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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 ...

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.)

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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