A successful political party, the famous British Conservative, Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham, said needs two things to prosper politically:
- A sense of conviction; and
- A sense of direction.
It seems to me that the Liberal Party of Canada has been lacking one or the other or, sometimes, both since the mid-1960s. The problem, I believe, was twofold:
- First was the world-wide phenomenon of ‘stagflation‘ which spread from the UK, in the 1960s, to North America and the world in the1970s; and
- The second was not unique to Canada but it was a surprise to most Canadians, it was the phenomenon of Québec nationalism.
During a time of economic difficulty, the Liberals were faced with trying to placate rising Québec nationalism which was exemplified by the slogan of “Maîtres Chez Nous” which was used by Jean Lesage* to launch the révolution tranquille, the quiet revolution. There was a perceived need for some fresh Québecois blood in Ottawa and Lester Pearson recruited the “three wise men” as they were known in English (“les trois colombes” in French, meaning the three doves): fiery labour leader Jean Marchand, journalist and communications guru Gérard Pelletier and law professor Pierre Elliot Trudeau. All three were somewhere on the political left, Trudeau and Pelletier being far, far closer to the CCF and the fledgeling NDP than they were to a 20th century Liberal Party exemplified by Sir Wilfred Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Louis St Laurent and the estimable Mike Pearson.
Many people, myself included,** thought that Jean Marchand was the best choice to lead the Liberal Party when Pearson would step aside because he was seen to be a good, practical and pragmatic, albeit left-wing liberal but he, himself, said that his English was not good enough and he stood aside and allowed Pierre Trudeau to win the leadership based on what was then being seen as a Liberal tradition of alternating between English and French-speaking leaders.
Pierre Trudeau opened the civil war that has percolated inside the Liberal Party ever since. The first round was almost solely on fiscal policy. Almost no-one in the Liberal Party objected strongly to Pierre Trudeau’s focus on his so-called just society, except for a few who thought it unaffordable. The internal opposition coalesced around John Turner but he was a weak leader and it was not until 15 years after Trudeau came to power when his ‘culture of entitlement‘ (a phrase I first heard from a Liberal, by the way) was firmly entrenched in Canada, that Canadians grew tired of Trudeau. Canadians, other than me, never, I think, really disliked Trudeau … but by the 1980s his sex appeal was wearing thin and voters began to see that arrogance was, as it is with his son, his main personality trait, and they didn’t much like it. The 1984 election had many complex currents, including Québec nationalism, but, I think, Canadians were, simply, tired of the Liberals after King (1921-48, with Conservative breaks in 1926 and 1930-35), St Laurent (1948-57) and Pearson (1963-68, after the Diefenbaker interregnum) and Trudeau (1968-84, with a brief Conservative (Joe Clark) interlude in 1979/80) that was about 50 years of Liberal governments in the 60+ year period from 1921 to 84.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the civil war raged again. This time it was more about political entitlement: Jean Chrétien was a highly skilled politician, a Trudeau acolyte but one who had learned that Canadians don’t like arrogance. He and his finance minister, Paul Martin Jr, were both fiscal conservatives but Martin was the son of another great Liberal, Paul Martin Sr who many felt should have been Canada’s French-Canadian prime minister in the 1960s and ’70s. Paul Martin Sr was the architect of many of the social programmes that are now associated with Pierre Trudeau but he was a Franco-Ontarian, not a Québecois, and the party thought that Trudeau was better positioned to counter Québec’s nationalism … that proved to be an unsound assumption in my opinion as the rise of René Levesque and the Parti Québécois demonstrated. Paul Martin had helped Jean Chrétien to
defeat humiliate Kim Campbell’s Conservatives in 1993 but he felt, by about 2000, that Chrétien should step aside, in his favour and the Liberal Party divided itself into two wings: sometimes called the Chrétienistas and the Martinis. But there was still a bit of the Trudeau vs Turner fiscal civil war in the Chrétien-Martin battle because, in Liberal circles, the Martinis painted Jean Chrétien as an unrepentant, tax and spend Trudeau Liberal while saying that Canada’s economic success in the period was due to Paul Martin’s sound fiscal management.
In my opinion, in the Pierre Trudeau era (1968-84), the Liberals had a pretty clear sense of direction even if their political convictions were doubtful. It always seemed to me that both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin shared very similar and firmly held convictions but they allowed their personal feud over power to erode and, eventually, destroy the Liberal Party’s sense of direction. I believe the something similar is happening, right now, inside the Liberal party of Canada … I think a lot of Liberals have a common (and what they see as a common-sense) sense of direction ~ the whole feminist/climate-change/First Nations agenda ~ but they do not have many shared convictions, and many Liberals think (and I agree) that Justin Trudeau lacks both.
I see, in an analysis by David Cochrane on the CBC News website, that “Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015 in part because he changed the way many Canadians felt about politics. But if Trudeau is going to be reelected in 2019, party insiders admit he needs to change the way many Canadians feel about him now … [becaise] … Federal and provincial Liberals who spoke to CBC News concede what was unthinkable just months ago — that in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, Trudeau’s leadership has gone from one of the party’s greatest strengths to one of its biggest liabilities.” Those same Liberal insiders say that “That dynamic is showing up in private focus groups that are reinforcing the public polls: Trudeau’s reputation as a strong leader has been badly damaged by the SNC-Lavalin affair — a public conflict between Trudeau and his then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that saw both the minister and her colleague, Jane Philpott, resign from cabinet to protest what they alleged was high-level pressure to secure a deal to allow the Quebec-based engineering company to avoid a trial on corruption and fraud charges.” Dr Philpott and Ms Wilson-Raybould came out of that sordid mess with their reputations and convictions enhanced, Justin Trudeau’s reputation suffered because is now being seen as having no convictions at all, beyond a sense of his own personal entitlement to power.
Right now the economy is not in deep trouble so one of the levers that can help to bring down a government is missing and Québec nationalism is restrained, right now, even though Western alienation is, once again, on the front burner. It ought to be possible for the Liberals to offer an attractive programme, perhaps centred on a national pharma-care plan, that could be a winner in October … if, and it’s a Huge IF, they can rehabilitate Justin Trudeau and make him look something like a leader with both a sense of direction and some convictions. In my opinion, that’s going to be a tough makeover because I am convinced that he has nothing to offer in either category.
That does not mean that Andrew Scheer is a shoo-in to be Canada’s next prime minister; the Conservatives can, fairly easily, hand the election to Trudeau’s Liberals by making just a few tactical campaign blunders.
There is, of course, another alternative, but time is running out: the Liberal Party can put the best interests of Canada ahead of the vested interests of Team Trudeau and throw the rascal out.
* The phrase was, however, coined by André Laurendeau when he was the editor of Le Devoir.
** In 1967 I was, I suppose, still a Liberal. I thought John Diefenbaker had done more harm than good for Canada and while I detested Pierre Trudeau from the start (I was familiar with his writings in Cité Libre but I was also on record as suggesting that my great aunt’s somnolent pet cat or even I could probably make an equally cogent case against Maurice Duplessis) I thought Jean Marchand might be an able prime minister. When the field was left open to Trudeau I abandoned the Liberal Party and I could not bring myself to vote Liberal unless or until the party purges the influences of the Trudeaus, père et fils.