March 18, 2013 – In the weekend edition of iPolitics, moderator Jack Granatstein gives us a sneak preview of Thursday's upcoming Great Canadian Debate on the future of the Liberal Party in Canadian politics. Read the full op-ed below.
The debate, Resolved: The Liberal Party has no future in Canadian politics, takes place on Thursday, March 21st at 7 PM ET at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Debaters are Canadian historian Michael Bliss and John Duffy, former political advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Interim Leader Bob Rae. The moderator the evening's debate is Jack Granatstein. Click here for more details.
By Jack Granatstein, iPolitics, March 16, 2013
A decade ago, Prime Minister Jean Chretien led Canada's Liberal party, one of the most powerful political parties in the Western world. Today, after a fractious internal leadership struggle that saw Paul Martin oust Chretien, after successive disappointing election results, and after the failure of a string of leaders, the Liberal party has been reduced to a parliamentary rump, is weak in every region of the nation, and is in debt.
Liberals — and many others — pray that the current leadership race will rejuvenate the party. Perhaps — but is it possible that the Grits might disappear or be swallowed by the NDP?
Does the Liberal party have any future in Canadian politics?
To say that the Liberal party might sink into complete irrelevance — or even disappear — still shocks observers of our political system. The party was "the Government party," the natural ruling party, for most of the 20th century — 69 years, in fact. It was the only political party that had strength in Quebec for most of that time, drawing massive support from both English- and French-speakers. It had support on the Prairies, on the East Coast and in British Columbia, and it could count on a good many seats in Ontario.
It was the party of Canadian nationalism, of increased autonomy and eventually complete independence from Britain. It was the party that favoured immigration and overwhelmingly won the votes of New Canadians. They generally called for closer ties with the United States than did the imperially-minded Conservatives, and they were the party that brought social welfare legislation to Canada — with old age pensions, unemployment insurance, the baby bonus and medicare as the battle honours on the party's progressive flag.
And then there were the party's leaders. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the first francophone prime minister. Mackenzie King, the longest-serving leader in our history and the prime minister who directed Canada's extraordinary war effort and reconstruction. Louis St Laurent, greatly underestimated. Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson. The charismatic Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The much-maligned John Turner. And Chretien, who seized the crown from Turner and formed three successive majority governments by holding the centre and letting a fragmented right wing and the NDP and Bloc Quebecois on the left fight for the scraps.
But that is when matters began to go awry. Paul Martin was a successful finance minister and even more successful as a source of dissension and plots. He turned the divisions in the ranks from a fissure into a chasm. Support in Quebec flooded toward the separatists, and in the West the new Conservative party started to attract Liberal voters. Ontario was a battleground where Chretien won heavy support but where Martin began to lose hold. In retrospect, the key to the Liberals' undoing came when Stephen Harper united the parties of the right into the Conservative party.
Martin resigned after losing the election of 2006. The party first chose as leader the able but uncharismatic Stephane Dion, then the charismatic (to some) but not politically able Michael Ignatieff. Neither made much headway. Bob Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario, held together the rags and tatters that remained after the 2011 election, but he was both too old and too new a Liberal to be a sensible permanent choice. Thus the current race for the (poisoned?) chalice of Canadian Liberalism.
Can the Liberals be resurrected? Some observers suggest that demographics now seem to be moving the country to the right. The left remains divided, especially in Quebec, and the Conservative government has, it is said, generally run the economy well, a key consideration for the electorate. If this alignment is permanent, it really may be that the Liberals have no future in Canadian politics.
On the other side of the political equation, however, the vocal opposition to the Harper government's actions and inactions continues to grow ever stronger. And with another charismatic Trudeau in the wings and with recent opinion polls showing Liberal party support on the rise almost everywhere, surely it is too soon to write the party off.
Do the Liberals have no future in Canadian politics? That question will be the subject of the Macdonald Laurier Institute's Great Canadian Debate on March 21 at 7 p.m. at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Arguing that the Liberals have a future will be John Duffy, a principal at Strategy Corp., an author of a historical study of key elections, and a key strategic adviser to Prime Minister Paul Martin. Michael Bliss, the distinguished historian, author, and close observer of prime ministers and politics, will present the contrary case. I will be the moderator.
It's certain to be a barnburner of an evening as two fine debaters battle over the future of Canadian politics — and of Canada.
J.L. Granatstein is a co-founder of The Great Canadian Debates series. He is a historian, author, educator and defence and foreign policy commentator. Granatstein has held the Canada Council's Killam senior fellowship twice (1982-4, 1991-3), was editor of the Canadian Historical Review (1981-1984), and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1982- ). The Royal Society awarded him the J.B. Tyrell Historical Gold Medal (1992) "for outstanding work in the history of Canada," and his book "The Generals" (1993), won the J.W. Dafoe Prize and the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography.