The long road ahead for the Liberals

A glimpse at the Liberal party on the eve of the Liberal convention.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff rejects the suggestion that he is a globe-trotting intellectual. ((Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters))

The pulpit of a church in Ottawa's Lower Town seems an unlikely place to find the leader of the Opposition.

But on Friday night last week, Michael Ignatieff was speaking to a full house in Saint Brigid's, a converted cultural centre.

It was the English launch of his memoir True Patriot Love, which chronicles Ignatieff's Canadian roots on his mother's side of the family.

He joked with the crowd about how many have tried to read between the lines.

"It's a book," he insisted. "It's not a political manifesto."

Such protestations notwithstanding, this book tour is part of a very deliberate political strategy.

Timed one week before this weekend's Liberal party convention in Vancouver, the tour set up Ignatieff as a bona fide Canadian, despite his two and a half decades abroad.

To hear Louise Elliott's full report on the Liberal convention, listen to CBC Radio's The House  at 9 a.m. on Saturday, 9:30 a.m. in Newfoundland.

In an interview, Ignatieff rejected the suggestion that he is a globe-trotting intellectual and denied that the reshaping of his image is a crucial part of the party's rebranding efforts.

"It's not fundamentally about me," he said. "I'm happy, I'm working all God's hours here to get the party ready for prime time. I'm down in the engine room with the stokers shovelling coal into the boiler.

"But it's not about me. It's about a national institution understanding it has a historical obligation to the Canadian people to be ready when the election comes."

Politically, Ignatieff knows the party can't afford to be seen as elitist, or out of touch.

And by all accounts, Ignatieff indeed has his sleeves rolled up and is working hard to reverse years of ill fortune.

But the Liberals aren't out of the political wilderness just yet.

Turning the numbers around

In Vancouver, more than 2,000 party delegates — buoyed by recent polls — are reminded of the mistakes of the recent past.

Ignatieff addresses young Liberals during the Liberal party's convention in Vancouver on Friday. ((Andy Clark/Reuters))

The opening ceremonies Friday include a tribute to Stéphane Dion.

Privately, nobody denies that choosing Dion as leader 2½ years ago was a big mistake — one that helped reduce the party to a rump in most provinces in the last election.

But that drubbing was a symptom of an even deeper malaise: The massive disengagement of the membership, and a corresponding drop in party donations.

It's Rocco Rossi's job to turn that around. He's the party's new national director, and the architect of its high-tech outreach.

Rossi says the party's structure and culture have never adapted to the fact that big corporate donations have long been a thing of the past.

"The job of fundraising is everyone's job," he said in a recent interview. 

"In the old culture, it was someone else's job. There were people who went and talked to wealthy people and talked to businesses. We didn't have to worry about that. Well, in a world of low political limits, fundraising is everyone's responsibility."

Rossi didn't hold back on how dire Liberal fundraising has been.

"We need to be honest and truthful with ourselves. Last year, the Conservative party raised $21 million to our $6 [million]. If we allow that to continue, it will be a threat to democracy because we simply won't have the means to get our message out on an equal basis."

Top-secret training sessions

This weekend, delegates are attending top-secret training sessions on new computer software used by the Democratic team behind U.S. President Barack Obama. The sessions are part of a roster of workshops with titles such as "Making politics meaningful: How to engage members."

Rossi said the sophisticated software will help not only identify potential party members and donors, but will help profile constituents, and the issues that matter to them. All with an eye to that crucial connection that's needed to sway votes.

But it's not all driven by technology. Rossi's other message is an exhortation to the party's 55,000 members to recruit at least one other person to join.

If that happens twice, the party's base will quadruple to Rossi's target of 200,000 people.

That could theoretically put the party within striking distance of the formidable $21 million raised last year by the Conservatives.

Rossi said the early efforts are already paying dividends.

"We are seeing movement," he said. "We've just closed our first quarter and fundraising is up over 100 per cent versus the first quarter of 2008. We have almost 50 per cent more donors.

"And it's not about the money per se, it's about the increase in belief in the leader, the increase in belief in the party. Those are the green shoots we're seeing in the revitalization of the Liberal Party of Canada."

Getting voters engaged

The other green shoots Liberals are seeing are in recent polling numbers.

Nationally, most polls place the Liberals a few to several points ahead of the governing party.

Ignatieff wears a Vancouver Canucks jersey as he speaks to the media at the convetion on Friday. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Jason Kwasnik, a Montreal-area delegate, attributed that to the leader's efforts to create a more engaged party. And he said voters expect it.

"To come and ask for somebody's vote once every four years, every two years, is actually quite offensive to tell the truth," he said.

"The individual voter doesn't care what happens every two years. They care about what happens every day. That's the kind of connection we need to make with the voter if we're expected to be the next government of Canada."

Kwasnik also hopes that this weekend Liberals will adopt a resolution to amend the way the party chooses a leader, changing to a one member, one vote system.

Despite the glimmers of good news, Ignatieff used his opening address in Vancouver on Thursday night to warn riding presidents against complacency.

"You know the challenge we face," he said. "It's a number you all know — 800,000 Liberals stayed home last time. They didn't go to another party, thank God. They sat in their seats.

"But my job, your job, is to get them out to the polls."

Despite the convention's focus on reform, Ignatieff said the party must aspire to more.

"We are not an election machine, we are a national institution that inspires our country to greatness and that holds our country together.… That is why we're in the room."

Not giving specifics

But that appeal rings slightly hollow this weekend, as Ignatieff has steadfastly refused to talk about any substantial policies.

Editorial writers this week called on the party and Ignatieff for more detail about what, precisely, his vision entails. But they will have to wait.

Ian Davey, Ignatieff's principal secretary and leading strategist, was blunt in saying the leader has no intention of tipping his hand.

"The name of the game is politics here. You don't necessarily put things up in the shop window for the other guy to pick it off and go after you, or have the other guy take the stuff," he said.

"You walk a fine line between unveiling policy and shaping an image of a leader."

Still, at some point in the near future, the party will need to provide more details, if only to affirm Ignatieff's own exhortations to the party to be more than an election machine.

Despite the challenges, Liberals in Vancouver feel something they haven't felt for a long time — a chance at winning.

"The Liberal party's at its best when it becomes the crossroads for pragmatism and compromise," said Steven MacKinnon, co-chair of the party's renewal process.

"I think we've gotten away from that. I think that's pretty clear. Whatever we need to reconstruct, that grand national forum is work that must be done."

The Conservatives are still ahead financially. The party raised more than twice what the Liberals did in the first quarter of 2009.

They have the advantages of incumbency, and a grassroots machine that's been refined over the years.

That means Liberals will have to work hard to define what their party and its leader stand for, and breathe new life into a tired membership.