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The Liberals’ road back

A merger with the NDP may be the only option

by Reg Whitaker

2012-03-16-webliberalndp_1314206cl8For much of Canadian history, the Liberals have been the dominant party in federal politics. The period from 1896, when Wilfrid Laurier first won office as Prime Minister, to 2006 might be called Canada’s long Liberal century. During these 110 years, the Liberals were in office over 70 per cent of the time. Thirty-two general elections

saw twice as many Liberal as Conservative victories. The Liberals were truly the “Government Party.”

In 2004, following an unprecedented internal power struggle and the regicide of a successful Liberal Prime Minister, the Liberals lost the majority they had held for three straight elections, and then in 2006 they lost government altogether. Leaderless in Parliament, incompetent in opposition, buffeted this way and that on crucial policy issues, they faced a Conservative Prime Minister who looked confident, focused and decisive, with a clear vision and a plan for how to get where he wanted to go. Worst of all for the battered Liberals, the Conservatives had against all odds made inroads into one of the Liberals’ traditional bastions, federalist voters in Quebec, just as the Liberals seemed in free fall in Quebec after the sponsorship scandal and the Gomery Inquiry. Was it possible that the long Liberal century was at last coming to an end?

This is indeed is a possibility. Of course, the Liberals have lost before, and sometimes it looked as if it might be terminal. In 1958, John Diefenbaker swept to a mighty landslide, nearly crushing the Liberals. In 1984, Brian Mulroney fashioned a Government Party–style victory for the Tories. But however dispirited and disorganized the Liberals seemed in the face of these adversities, Diefenbaker was gone in six chaotic years, and Mulroney’s finely crafted edifice crumbled so completely that after nine years in power his party was reduced to a derisory two MPs in 1993. It is possible that the Conservatives will once more self-destruct and the Liberals, with a new leader in place by December, will yet again inherit their accustomed seats of power.

Possible, but times and circumstances have changed in the early 21st century, and some of these changes have been dramatic. Even if the Liberals with a new and effective leader do return to power in the near future – by no means a sure thing – it will be as quite a different animal from the old Government Party.

Harper’s Quebec gamble

When the Diefenbaker and Mulroney Conservative governments self-destructed and the Liberals rebounded, there was a historical logic at work. In both cases, Quebec was at the root of both the Tories’ misfortune and the Liberals’ resilience. Both Diefenbaker and Mulroney initially fashioned majority governments by stealing the Quebec monolith that the Liberals had held, with the odd stutter, since the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885 and the conscription crisis during World War I. In each case, however, they did so via a different route than the Liberals had used. The Tories made alliances with Quebec nationalists, the bitter opponents of the Liberals. By Mulroney’s day, negotiations were with “soft” nationalists who later revealed themselves to be indépendantistes. Mulroney’s prized Quebec lieutenant, Lucien Bouchard, defected along with a number of other prominent Quebec Tories to form the Bloc Québécois, thus precipitating the Conservatives’ Canada-wide collapse.

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About the Author

Reg Whitaker
Political scientist Reg Whitaker writes a political column for Inroads and is a member of its editorial board.


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