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As the Liberal leadership race unfolds, the executive has sent the right signals for the contest. In selecting the next leader by April 2013, the party has left a sufficient window of time for a spirited race, but not one that drags on too long with a leader ready to square off against the more seasoned Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair of the NDP.
Similarly, in making the leadership deposit $75,000, the party is effectively deterring long-shot candidates with little chance of winning from wasting a huge sum of money. All serious candidates in this race better “forget about the price tag,” as Jessie J. astutely puts it in her pop single hit.
The hope is that there will be a smaller, but more serious field of candidates in a competitive race the party can ill afford to crown, as they have the last half dozen times to their peril.
Despite these hopeful signs, the Liberals continue to make the same detrimental errors which have eroded their brand over the last decade, if not generation. The nascent infighting persists, the saviour syndrome remains on full display with the draft Justin Trudeau movement, and a genuine discussion of bold, transformational ideas is lacking.
Let me now discuss each in turn.
There is bound to be tension within a party whenever the leadership rules for a race are announced. It is simply impossible to please all members, and some nerves are likely to be frayed. What is astonishing, but not surprising in the case of the Liberal party, is how open the fault lines have become and the hostility of the tone.
Take the remarks made by Liberal MP Judy Sgro in response to accusations that the entry fee is prohibitively expensive and too likely to deter candidates. Though there is merit to her comments, there is no mistaking that the sniping has begun. “If you can’t raise $75,000 for your entry fee, it’s telling you that there is no space for you.” She goes on further, “If you don’t have the profile to go out there and raise half a million dollars for your leadership campaign, then stay home.” (“Potential Grit leadership candidates should ‘stay home’ if they can’t raise half a million dollars,” Full Comment, The Hill Times, Sept. 19, 2012)
Ouch. Stay home? A rather harsh assessment, it seems. It is one thing for the party to encourage only those with a profile they believe will generate excitement in a race. It is in this context that the $75,000 fee makes sense. But how can a party, now in distant third place, and struggling for survival, tell any prospective candidate to ‘stay home’? These remarks contradict the party’s desire to become more open and inclusive, and suggest that the arrogance of the Chretien-Martin years of power persist to this day as a third-place party.
Dominic Leblanc, Liberal MP for Beausejour, N.B., was equally callous in his blunt assessment in favour of the $75,000 fee. He told reporters, “the Liberal leadership shouldn’t become some sort of practice for the Toastmasters Club. I think if you are going to practice speechmaking, there are other places to do it.” (“Potential Grit leadership candidates should ‘stay home’ if they can’t raise half a million dollars,” Full Comment, The Hill Times, Sept. 19, 2012)
Once again, Leblanc could have legitimately defended the rationale for a $75,000 entrance fee without berating Toastmasters. It is one thing to encourage only serious, competitive candidates to enter the race, and quite another to show contempt for potential participants. And besides, Toastmasters provides invaluable public speaking skills that politicians of all stripes can benefit from, especially in a Question Period where our MPs often read their questions verbatim from cue cards!
The second major error the Liberals are committing yet again is their quest for a messiah, with Justin Trudeau meeting the criteria this time around. Indeed, this leadership race would benefit from someone with his name recognition and profile. He is bilingual, telegenenic, and charismatic. To his credit, he wrestled the riding of Papineau away from the Bloq Quebecois in 2008 when Liberal fortunes were sinking. Trudeau did manage to hold onto this riding in 2011, when the Liberals suffered their most pronounced electoral defeat and lost their status as official opposition.
To the extent Trudeau was able to pick up and hold on to the riding of Papineau, one which was not safe for the Liberal party when their fortunes were plummeting, speaks to his fine campaign skills, and perhaps an ability to grow the party nationally.
There are downsides to his candidacy, nonetheless. At 40 years of age, he was a successful school teacher prior to starting his political career, but otherwise his resume does appear to be thin. We have yet to know where Trudeau stands on some of the most pressing issues of the day. Is he a more left-of-centre Liberal that favours a more central, interventionist role for government, or is he more market friendly? Does he favour a return to a more Pearsonian approach to foreign affairs, with Canada as an honest broker? Would Trudeau relax the Canada Health Act and allow for more private medicine, or would he more severely punish provinces that allow buyers other than the government for the provision of doctor and hospital services?
In the event Trudeau decides to run, answers to these questions are bound to become clearer, or else his iconic celebrity status will fade, and many Liberals will have yet again placed misguided hope in a false messiah.
Finally, these concerns lead into my final point. The Liberals need to engage Canadians on a national vision and set of policies that will excite them, and distinguish themselves from both the NDP to their left, and the Conservatives to their right. Though matters of policy and national vision are likely to become more salient once the leadership race kicks off in earnest, the party should now be making a more concerted effort to initiate a vibrant national discussion.
At their convention earlier this year, the Liberal party did approve a bold policy of legalizing marijuana, and using this policy to clearly distinguish themselves from the Conservatives. Though it was a courageous undertaking, it was a bit of a dud as far as most of the population was concerned. Despite legitimate merit to the proposal, it was not a priority for Canadians, and Liberals need to speak more to issues such as the economy, health care and the environment which top the agenda.
Over the course of this leadership race, the Liberals are going to have to decide what kind of a role the government should play in the economy, and in so doing, retain a sense of cohesion and focus thus far lacking. The Liberals will have to choose between a vision that has been their cornerstone, advocating for a strong, central government promoting social programs to encourage equality of opportunity, or one that harnesses the forces of the market to ensure economic prosperity, so that there is then the necessary wealth to promote a just society. The Liberals must decide, and cannot have it both ways, as they have for the better part of a generation.
In sum, the Liberals have a golden opportunity now to redefine themselves, and present a viable alternative to an increasingly polarized political discourse between the Conservatives and the NDP. In spite of some hopeful signs, the never-ending sniping within the tenuous Liberal family seems to persist to its peril, and a serious discussion on policy has been somewhat lacking. The Liberals must shake off these shenanigans now, or else even the most heeled prospective leadership candidate will be unable to forget about this very expensive price tag.
Jeremy Richler has completed an MA in Political Science and an LL.B. He is a member in good standing with the Law Society of Upper Canada.