#49– Rumours of the death of the Liberal party are premature.

Pundits are reporting the death of the Liberal Party in Canada. That might just be wishful thinking by some. It is definitely premature. The Liberal Party is hardly dead. It even thrives in the congestive conservatism here in Babel. Not since the Conservatives were reduced to just two seats in Parliament in 1993 have the talking heads and the scribblers of the news media been so convinced of an imminent political funeral. Yet the evidence is that the party is on the mend. And it is growing stronger every day.

All the Liberal Party lacks for complete recovery at this stage is a renewal of its democracy. Democracy is the breath of life in a political party. Democracy is what assures continued renewal, fresh thinking, new blood, new ideas, challenge and vibrancy in a political organization. It is also what assures a political party a future.

Michael Ignatieff is a Trudeau Liberal and was too young to be part of the battles over democracy in the party that kept the party in turmoil in the early 1960s. These were the times under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson that issued in the Trudeau era. We were fighting for the very life of the party. It was the right wing of the party versus the left wing. When Pierre Trudeau joined the fight as a new Liberal Member of Parliament in 1966, he joined those of us on the left.

While he always respected the democratic principles that made the Liberal Party so effective, Trudeau became part of the problems that downgraded its democracy when he was Prime Minister. He often lost patience with the system in his drive to make things happen and he pulled more and more of the power of government into the Prime Minister’s Office. He gave Canadians their own Constitution and the democratizing Charter of Rights and Freedoms by finally running roughshod over his critics. He had determined that the less democratic route was the only way to make the charter happen.

After Trudeau, the party then had a revival of its right wing under the short term leadership of John Turner in the 1980s. This revival on the right was accompanied by opportunists using squadrons of ethnic workers to take control of local riding structures in and around the cities. Ethnic control of the ridings encouraged an oligarchical structure in the party. This loss of local democracy also blocked the left wing from any effective response. It was a fractured Liberal Party in the early 1990s with Jean Chrétien as the new leader. The only confidence he had was that Brian Mulroney’s days as Prime Minister were numbered. He could have kept the left wing on side if it had not been his support for the Charlottetown Accord. It cost him much of the left wing but they were at the time being replaced by the Eastern-Canadian right-wingers who were deserting Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives.

The one good thing from Chrétien was that he recognized the concern about how the Prime Minister’s office had concentrated far too much of the power under Mulroney. In an attempt to pull the party back together, Chrétien called for the party to have a thinkers conference at Aylmer and from that conference came the “Red Book” that carried the party through a sweep of the Conservatives in 1993. The Red Book made no bones about the “arrogant style of political leadership” that had permeated the Mulroney government.

But too much of the Chrétien era was window dressing. There was never a real effort to distribute the power of the Prime Minister’s Office and Finance Minister Paul Martin drove the Liberal government hard to the right. Outdoing his Conservative and Reform critics, Martin gutted social programs such as Unemployment Insurance and even changed the name to hide its purpose. Many of his other stringent financial measures left the former left wing of the Liberal party without a home. As Prime Minister after Chrétien, voters were faced with the choice between Paul Martin’s right of centre Liberal Party and right-winger Harper’s Conservatives. The voters went for the real thing. Luckily they held Harper back from a majority but they gave the guy a chance.

The one thing you can be assured is that Harper is no democrat. He wields a heavy hand in his autocratic rule of the party he crafted from the former Progressive Conservative Party, the dead Reform Party and its moribund Canadian Alliance successor. He was the Cassius to Preston Manning’s Julius Ceasar and finally savaged his mentor to aspire to his leadership of the right wing of Canadian politics. The bodies lie by the paths he took to become Prime Minister and there are many times when he shows his vicious side in trying to destroy potential as well as real enemies in Parliament.

But the Liberal Party has the chance to survive and thrive. Key to this will be the thinkers conference that Michael Ignatieff has called for January 14 to 16, 2010 in Montreal. It is Michael Ignatieff’s chance to bring his party into the Twenty-First Century as a vibrant, socially-oriented party.

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