Politics·Analysis

Liberals in Winnipeg to celebrate party's dramatic return from the scrap heap

​The most remarkable thing about this weekend’s Liberal convention in Winnipeg might be the mere fact it is happening at all. Though it might seem like a strange and fleeting moment now, the Liberal party of Canada was, with the election returns of 2011, seen by some to be dead, or at least dying.

Less than five years removed from seeming dead, the party gathers to celebrate victory

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau waves while accompanied by his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau (second from right) as he arrives to give his victory speech in Montreal after the federal election on Oct. 19, 2015. (Jim Young/Reuters)

​The most remarkable thing about this weekend's Liberal convention in Winnipeg might be the mere fact it is happening at all.

Though it might seem like a strange and fleeting moment now, the Liberal Party of Canada was, with the election returns of 2011, supposed to be dead, or at least dying. Its share of the popular vote had fallen below 19 per cent, its caucus numbered fewer than three dozen and it had been suddenly and dramatically surpassed by the NDP.

For the first time in history, the Liberals were in third place. Canada's dominant electoral power of the 20th century — the centrist party that won the most seats in 21 of the 30 federal elections from 1896 to 2000 — seemed out of date, to be replaced by a clearer battle between the left and right.

As late as last summer, that seemed a plausible read of the situation. And then the Liberal Party was born again, or at least blessed by the good fortune of good genes to live another four years in the familiar trappings of office.

The official program for this weekend suggests some purposeful boasting about how that occurred.

Sessions on Friday include How Four Million Conversations Led To Four Years Of Real Change, Platform 2015: How We Brought #realchange To Canada and How Youth Changed Everything.

 Lucking into a leader

On Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will address the convention and remind delegates How Lucking Into A Uniquely Appealing Leader Is Also Useful. (A session on How The NDP Failed To Finish Us Off should probably be added.)

There will also be appearances by four Liberal premiers. And that is actually two fewer than the party might have showcased, what with every province east of Manitoba now governed by Liberals.

Those who have survived a near-death experience might be forgiven for exulting in their continued existence. And how the party has managed to persist is certainly worth discussing. But lingering here might be decent questions about how secure Liberals should feel about their new lease on life.

Then-interim Liberal leader Bob Rae answers reporters' questions before his opening address to the party's 2012 convention, held less than a year after its crushing 2011 election defeat. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The peculiarity of the Liberal success

"The central peculiarity of the Canadian system, I would argue," Richard Johnston, political scientist at the University of British Columbia, once wrote, "is its domination by a party of the centre, the Liberal Party."

Comparable democracies, Johnston explained earlier this week in an interview, are dominated by a distinct party of the left (typically associated with organized labour) and a distinct party of the right. Canada is the exception. To consider the example of the United Kingdom, the British Liberal Party was surpassed by the Labour Party a century ago, and now only lingers in the form of the also-ran Liberal Democrats.

To explain much of the Canadian party's historical dominance, Johnston points to the Liberal strength in Quebec. From 1993 to 2003, of course, the Liberals also benefited from the splintering of what had been their main rival, the Progressive Conservative Party.

But the latter condition disappeared with the creation of the Conservative Party and the former seemed smashed by the NDP's breakthrough in 2011.

As Johnston notes, the result in Quebec in 2015 was still muddled among four parties. The Liberals did win 40 of the province's 78 seats last year, but their 35.7 per cent of the popular vote was far from, say, the 68.2 per cent that Pierre Trudeau's Liberals won in 1980.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pauses while addressing supporters during his concession speech in Calgary after losing the 2015 election. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

And for whatever might be said about how ignobly their time in office came to an end, Stephen Harper's Conservatives didn't fall apart as profoundly as John Diefenbaker's and Brian Mulroney's PCs did. "They're still standing," Johnston says. "They haven't been destroyed."

Indeed, in the first quarter of 2016, it was the Conservatives, even without the allure of power, who raised the most money from party donors.

And so even though the Liberals are still very much alive, it's not clear that their future will be as successful as their past.

The notion of a centrist party

"I've too often heard it said in Liberal circles that the Liberal Party created Canada. This, my friends, is wrong," Justin Trudeau said on launching his bid for party leader in 2012. "The Liberal Party did not create Canada. Canada created the Liberal Party."

In this, Trudeau managed to denounce arrogance while still positing some special relationship between the nation and the party. The party, he said, was a platform for the aspirations of Canadians.

In this way, the party's peculiarly popular centrism could be understood as quintessentially Canadian: evidence of our moderate nature. Of course, it could also be understood as a cynical exercise in winning and holding power: a party that will sway whichever way it needs to and say whatever the electorate wants to hear.

It's possible that the existence of the Liberal party has been holding Canada back from a true clash of ideas. It's also possible, as Johnston notes, that polarized political debate leaves great numbers of voters unsatisfied.

As Johnston puts it: "Having a party of the centre, in some ways, sucks the life out of debate, but if debate is what Americans have, who needs it?"

Of course, it is probably possible to carry on a more pitched democracy without going crazy. And it's also possible that Canada is still moving somehow in that direction.

Postponing the inevitable?

Three years ago, in joining those who figured the Liberal party was doomed, the historian Michael Bliss did allow that Justin Trudeau "might succeed in postponing for another decade the inevitable creation of the Liberal Democratic Party of Canada" (that is, a united party of the Liberals and New Democrats). But the Liberal Party's time, Bliss said, had passed.

That might still prove to be the case. By 2019 or 2023, the Liberals could be stumbling again. Disappointed voters on the left could be ready to turn to the NDP. The Conservatives could be repaired and ready to carry on dominating the 21st century (as has been predicted).
More open or just more crowd-friendly? Trudeau has his photo taken with well-wishers by his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau after his swearing-in ceremony last year. ( Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

It could also be that the old notion of the Liberal Party is dead. That the centrist party of the past will be replaced with a more obviously progressive party. As Johnston argues, Stephen Harper was more obviously a conservative, as compared with his predecessors. Instead of the NDP standing opposite that, it could be the Liberal party.

Trudeau also now speaks of the Liberal cause as a "movement." And perhaps that will somehow replace the grand old party. Under consideration this weekend is a proposal to do away with membership fees and open the party up even further (the proposed constitutional changes are also, simultaneously, said to invest more power in the party leadership).

And there is also the small matter of electoral reform, an unknown that could redesign the electoral calculus in any number of ways.

But however the party is to be, it now has at least four years in power to establish itself anew. And that is far more than seemed likely just a few years ago.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.