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Bestselling author Peter C. Newman, 82, calls his latest book an obituary for the Liberal Party. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Bestselling author Peter C. Newman, 82, calls his latest book an obituary for the Liberal Party. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

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Peter C. Newman, the iconic chronicler of Canadian public life, says the party that governed Canada longer than the Communists ruled Russia is dead in the cold, cold ground, a corpse of its own making only tangentially helped into the grave by Michael Ignatieff.

In the wake of the Liberal Party's worst electoral defeat in history, Mr. Newman has laid out its path to ruination in his new book, When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada.

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He sticks to his thesis in spite of the party's leap this month toward resurrection, proposing to open its leadership and riding nominations to the broad public and proclaiming a caste solidarity with the country's besieged middle class.

Mr. Newman's prognostications are never to be taken lightly. At 82, he has been famously narrating Canadian politics for more than half a century.

He is interviewed in the cozy study of the splendid Victorian house he and his wife, Alvy, bought recently in Belleville two hours east of Toronto on Lake Ontario. His boat is nearby (wherever he has lived, there has been a boat nearby). His Greek fisherman's cap is in place. Dogs wander in and out. Mr. Newman identifies a pleasant cat sitting on a desk as his favourite, but leaves it nameless as he walks by and sits on a sofa.

It's too easy, he says, to blame the man he calls the besieged professor, the former Harvard scholar anointed the Liberal Party's messiah in 2008 and now returned to teaching, at the University of Toronto.

He writes that it is “a bit of a stretch” to place Mr. Ignatieff as a direct heir to the line of distinguished Liberals who built modern Canada – which, in fact, is precisely what he set out to do a couple of years ago: chronicle Mr. Ignatieff's ascent to the prime minister's office along the rose-petalled path of Laurier, King, Pearson and Trudeau.

But as the fate of the Liberals and their leader became manifest, Mr. Newman hurriedly changed course to craft the party's obituary, writing: “Despite Michael Ignatieff's best efforts – and at times he was unexpectedly impressive – when the 2011 election was called, the Grits were already dying.” Or as he says, reaching for another metaphor: a swamped raft loaded with an endangered political species.

The raft sank, Mr. Newman says, because the Liberals destroyed themselves with more than a decade of internecine conflict. They're dead because they've run out of ideas, become welded to a search for messianic leaders when messiahs don't exist, and faced a man, Stephen Harper, fixated on being their executioner.

And most of all, he says, they're dead, not just resting, because they've lost their base – the base that 70 years ago, with the wartime melding of politicians, public servants and the business community, made them Canada's Natural Governing Party.

Ridings gone dormant, membership in freefall

It is a brazen call, the prediction of a political party's demise, and not an idea that is universally embraced. But there is a lot of grim evidence to support Mr. Newman's thesis.

National president Alfred Apps estimates that 80 of the party's 308 riding associations are dormant. In almost 100 ridings, Liberals attracted less than 10 per cent of the vote in the last election. Party membership has plummeted over little more than two decades from half a million to about 35,000, and donations are less than half those of the Conservatives.

“The very survival of the Liberal Party of Canada may now be at stake,” Mr. Apps says. “Liberals everywhere are wondering whether the decline of the party can be turned around.”

University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss points out that traditionally Canadian governments have been elected on the basis of a fusion of regional support and interest groups, which historically has meant the capture of Ontario and Quebec – something the Liberals were able to do for decades.

Their great pride, Prof. Bliss says, was that they were able to govern with national support and introduce national programs. The erosion of that support, he says, was a disaster 25 years in coming. They first lost Quebec; they've now lost Ontario. Their big piggy bank is empty. (And the Conservatives have fused much of the West with Ontario.)

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