Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#elxn41 Primer: Liberal Party

The Federal Liberal campaign has become about one man, and one man only: Michael Ignatieff. Or, as this pundit refers to him, "Canada's John Kerry".

Why Ignatieff has had so much trouble connecting with the Canadian public is going to be a subject that in coming years makes a lot of authors a lot of money. Is it that he seems too professorial? Does he come across as cold? Did Tory efforts to define him in the media leave a lasting impression?

At the end of the day, the Liberal Party of Canada - the party that is usually a sneeze away from power if not actually occupying 24 Sussex Drive (as they have for 78 of Canada's 144 years) - is polling neck-and-neck with the NDP for 2nd place, nationally. They've been relegated to also-rans in Quebec polls. And the fingers of blame are being pointed, rightly or wrongly, at Michael Ignatieff.

Today's Special: Runny Grits

The Liberals in 2008 were supposed to cruise to an easy victory. Stephen Harper's Conservatives had just broken the spirit of their fixed election dates law, if not the letter of it. The Liberals had just come out of a Winnipeg caucus retreat with a renewed sense of purpose. The Canadian public viewed the Conservatives as better equipped to handle the economy, but the Liberals as better prepared to deal with environmental issues. The Liberals, sensing the direction of the wind, prepared a major platform plank called "The Green Shift". Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, had essentially endorsed the Liberals as the best party to lead government. Danny Williams, the wildly popular Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, was spearheading an "Anything But Conservative" campaign.

The reality of the outcome proved quite different. A disastrous performance by freshly-minted leader Stephane Dion resulted in a net loss for the Liberals of 18 seats. While every major party saw reduced voter turn-out (with the notable exception of the Green Party), the Liberals lost nearly 850,000 votes versus their results in 2006. 6 days after the election, Dion announced his intention to resign as party leader. The resulting leadership convention saw the coronation of Michael Ignatieff as the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Fast forward to 2011, and we see a Liberal Party that, again, should be doing much better than they seem to. Whether it's the fault of the leader of of the people running the party machinery, the party isn't connecting with average Canadians. They're perceived as a party that would be bad news for the economic recovery, their early campaign focus on the Harper government being found in contempt of Parliament was "inside baseball" of the worst possible kind, and their criticisms of Harper seem to fall on deaf ears as "the same old stuff we've been hearing for years". And to top it off, much of the campaign has seen Canadians trying to determine if, in fact, Ignatieff would enter a coalition government with the NDP and Bloc or not - the answer went from "no" to "maybe" to "possibly, but our parliamentary rules allow it and can we call it something else?".

The Liberals have made Family a central plank in their platform, with the release of a 2 year, $8 Billion spending commitment for programs from Post-Secondary Education and Childcare to Home Renovations. The Liberals argue that, unlike the Conservative Party proposals, their policies can be instituted right away to help families, and not years down the road. Their plans are fully costed, and they claim they can pay for the programs without any increase to the GST or personal income tax rates - a claim that the Conservatives find laughable.

While the national campaign has been less than stellar, all is not lost for the Grits. On a local level, they have a lot of grizzled, veteran operatives who know how to win. They're targeting ridings they consider "winnable" - particularly those that don't have incumbent Tories running in them, that the Tories seem to be taking for granted, or with what they're calling "absentee candidates" (Tories who are not participating in candidates' forums). In the Calgary area, the Liberals have high hopes for Calgary-Centre North, vacated by Jim Prentice several months ago. It's not LIKELY to yield a good result for them, but how likely was Edmonton-Strathcona to elect Linda Duncan in 2008?
History shows us it's exceedingly difficult to fight a political war with legitimate threats on two fronts. We saw it with the old Progressive Conservatives, when Kim Campbell had to fend off Jean Chretien's Liberals on her left and Preston Manning's Reformers on her right. This is the unfamiliar situation the Liberals find themselves in today, attacking the Harper Tories on the right while trying to make the case that Jack Layton and the NDP shouldn't be considered a viable choice. Some polls show them running FOURTH in Quebec - a result that was unfathomable just 5 years ago.

A week is an eternity in Canadian politics - and it had better be. Because if the Grits are going to make a move here and have a shot at bringing Stephen Harper down at the ballot box instead of in the Governor General's sitting room - they've got a lot of work to do, and 6 days left to do it.

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