IN THE YEARS since the departure of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the Liberal Party of Canada has been trapped in a political Groundhog Day. Three times across a decade, the party has risen at what it expected to be the dawn of its charismatic leader. During the fall of 2003, for example, the word coronation was applied more thickly than the autumn leaves, the media consensus being that Paul Martin was beyond challenge. One after another, up came the saviours — and with equal and opposite force, down they went.
When Paul Martin entered politics in 1988, he was a fifty year-old Jr., the son of long-time cabinet minister and three-time leadership contender Paul Martin Senior. Martin Junior possessed an impressive business CV, but as in the present case it was a political brand which eased the ascent. Now, I suppose, there are few Canadians under thirty who even know who Paul Martin Senior was. A similar destiny might seem improbable for the young Trudeau, but he’ll very soon have gone as far under the steam of his famous name as that fuel can deliver him. In short time he’ll need to cultivate the political successes which will nudge the old man finally from the margins of the resumé.
In the late 1980s, Canada was not yet beyond constitutional matters, and not yet contending with the new world order and the global economy and the major shifts of demographics and finance. Compared to that time, today’s domestic politics appear uncomplicated. The choices before the electorate are not of competing grand philosophical narratives but instead of rival contestants claiming a superior managerial acumen. The next Liberal leader must reconstitute the party in a manner which exploits a nourishing ecological niche — a niche comprising confidence-yielding prospects of economic stewardship and strong electoral gains in Quebec and Ontario. Easier said than done, but that’s nonetheless preferable to a mess which is not only difficult to do but even to describe.
As things stand the Conservatives have done a decent job in the first category of inspiring managerial confidence, and by means of the second category the NDP have stolen the remainder of the once-mighty Liberal’s assets, their Quebec seats. For these reasons, ideas related to forming a government are of secondary and perhaps teriary importance. Item number one is to answer the question Why continue to have a Liberal party? The besetting danger here is of the charisma-and-coronation variety, the Liberal party’s fondness for Big Idea orgies showcasing the assumed specialness of the dear leader. Martin, Dion and Ignatieff tossed Liberals into punch-drunk enthusiasms, so just imagine to what thin-oxygen heights Trudeau could take them.
It is arguable, however, that Parliament could work fine in its current configuration, minus the Liberals. For decades, Canada had a two-party system into which a fringe third party would provide the good service of injecting the regional interests and grievances of farmers and industrial workers and other under-represented, restless constituencies. Partly the result of accident, and partly of political calculations, this finely-balanced political triangle — an equilibrium into which a destabalizing influence was introduced when Parliamentarians got a bit too complacent — evolved over time. This arrangement has now been disturbed. Because this is a geological more than it is an ideological event, the way ahead is not to be had through ideas alone. Charm and charisma likely won’t do either. The Liberal Party of Canada must demonstrate that they will be, and more important, do something of value that the other parties can’t or won’t. Or they can choose to have another Groundhog Day.