Last weekend the federal Liberal Party held the first of its debates for the nine candidates contending for the leadership of the party. Aside from having put what little audience it gained soundly to sleep (one third format, one third personality — or lack of it, and one third a refusal to actually take a strong position on anything for fear of letting the Conservative war room grab footage for attack ads), what the debate showed the country was a simple fact. Six of the people on stage shouldn’t be there.
Now, understand, I’m sure that David Bertschi, Martin Cauchon, Deborah Coyne, Karen McCrimmon, Joyce Murray and George Takach are fine people with a deep desire to serve this country in its highest office, with nothing but the best centrist policy ideas to implement ... but let’s be honest, they’re non-entities on today’s national scene. That includes the one that is an MP, and the one that used to be.
I’m sure the campaign directors for each of these would be happy to argue that their candidate outclasses one of the other three who actually poll with serious name recognition — Marc Garneau, Martha Hall Findlay and Justin Trudeau — but the point remains. The field should be three, not nine.
The Liberal Party remains on life-support in Canada. It leads only in the Atlantic provinces (where the NDP are within a few tenths of a percentage point behind them). They continue to have a claim to Québec’s anglophone ridings, and to enough federalist votes to poll neck-and-neck with the Bloc Québécois (but both far behind the NDP). Everywhere else they run third.
And, not to put too find a point on it, that “everywhere else” is more than sufficient to form a majority government all by itself. Isn’t that today’s Conservative government: Ontario and the West?
The leadership race should be a knock-down, drag-out fight for the soul of the party, one that would put meat on the policy bones while simultaneously finding the candidate that can do the most to rebuild sagging riding associations and put the party back into contention.
Unfortunately, the Liberal powers-that-be at headquarters took one look at the bank account and decided the $75,000 entry fee multiplied by as many candidates as possible was too good to pass up — not to mention all the extra memberships that might be sold, and all the names gained for the party’s database by the “supporter” category, if the field was filled with candidates out stumping them up.
(Since candidates can attract new members/supporters directly, without revealing them to party headquarters until March, this competitive deck-stacking allows the party to maximize money and names.)
In any event, Sunday’s borefest saw everyone move cautiously. They’re all of them quite convinced the Liberals don’t need help regaining power (Murray was the only one calling for any sort of co-operation to ensure Conservatives were defeated, but even she assumes most ridings would run a Liberal, not a Green or NDP candidate). Coalitions are a no-no. For, you know, Canadians are just chafing at the bit to resume natural Liberal governance.
Actually, they’re not. They’re a little infatuated with the pretty boy, Justin Trudeau (who managed to look ill at ease with the minimal digging done by Garneau and others during the “debate”), but the same polls also show an expectation that the NDP can gain government, and that Harper is doing the right things for Canada more or less (which you might expect from his right-wing liberal approach).
Why I’ve put Martha Hall Findlay and Marc Garneau as the others to contest with Trudeau for the leadership (and Trudeau has a substantial lead both financially and in gaining supporters) is because both have been willing to put substantial ideas on the table, ideas that actually don’t start from the premise that “because the Liberals supported this in the past we must support it for evermore”. Hall Findlay wants supply management done away with, for instance.
That’s thinking properly about the Liberal Party. In third place, you have to put ideas on the table. Maybe they help ratchet you up to second (from which you can then strive to win power). Maybe they get implemented by another party (something New Democrats have some experience with). So what? Either way, you’ve made a difference.
Standing up and talking about jumping from third to first in one go — from 35 seats to 170 or more — with the same old pabulum won’t cut it, no matter how many times each and every one of these nine are introduced as “the next Prime Minister of Canada”. Wishing won’t make it so.
As for the candidates’ (and the party’s) fear that the Conservative war room will be turning film into attack ads, it shouldn’t matter. You know it’s coming regardless. (And, actually, it’s far more likely film from last year’s NDP leadership race will inform political ads for 2015’s campaign — after all, it’s the NDP that actually has the ability to cost Harper his government (since Tom Mulcair would quite happily take a minority partnership, formal or informal, to replace Harper as Prime Minister).
The bottom line is clear. The sooner the also-rans leave the field, the more likely it is a coronation of Trudeau can be avoided. Having nine on stage means no one will take a risk, or really challenge the front-runner.
And if the Liberal Party wants to have a chance at coming back, it has to do away with thinking of itself as a governing party, a natural choice for Canadians, or someone who can put a shiny pony in the shop window and that’ll be enough.
Stephen Harper doesn’t have to finish the Liberals off. Right now, they’re more than happy to do it for him all by themselves.