POLITICS CHATTER: Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie takes a historical approach to predicting the Liberals’ future fortunes. (And history would suggest that they’re not quite dead yet.)
During the recent election campaign, this blog led the way in identifying and trying to rectify this country’s burgeoning zombie problem.
Many people in the mainstream media tried to ignore the problem of the walking undead. This, even though at least one party leader, a self-admitted eastern European count, was literally coming apart before our eyes.
The leader of what was then the third party was a cyborg, a man who had received at least one mechanical joint. This piece of hardware was so powerful that it overwhelmed Jack Layton’s natural method of mobility, thus forcing him to walk with a cane to compensate for the extra power.
And the Prime Minister was, and is, an obvious robot devised by Boeing engineers and manufactured in a Right-to-Work state.
And yet I find myself defending the Liberal Party against rumours that it’s dead. The same gut that told me Stephen Harper was a good bet in 2006 now says to go long on the Grits.
I can paper my walls with the prematurely-issued death certificates of Canadian political parties written over the years by newspaper columnists, talking heads, and tenured political scientists (although politics is an art, not a science). From 1867 until 1896, the Liberals were dead in Ottawa. They held office for just one term, after Sir John A. Macdonald was caught shaking down the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The rest of the time, the father of our country could easily keep an eye on them through the bottom of a gin glass.
From the end of the First World War to the election of John Diefenbaker in 1957, the Tories were supposed to be dead. They held office for just one full term during those years, in the first five full years of the Great Depression. The rest of the time, they staggered from one poor leader to another, with no hope of gaining power until Mackenzie King finally quit.
The Liberals were supposed to be dead after Dief’s 1958 landslide. The Tories were supposed to be dead after Dief self-destructed five years later. In the Trudeau years, the Liberal hegemony was supposed to last forever. And in the summer of 1979, there wasn’t a Liberal government anywhere in Canada.
But the Tories were supposed to be dead after 1980 because Joe Clark could not win Quebec. When Brian Mulroney swept Quebec and the rest of the country in 1984, the Liberals were supposed to be dead, the world having embraced Ronald Reagan’s neo-conservatism.
By 1993, the Progressive Conservatives were shattered into three pieces — the western Reformers, the Bloc Québécois, and the two-member Tory caucus that survived the Kim Campbell wipe-out. All the political class expected the Liberals to be in power forever. People actually argued, 15 years ago, that Canada was effectively a one-party state because it was mathematically impossible for the Chrétien Liberals to be defeated. This was seen as a terrible threat to democracy.
And everyone knew that the able and ambitious Paul Martin would keep rolling up those big majorities against the western Tories, who would always be led by hicks like Stockwell Day.
Then Stephen Harper got in, but it was just a matter of time before the Liberals assumed their role as Canada’s Natural Governing Party. The NDP would always be a third party because it could never win seats in Quebec.
The election of Thomas Mulcair was a fluke. The Bloc owned at least 50 of Quebec’s 75 seats. And, since Quebeckers either voted for separatists or for parties that could dispense patronage, the NDP did not have a hope.
Now the Liberals are dead. They’re the third party in the House of Commons. They have no money. Harper has sucked up the votes of Blue Liberals.
All of those predictions, all of that conventional wisdom, is based on the same logical flaw: that the reality of today is the reality of tomorrow. But politics is a fluid thing. Governments get old. New leaders — think of David Peterson and Mike Harris in Ontario, Lucien Bouchard in Quebec, Stephen Harper in Ottawa — move from the edge of the stage to the centre and change the entire show.
The Liberals will be back, just as, someday, the Tories will be written off again and will make their own comeback.
There are a few little foundation stones being laid now for the next upheaval. The cancellation of party subsidies will require the Liberals to rebuild a grassroots movement to raise money or die. As well, the Liberals now have time to finish cleaning out the people involved in Adscam. And, finally, Stephen Harper, with his majority, must wear the next economic downturn and the collapse of the Canadian housing bubble, which will certainly occur during this mandate. He will no longer be able to blame minority government for his troubles.
Until then, we’ll keep seeing obits for the living. And the list of premature “always” and “nevers” will continue to grow.