The brand state and the decline of the Liberal Party
by Richard Nimijean
The collapse of the Liberal Party under Paul Martin’s leadership has made the past decade one of the most interesting in modern Canadian political history. When Martin succeeded Jean Chrétien in 2003, all signs suggested that Liberal domination would continue for years. Chrétien had won three consecutive majorities, and Martin was widely seen as a more popular leader. The political Right remained in turmoil, and Canadians were not warming up to Stephen Harper, the leader of the newly formed Conservative Party. Meanwhile, the NDP struggled to articulate a distinctive message that would resonate with voters – a task made more difficult because the Liberals continually crept onto NDP turf, at least rhetorically, to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives.
So what happened? How could the Liberals be reduced to a minority government in 2004 and be defeated in 2006? Many will point to the “civil war” between Chrétien and Martin forces. As Martin supporters see it, the legacy of the federal sponsorship program forced Martin to appoint the Gomery Inquiry. Canadian voters, in this view, punished Martin’s Liberals for “doing the right thing.” Chrétien supporters, on the other hand, point to Martin’s strategic error in distancing himself from the successful Chrétien record (due in no small part to Martin’s actions as Finance Minister) because of “Adscam.” This is reminiscent of how Al Gore kept a still-popular Bill Clinton out of his 2000 American presidential campaign because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
However, the problem lies deeper than the civil war, for that explanation ignores an important reason why Chrétien succeeded: the creation of “Brand Canada,” in which a transformed national narrative was used not only to advance national interests but also to promote the government’s policy agenda. Brand Canada reflects the rise of the “brand state.” Peter van Ham argues that governments are transforming their national narratives to attract capital and skilled labour which, as a result of globalization, can move easily to wherever they desire. There is also a domestic dimension to state branding. Van Ham argues that the state can use these narratives and symbols in a “playful manner,” responding to an increasingly consumer-oriented citizenry.1