity of leadership, and plagued by technological backwardness, the Liberals have fallen much further behind than anyone would have predicted when Stephen Harper won his minority on Jan. 23, 2006.

Failure at opposition politics is a more serious matter than traditionally thought. Federal Liberals have found to their horror that the penalty for being bad at opposition in a multi-party system is further demotion. Last May 2, the Grits were busted to the probationary status of third party, with either rebirth or extinction as the binary and fairly immediate potential outcomes. Simply put, Liberals have found they must now either learn the opposition role or die.

Much though the Liberals have struggled and failed at opposition, there are recent signs they are finally mastering the task. Relegated to third-party benches, stripped of illusions of an easy return to office, and with an ocean of time on their hands, the Grits are at last learning how the game is played on the left side of the Speaker’s chair. Powerlessness is teaching the Grits some long-overdue lessons. The party is beginning to be schooled in this unlooked-for discipline. And not a moment too soon. Failure to oppose in the current circumstances would likely result in the party’s final demise.

Establishing a compelling alternative narrative is not the only challenge the Liberals face. They must also remodel their badly outdated capacities to fight modern political campaigns. Human resources are another key factor, with installing an effective Leader the first and perhaps greatest challenge. But getting those factors right is only part of the battle. The opposition must oppose.

Over the past five years and to varying degrees, Liberals have struggled with this imperative, trying several other means of displacing the Conservatives.

They have raised issues of process and style – such as Afghan prisoner treatment and the long form census – at times generating a genuine upswing. Alternatively, a big-idea policy move was offered in Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift, before inadequate stimulation of public demand, a poor selling effort, and the lack of a credible salesman turned a potential game-changing asset into an election liability. In the most spectacular episode, the freshly defeated Liberals in 2008 sought to by-pass the election mechanism entirely and plunged into a coalition arrangement with the NDP and Bloc Québécois. The country was wholly unprepared for this development. It turned out the Liberals were as well, and they essentially disowned the project halfway through its execution.

Finally, Michael Ignatieff ‘s Grits in 2011 triggered an election aiming to “allow the government to defeat itself.” The Liberal strategy was to dispute relatively small tranches of the Tories agenda, and count on the government’s rough style and mistreatment of Parliament to carry a campaign. This effort was even less successful than previous ones. It seems, then, as if the Grits have attempted everything but the obvious. Liberals have tried acia berries, tapeworms and liposuction – anything to get healthy except eating less and exercising daily.

Since the 2011 election catastrophe, the Liberals have been adjusting. They are organizing their affairs towards the long-haul timeline of majority, carefully ordering their priorities in accordance with their limited resources and picking smarter battles against which to leverage the limited reach of their voice in the national conversation.

The best example of learning the discipline of powerlessness has been the Liberal decision to kick the leadership habit, at least for a year or two.

In the election’s immediate aftermath, Liberals made a conscious decision to push their leadership race off until 2013, in order to give the party time and space to reorganize its affairs. This is a dramatic departure for a party that has tended to harness its entire development strategy to leadership politics. Every decision, from the procurement of voter-engagement software to the fundamental policy offering to Canadians has tended to be a function of leadership politics. For the Liberals, then, 2011’s de-coupling of an organizational, technological and financial overhaul of the party from the leadership process is more than just a quit-smoking resolution; it’s a major lifestyle change.

Secondly, Liberals are taking their time about developing an offering to Canadians. The organizers of the recent Ottawa convention worked hard to make room for party-reform debate and to take the spotlight away from any programmatic policy discussion that would be premature at this stage of the electoral cycle. Between the adjusted leadership calendar and the altered convention agenda, Liberals were able to focus tightly on the urgent business of remodeling the party according to a more open and contemporary architecture of voter engagement. Neither the long leadership timeline nor the reform focused convention would have been possible in the hair-trigger minority situations of the past five years.

Most importantly, external developments are giving the Liberals some promising new political openings.

The most obvious is the Harper government’s decision to begin governing more explicitly from the right. This starts with the current issuance of loyalty rewards to its activist base early in the mandate. The rollout of royalizations, registry-cancellations, retirement-rollbacks and heavy handed security regimes has given some substance to the Liberals’ critique of the Harper government as out-of-step with Canada’s broad traditions of politics and government. The tactical opportunity of the moment has been effectively exploited by interim Leader Bob Rae – surely the premiere opposition politician of his generation.

Of greater significance is that Mr. Harper’s long-range and visibly conservative plans now have come into full view. During the two minorities, Mr. Harper usually presented a very narrow target for his opponents to shoot at (the one big exception was the 2008 economic statement, which stepped outside the global consensus for stimulus and played a critical role in generating the coalition episode). However, the Conservatives’ current fiscal plan spells out not only a commitment to bring the budget into balance, but a timeline and a goal – another round of income tax cuts – with which moderate and sensible people can easily take issue.

The debate about Old Age Security (OAS) offers a good example of how the new political dynamics of the majority Conservative agenda work. Liberals and others were able plausibly to argue that the motive for pushing back the age of OAS qualification was not the soundness of the program, but rather, the Tories’ fiscal plan and their preference for tax cuts. This is an exposure Mr. Harper would probably not have taken on in a minority parliament. It shows how his majority-government commitment to a long-term conservative agenda creates new vulnerabilities for his opponents to exploit.

Moreover, the Conservative majority has at last engaged with the health-care issue, albeit with the longest barge-pole that could be crafted. For all the considerable cunning of the “here’s-your-chequewe’re-outta-here” position imposed by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a choice has been made. Again, it is one that can be criticized without appearing unreasonable. It’s taken a couple of months, but provinces such as Quebec and Ontario are beginning to take issue with the Tories’ “unilateral disengagement” from the health-care file. This may be a less-compelling attack than would have been made had Ottawa made other choices, but the chance to talk about health care is almost always a boon to the Liberals.

The “disengagement” story – Mr. Rae terms it “the politics of abandonment” – is a potentially powerful description of not only the government’s style, but its overall policy agenda. Since taking power, the Harper government has arguably dismantled Ottawa’s environmental policy, energy strategy, broadcasting framework, and telecommunications agenda, to name a few. With a majority, it can now be said to be perhaps disengaging from health care and retirement security.

Those who argue that Harper’s isn’t a truly conservative government are missing the point. The conservative agenda since at least the Joe Clark era has been a smaller Ottawa – both in the federation and in the economy. Mr. Harper is now demonstrably delivering on that core conservative agenda.

Mr. Harper’s new agenda carries with it regional impacts. Objective analysis argues that the main beneficiaries of the new federal healthcare position will be Alberta and Saskatchewan. This issue will track with developments in two other forthcoming areas of the federalprovincial relationship: equalization and infrastructure financing. On all three fronts, a “two Canadas” pattern may be emerging, and herein lies the potential for the kind of broad opposition story that can command attention in an election campaign.

One dimension of the “two Canada’s” story would have to do with the effect of ideologically-motivated Conservative restraint on the pillars of middle-class life in Canada. There is no question that the separation of socio-economic groups in Canada has led to a number of social ills, and is leaving most on the wrong side of the divide. Liberals can oppose this, linking in voters’ minds a current position with the party’s tradition as the party of middleclass Canada.

A second dimension would be regional. As Quebec Premier Jean Charest has poignantly noted, Canada now has two economies: “Oil, gas and potash – and others.” If the Liberals can convincingly tag the Conservatives as favouring the commodity economies of their political heartland at the expense of the rest, they will be launched upon some of the broadest and most powerful tides of our political history.

Again, these are currents with which the Liberals are traditionally associated, which would help restore some of the brand values the Liberals have accidentally shed over the past several years.

Some have argued that a new electoral alliance between Ontario and the burgeoning West has taken shape, displacing a traditional governing alliance between Ontario and Quebec. Others would point to a very different Ontario emerging that is not as likely to feel as good about federal economic management in 2015 as it did in 2011. Post-Drummond Ontario seems a less promising alliance-partner for the Tory West, and perhaps a more plausible one for post-industrial Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Liberals would do well to consider this.

Quebec will be the pivot in this drama. If the province reacts to these tectonic shifts in the federation by further disengagement, the Conservative re-shaping of Canada is likely to go lamented, but essentially unimpeded. If, however, Quebec voters begin to take a more active role in shaping the federation around them, their choices will be critical. The potential exists, in fact, for the emergence of one of the two opposition parties in much the same alignment as was experienced in the 1970s and early ’80s. A Quebec-based party facing a Western-based party, with Ontario and the Atlantic holding the balance, could be in the offing.

This is the real prize the Liberals are playing for: the chance to contend seriously with Harper’s government with a narrative, and demographic and regional bases of support that truly challenge the foundations of Conservative power. The real question is: Will the Liberals actually oppose the majority Conservative offering?

The forthcoming selection of a new NDP leader will bring this question to the fore. In terms of ideology, Liberals will face either an NDP positioned clearly to their left, or one that is crowding them in the centre – even as the Conservatives are finally allowing a little breathing room to their right. The regional orientation of the NDP – either Ontario-Quebec or Ontario-West – will be also decided on March 24. These two positionings will shape the aperture through which the Liberals can hope to move forward. Indeed, a defining moment for the opposition Liberals will come in their response to the new NDP Leader. At best, the Grits will find themselves alone in a regional and ideological sweet-spot; at worst, they may be hopelessly squeezed.

At least, however, the Liberals seem to understand better than before the battles the game they are in. No policy, narrative or coalition strategy will renew the Liberal lease on life without money, riding level organization, strong candidates and a compelling leader. Nonetheless, if armed with the discipline, lessons learned, and opportunities afforded by recent catastrophe, Liberals may find themselves on the rising side of fortune’s wheel once more. The pattern is older than Exodus and as contemporary as the latest celebrity comeback. There are no shortcuts. Time in the wilderness is a gift, if used wisely. Rebirth, and even return is possible, for those who embrace exile and its harsh disciplines.

John Duffy is a former strategic advisor to prime minister Paul Martin. This article is adapted from a longer essay contained in the current edition of Policy Options.

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