THUNDER BAY – In Ottawa this weekend, the federal Liberal Party will be gathering to make decisions that are likely to impact its future. The Liberals have had their future as a viable political force questioned since the May 2010 federal election. Writers like Peter C. Newman have suggested that the party is dead. Others like Preston Manning the former leader of the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance have suggested to the Conservatives that they must remember that one day they too may not be in government.
Manning, writing in the Globe and Mail “Build and maintain your “democratic political infrastructure” – the intellectual capital generators for politicians, the training programs for political activists, and the political communications vehicles – when in opposition but continue to build and maintain it, outside of the civil service and through private donations, even after becoming the governing party. To fail to do so is to court eventual political collapse and impotence from which it may take years, even decades, to recover – witness the current state of the federal Liberals”.
One of the basics of politics is that governing wears out a government. In the case of the Liberals, the former National Governing Party was in power for so long that after a while many atop the party started to believe that power was their right. The party over the past fifteen years had all the signs of weary worn-out wear, but no one in a position to effect change seemingly had the willingness to do it. The party braintrust simply thought a new and exciting leader would continue their success.
That is the real reason that the Liberals feel to third party status. It is perhaps why one day the Conservatives will suffer a similar ‘fall from grace’ at the hands of voters. For the Liberals, in many ways the party became a top-down organization that started to ignore its grassroots. The death knell for the Liberals was likely the move to have Canadian taxpayers subsidize political parties. In Alberta, when the Reform Party started, it was common to see a KFC bucket passed around the room at a townhall. In fact it was something that was scoffed about and joked about by Liberals. The Reformers knew however that political work cost money, and that money was best coming from those who supported the party. It was the foundation of the fundraising machine that the Conservatives have.
Once the connection to the grassroots is buffered, any political party will slowly start to wane.
In the case of the Liberals the process was a long slow decline leading to last May.
For the Conservatives, likely it will be that the Prime Minister’s office seems to want a strong hold over all the MPs and all the Ministries. Over time, that will likely lead to top quality people stepping away, and candidates replacing them who are not as bold and innovative as a political party needs.
This Liberals are seeking to upgrade the party, especially in the area of fundraising into the modern era. As the Conservatives move to phase out the $1.75 per vote subsidy, which the Liberals have become addicted to for their political action, that move is likely the most critical one the party will seek to achieve this weekend.
However the big issue, and one that likely will dominate the Liberal Biannual Convention will be the question of leadership. Interim leader Bob Rae has been exciting many Liberals with speeches and his actions in the House of Commons. Right now it appears Rae has a massive advantage over any other possible opponent. In the House of Commons, and in the media, Rae has become the defacto face of the party.
The Liberal brass as they, and Rae seek to rebuild the party have a task on their hands. If they rein in Rae, in order to level the playing field for a leadership contest, they risk stalling their efforts to reach out to Canadians. If they don’t rein in their interim leader, they risk a bloody and politically vicious battle between the backrooms of prospective leadership candidates.
If you watch the infighting in the Republican Party right now, and think back to the infighting within the Liberals as Paul Martin’s backroom attacked former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the spectacle of such a fight would likely mean all the needed changes the Liberals need would be unlikely to make any real difference.
For the Liberals, it might be “Rock, meet hard place”. It will be an interesting weekend in Liberal politics.
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