Can the Liberals rise up like Lazarus?

Scott Reid says humility and hard work can lead renewal of a weakened party. Tasha Kheiriddin says prospects for a Liberal rebirth are grim.

Partisan musings: Scott Reid and Tasha Kheiriddin on the future of the Liberal party

Reid: Party must galvanize for renewal and rebirth

The Liberal Party faces a severe existential crisis. Weakened greatly, it must now rally a two-front defense against external foes dedicated to its extinction and internal advocates of euthanasia.

Parallels to past defeats are too forgiving. This situation is worse. This challenge is more imposing. And the party’s storied history is no assurance of a secure future.

Such a withering assessment is not offered to encourage fears that the Liberal Party is doomed. Rather it is necessary to galvanize the required effort and humility to mount a renewal that will more closely resemble a rebirth.

Scott Reid is a principal with Feschuk.Reid and has held senior roles in numerous federal and provincial election campaigns. From 2003 to 2006 he served as senior adviser and director of communications in the office of Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.

Imprudent as it might be for Liberals to assume their future is guaranteed, it is even more imprudent of its opponents to prematurely picnic at its gravestone. With hard work, smart choices and a dose of modesty, the Liberal Party can earn its way back. Three considerations are of particular importance.   

First, the Liberal Party must commit to the Liberal Party. It is entirely legitimate for some to advocate a merger with the NDP. But leave no doubt: a merger constitutes the party’s surrender, not its survival. Accordingly, the issue should be debated and resolved promptly because it is inconsistent with renewal. To this end, choosing an Interim Leader who advocates merger would send, at best, a deeply confused signal to party members and the public.

Second, the Liberal Party must seize some political ground. If it’s the sensible centre of Canadian politics Liberals wish to occupy, they must define what that means before the centre is crowded by others. What is it that the Liberal Party will own uniquely? Fiscal responsibility? Health care renewal? Education? A good start would be a confirmation of core values such as a belief in a strong central government that won’t shy from the task of defining and defending the national interest.

Finally, the Liberal Party must be exciting and inviting. In the years ahead there is much carpentry to be done. Liberals will need to reconnect with its membership, attract newcomers, redefine its mission and select a leader who animates a thirst for change.

It's easy to say there should be room for new ideas, new people and new approaches.

It's less easy to accomplish. When that new leader is selected therefore, he or she must be both a magnet for enthusiasm and a master of politics. Impeccable skills, unbridled energy and sound judgment will all be required for the enormous task ahead. 

In the end, the future of the Liberal Party is in the hands of current and future Liberals. Humility, hard work and an early rejection of surrender are the core ingredients of revival. It can be done. It will be done.

Kheiriddin: Liberals' prospects look grim

Can the Liberal Party come back from the near-dead?

The answer to that question depends on a number of factors, including the quality of the Liberal party’s next leader, the party’s ability to fundraise, and its ability to make itself relevant. It also rests on variables beyond the Liberals' control, namely, which issues will dominate the political agenda in the coming years, and how well the NDP and Conservative parties perform in their new roles of majority government and Official Opposition.

As the NDP learned, much of its fortunes rested on the shoulders of its leader, Jack Layton. The election of a strong, charismatic leader could help give the Liberals more play than a third party might otherwise receive — conversely, choose the wrong leader and it could be a death sentence. The next leadership race will be a crucial test for the party as it attempts to rebuild.

Tasha Kheiriddin is a columnist and member of the editorial board for the National Post newspaper. She is a regular contributor to CBC's Power & Politics and hosts a radio show, Sunday with Tasha Kheiriddin, on CFRB Newstalk 1010 in Toronto.

Money is a major factor in reviving the Liberals’ fortunes, and on that front, the party will be kneecapped when the Conservatives end public subsidies to political parties. Add to that the fact that the Liberals no longer benefit from the research and staff budgets which accrue to the Official Opposition, plus the difficulty in raising money when you have less influence, and financial prospects look pretty grim.

Then there is the question of vision. The Liberals haven’t presented a coherent plan for the country in almost 20 years: the Green Shift and Family Pack were pale shadows of the Red Book and the Just Society. Without a reason to vote Liberal, Canadians simply won’t; the party must decide what it stands for and stake out some political turf.

But that turf will depend on what's on the national agenda, and many of the issues that have traditionally informed the Liberal identity – fighting Quebec separatism, creating expansive social programs – simply aren’t on the table anymore. The Bloc Quebecois has been reduced to three seats, and the government has to dig the country out of a large deficit. Should the Parti Quebecois win the next Quebec provincial election in 2013, and hold yet another referendum on separation, that could revive the issue, but would likely be insufficient on its own to revive the Liberal party. Other areas, such as health care, might be more fertile ground, but are already occupied by the NDP.

Finally, over the next four years, the Conservatives and NDP will be fighting to prove themselves: the Tories as the natural governing party, the NDP as the government-in-waiting. Should both perform well in their respective roles, they may well cement — or reverse — their roles as government and opposition in the next federal election. In that case, the damage to the Liberals might well be permanent.

Overall, the Liberals' Lazarus prospects look pretty grim.

At the very least, this is a long-term project, but it might be difficult for the party to keep up a lengthy fight, both financially and politically. Its best prospects lie in the failures of other parties, particularly the NDP, to live up to their challenges. So despite their Herculean challenge, we can't count the Liberals out just yet; as we learned in this election, politics is anything but predictable.