Proxy battles

May 16, 2011 3:05 PM

Despite claims to the contrary, the main question hanging over the New Brunswick Liberal party at the moment is whether their leader will be Mike Murphy or someone else. The renewal process going on is vital, but in the end, the next leader of the party will put his or her stamp on the organization.

Some party members were quietly delighted last week when this story came out, because of the possibility it might hurt Murphy's chances of winning the leadership.

Then, on Saturday, the party executive voted to put off making a decision about the timing of the leadership race. The stated reason was to allow the party's soul-searching renewal process to conclude first. But the effect is to give more time to the "un-Murphys" (as I cheekly labelled candidates other than the former health minister) to get organized.

It is difficult to measure the strength of the anti-Murphy sentiment right now. The speculation about the timing of the race, and its impact, presumes he's the front-runner. He may not be.

There are certainly those who resent Murphy's departure during the height of the Hydro-Quebec controversy. You might call this the loyalty-first camp: no matter how bad things get, no matter how wrong-headed you believe a policy to be, your first duty as a Liberal is to remain loyal to the party and the leader.

Murphy's view, as he made clear in an interview in (of all things) a horse magazine, is that when you feel you're compromising your principles, the right thing to do is leave. Your loyalty to the party means you don't go out with guns blazing, damaging the government on the way out the door (or "slithering out the back of the foxhole," as Jack Keir put it so colourfully on Twitter when reacting to Murphy's explanation). You go quietly, but you still go. How big a constituency this view has in the party remains to be seen. Culturally, the Liberals seem more inclined to fall into the loyalty-first camp.

This tension is a test for the party grassroots. Many remain angry and bitter about how they were shut out of the policy-making loop, particularly on NB Power and French immersion reforms. But again, it's hard to measure their numbers, or to predict whether they'll latch on to Murphy as the vehicle for their feelings.

Whatever the outcome, it all points to the likelihood that the eventual leadership race is likely to be the proxy war for the battle over NB Power that the Liberal membership never got to wage.
- Jacques Poitras

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