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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)

Is a Liberal comeback mission impossible? Add to ...

Mr. Newman's critique is supported by Jamie Carroll, Liberal national director during the early Harper years. He says the party has been hamstrung by three flaws: an addiction to finding a saviour who can solve all its problems, a maladroit structure and an unwillingness to innovate for fear of not having the money to defend new policy ideas against negative Conservative advertising.

The Liberals have been flat on their back before – after the juggernaut Conservative electoral victory of 1958 – for much the same reason: a long period of careless stewardship and organizational malaise. Back then, they had the late Keith Davey, the legendary Rainmaker, to replenish the arid Liberal soil, but today there is no successor in sight.

Queen's University political scientist Ned Franks says simply: “For a long time, the Liberal Party had an ear for the country. Now, it doesn't.”

In addition, he and Frank Graves, president of Ottawa-based pollster Ekos Research Associates, see demographic shifts and cultural changes that could work against the Liberals climbing out of the crypt: aging voters with a preference for the Conservatives' agenda; emerging blocs of immigrants with conservative values; a lingering post-9/11 search for stability and security that the Conservatives are seen best at providing.

Mr. Graves says that, because of demographic fault lines, Canada probably has the world's deepest generational gulf, making it increasingly a country of old, white people who vote Conservative and young multicultural people who don't vote at all but have values that differ markedly from those of older people (including, maybe especially, their immigrant parents). It's a gulf that risks delegitimizing the country's democracy and short-circuiting the generational transfer of political power.

A party of the centre without a centre

Lastly, there's an emerging conversation among political commentators about the disappearance in Canada of the political centre – seen as the Liberals' natural constituency, supposedly gobbled up by the Conservatives on the right and New Democrats on the left.

That's an iffy thesis.

Mr. Carroll observes that the right has captured the more appealing political language – words about lower taxes, less government, shrinking the state, managing the economy – making it harder to speak to the centre.

But Mr. Graves says Canadians, unlike Americans, have never been particularly ideological. They have been more inclined to shun polarization in favour of an eclectic mix-and-match approach to politics. (Hence, it was Liberal governments under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin that slew the deficit but also introduced same-sex marriage.)

Older voters may be attracted to the Harper Conservatives, but Mr. Graves says he doubts that all that much has changed with Canadians' historic non-ideological values or that the political centre has shrunk.

As well, he says, there is a huge electoral base that none of the parties is reaching – the overwhelming majority of Canadians under 40 who do not vote. It's a cohort that overlaps with what he and other social researchers identify as Canada's rapidly hollowing-out middle class, and is up for grabs.

Mr. Graves points out that the middle class is not a natural phenomenon; it's a product of state policy – of progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth, laws that allow for union organization, substantial support of education, health care and housing.

As state supports diminish and taxation advantages are increasingly skewed to the wealthy, the middle class shrinks and inequality increases.

The result is a society with a high rate of unemployment among well-educated young people. In addition, there's a shortage of good jobs, a critical lack of accessible housing, a widening phenomenon of inequality and a growing awareness among young Canadians that they may not be able to live and raise families in the same places they grew up. Enter the Occupy Movement, a protest deemed by Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to be “entirely constructive.”

This month, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae launched a direct appeal to Canada's vanishing middle class with a declaration that his party will bang the drums loudly for all those things drifting beyond the middle-class grasp: good, affordable housing and education, “interesting and rewarding” jobs, a redoubtable health-care system and “retirement with dignity.”

It's the right target – if the target is paying attention. And to get its attention in advance of the party's biennial conference in January, Mr. Apps has unveiled A Roadmap to Renewal, policy changes that would see the leader elected using a broad-based, U.S.-styled primary vote and the nomination of election candidates unleashed from the leader's control.

The plan could flop. The party could be down for the count, as Mr. Newman predicts. “But it could change on a dime,” Mr. Carroll says.



Michael Valpy is a Toronto journalist and senior fellow at Massey College. He blogs at originsofpolitics.ca

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