"The fixation on leadership, understandable in itself, is a bit of a cart-before-horse reaction," national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes in Wednesday's column about the Liberal Party. "Liberals have to figure out who they are, what they stand for and how they will attempt to survive, and maybe eventually prosper, in this radically different political environment."
Mr. Simpson took reader questions about the Liberal leadership wars and the party's future. A partial transcript follows; scroll below to read the discussion as it took place.
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Moderator: The interim leadership question has centred around Bob Rae. He said today that he's still deciding whether he wants the job. Do you think he does?
Jeffrey Simpson: I have no idea because I haven't talked to him and even if I did I'm not sure he would level with an outsider like me. As I wrote this morning: you have to ask yourself, why do this job? It's a miserable, thankless and not necessarily guaranteed to be crowned with success -- success being defined as getting the Liberals back into the political game.
Luke: How do you think four years as the opposition will make the NDP a more credible threat to the Liberals? (As opposed to now when they seem to have rode in on populist support but are viewed as a bit unfit to lead.)
Jeffrey Simpson: You ask a good question to which it is far too soon to give an answer: Will the NDP become a modern, mature social democratic party and drop some of its instincts and nostrums, or will it remain essentially a third party in disguise. If the former, then the chances for the Liberals to revive will be limited; if not, the country will toss the NDP back into the marginality from when it came.
Notlad: You said "Dalton McGuinty, Ontario's Premier, at some point after his forthcoming election?" How serious was this suggestion? Are there any indications that McGuinty wants to move to the federal scene?
Jeffrey Simpson: It's hard to imagine D. McGuinty jumping into federal politics. But, say he loses narrowly the next Ontario election slated for the fall. Maybe he would want a new challenge? Look in a party that now has few winners, he is one of the few, despite his many haters and detractors outside the Liberal Party of Ontario.
Jan: Many critics have been saying it's unclear what the Liberals stand for. Isn't at least some of that ambiguity par for the course in a centrist party that attempts to bridge the gaps between left and right? Was there ever a dominant theme or philosophy in Liberal policy, even when the party was winning?
Jeffrey Simpson: A party in power, as the Liberals often were, almost by definition is a party that makes compromises, that learns that the discipline of power requires tradeoffs and delays, so, yes, it was and is less ideological than the other parties. Mr. Harper is now a much less ideological leader that he was when in exile in Calgary between stints in politics or when he was leader of the opposition. And the NDP, unless it surprises me, will learn a bit about the kind of comrpomises and tradeoffs that come with being Official Opposition. Will they become like the Swedish Social Democratic Party (now in opposition) but often favored by the country's large businesses for its attentiveness to their needs, or the British Labour Party, post Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock? We shall see. On that evolution hangs the party's future, in my opinion. The moment the NDP gets into lockstep with the big unions or with Quebec nationalism, it will begin to recede as a political force.
Shawn: In a CBC interview the other evening you dismissed Liberal-NDP merger discussions based partially on the NDP connections to labour, I don't agree, the American Democratic Party has strong ties to organized labour so why couldn't a merged centre-left party in Canada also have a positive relationship with labour? The CAW has endorsed the Liberals in the last several elections.
Jeffrey Simpson: Buzz Hargrove endorsed the Liberals; he didn't bring many CAW leaders with him. The unions are far less influential in the Democratic Party of the U.S. than the trade unions have been inside the NDP. But what I just said was that if the union influence dilutes somewhat, that will mean the NDP has a better chance of being a broad, national party with wider appeal. We shall see. I read reports that union officials are lining up to work NDP offices in Ottawa. That's understandable since they will be people of talent and experience; but there will be costs for that.
Richard: I believe the majority of Canadians are moderate and centrist in their politics. The Liberals carved out this ground and will reinvent themselves as the party of the centre. Over the next four years the Conservatives will have a huge internal struggle to convince their core, vocal supporters that they truly are conservative, while continuing to support central policies, in order to maintain their majority.
Jeffrey Simpson: I agree completedly with you; the issue is which party will best reflect that position, or at least a part of it. What do they need to become a national party again? Think long. It will take a decade, and even then it might not work. Think big. Come up with ideas that transcend ideology and region; ideas that will tie Canada together and make it fairer and more productive; do not be afraid to challenges verities; always speak to tomorrow.
Ali: I don't understand why Justin Trudeau is so hesitant to assume the Liberal leadership mantle. Seems like he is just the perfect young, charismatic leader.
Moderator: You also mentioned Dominic LeBlanc in passing today - beyond his name recognition outside the East, which you raised as an issue, what do you think of his talents and long-term prospects? He seems like he has a lot of what Justin Trudeau has, minus the polarizing family name.
Jeffrey Simpson: Justin Trudeau has two young children and is interested in being a responsible parent. He's young; he has time, assuming there is a party if and when he is ready to take over. He's also got lots of learn. I mean, he wasn't even a front-bencher in the Ignatieff parliamentary team.
Dominic LeBlanc is a long way from being known nationally. He comes from a political dynasty in New Brunswick -- his father was MP, minister and governior-general. He's Harvard-educated, totally bilingual, very personable. But is he ready to be leader? No. But then, who is? If I had to put two cents on the next leader, if would be him. Who knows? Here's theory. Bob Rae doesn't get to be interim leader, so he leaves politics, opening up a winnable seat in Toronto Centre, and the Liberals find a terrific new candidate who wins and takes a prominent position in the party right away, given the paucity of talent. who knows?
R.Carriere: Gary Doer!
Jeffrey Simpson: Gary Doer destrode Manitoba because he was a centrist with a heart, demonstrated competence and superior communications skills. It should be remembered that he lost elections before he won one, but after he won, he became unbeatable.