Liberal road map to power still in pre-construction stage

Posted on November 10, 2011 in Governance Debates

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Nov 10, 2011.    Kelly McParland

Bob Rae’s “road map back to power” failed to impress everyone at The Toronto Star, where his biggest and most loyal fan base resides.

On Wednesday the Star heralded its “exclusive” report on a speech Rae was to deliver later that day, “his first major policy speech since he assumed the leadership.”

Unfortunately, the excitement failed to penetrate to all levels of the Star’s newsroom.Columnist Bob Hepburn was notably unimpressed.

Despite all the advance hype surrounding it, though, the speech surely disappointed those who wanted to hear about the party’s plans to reform itself, regain voter confidence and, ultimately, return to power.

Indeed, as it stands now, the Liberals’ vaunted “road map” is more like a map to nowhere.

Rae’s “road map” speech lacked any direction, was devoid of details of how the party will change and provided no clue on how it will get from here to there.

Instead, it was filled with empty clichés and shopworn rhetoric attacking the Conservatives and NDP. If anything, the speech could have been — and might well have been — delivered by any Liberal leader over the last 20 years, except for a few minor changes to reflect today’s news and statistics.

To become a viable alternative to the Conservatives and NDP, the Liberals will need more than clichés.

Meanwhile, much less attention was paid to an earlier address by Stephane Dion, the former Liberal leader who lost to Stephen Harper’s Tories in 2008. Mr. Dion, speaking in Halifax, also embraced the “whither the Liberals” theme. He concluded that the party must not abandon its traditional role as a centrist party, devoting much of his talk to the glories Liberaldom has wrought in the past. But he also examined the reasons for the party’s recent problems, and changes needed to correct them: match the Tory imagery machine, and rebuild confidence in Liberal economics.

What we need to do now is identify the root reasons of our recent failures so that we can make the necessary adjustments that will put us back on the path to victory.  For sure, there is more than one reason: some, such as Jack Layton’s exceptional political talent, are strictly circumstantial.  Some are more structural.  I will name two of the latter.

The first lesson the 2008 and 2011 defeats taught us is that it will be very difficult to win the next election if we lose the pre-campaign.  The Conservatives have brought US-style “permanent campaigning” to Canada.  Their methods are now familiar.  The next time around, their first objective will be, again, to define the new Liberal Leader before the Liberal Party can do it.  They will spend millions of dollars on negative ads which will portray the Liberal Leader as odious, incompetent, self-centred, un-Canadian, soft on crime, tax-hungry, etc.

That is exactly what happened to Michael Ignatieff and to me.  We must not allow it to happen to our next Leader.  Before he or she is chosen, we must set up the organization, solid financial base and communications capacity required to ensure that we, not the Conservatives, will present the new Liberal Leader to Canadians, explaining why we chose him or her and why we believe he or she is the right leader for Canada.

The second lesson the 2008 and 2011 defeats taught us is that it will be very difficult for us to win the next election if we let the Conservatives occupy the terrain of economic credibility.  At the end of the day, what voters want to know is who can best help them get a job or keep the one they have, pay their bills, save up for their children’s studies, etc.  What we have to do is convince them that the best person for the job is the Liberal Leader or Liberal candidate in the riding.

In 2008, as Liberal Leader, I did talk about the economy.  I truly believed that the main focus of my campaign was the economy.  The Green Shift’s subtitle was: “Building a Canadian Economy for the 21st Century.”  But because I was promoting sustainable economy, which I strongly believe must be the economy of the 21st century, I was perceived as a one-issue candidate, exclusively preoccupied by the environment.  I failed to convince Canadians of the link that exists between economy and environment.  And we paid the price.

In 2011, I am sure Mr. Ignatieff talked about the economy in his speeches.  But the voters did not hear him, and neither did the Liberal candidates who were so busy campaigning in their ridings.  Most of our communications plan was about helping families: housing, daycare, home renovations, family caregivers, tuition fees, etc.  In the midst of global economic turmoil, we appeared to abandon the themes of employment and economic security to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.  It seemed that we were trying too much to look like the NDP.  Unfortunately, the natural NDP voters chose the original over the copy and many Liberal supporters who were worried about the economy went over to the Conservatives.

If we are to win the next time around, we will have to make sure that the Canadian electorate sees us as we truly are: the party of the Centre, the party that believes in the market economy as much as in the role of government.

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