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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff paces during an interview with The Globe and Mail in his Parliament Hill office on Oct. 6, 2009. (Bill Grimshaw)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff paces during an interview with The Globe and Mail in his Parliament Hill office on Oct. 6, 2009. (Bill Grimshaw)

Andrew Steele

The 12-step program for Liberals Add to ...

Peter Donolo is an outstanding political professional who served prime minister Jean Chrétien with distinction. Outside of the Ottawa, Donolo also enjoys a sterling track record. He was a solid communications advisor to Toronto mayor Art Eggleton and co-chaired an underdog city councilor named David Miller to back-to-back victories at City Hall. He understands polling and strategy, and can turn complex policy into a bumper sticker slogan that moves vote.

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Peter will be surefooted with caucus. His advice to me when I was starting in government was to always return MP phone calls first, no matter how much else was on your plate. It was the best advice I ever got. What little success I had as a staffer can be linked back to the "it's about the elected members" attitude people like Peter instilled.

Sadly, politics is a zero sum game. For everyone who goes up, someone else must go down.

I like Ian Davey and respect him tremendously. At times, I disagreed with him, but never doubted his commitment to country, party and leader.

Ian inspired a sparkling personality to enter to the bloodsport of politics. He managed the campaign of a relative neophyte to a near-win in a race for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada in 2006. He helped make Michael Ignatieff the leader in 2008. Those accomplishments are real and lasting, and are a credit to Ian's vision, intellect and effort.

The last six months have been bruising and chaotic. Someone needed to draw the short-straw. Ian did.

Heaping the blame for the current state of the Liberal Party on any one person (recent beneficiaries include Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, David Herle, Stéphane Dion and Ian Davey) is hardly honest or productive. The problems are deep and multifaceted. Fixing them requires the understanding that no one person is to blame and no one person is going to fix it.

Ian's departure may have a catalytic impact on the Liberal Party, but only if Liberals understand the problems are not in tactics, or advisors, or who sits in what chair.

The challenges are decades in the making, and the result of cumulative decisions that alienated huge swaths of western, rural and francophone Canada from the Liberal universe.

The solutions are hard.

It means bottom-up renewal of a party that is still too comfortable with the old ways that no longer work.

As such, now is a good time to update my "Twelve Step Program for Liberals," based on the Alcoholics Anonymous program, first published just after the 2008 election.

1. Admit you have a problem. If the Liberals continue to believe it's just a matter of time before they return to government, they will continue to believe they can act without real consequences. Government is earned, not expected.

2. Give up on the white knight. Liberals believe that if only they could find the next Trudeau, they would win without working. The fact is that Trudeau was a failure as a politician in his first term and almost lost the 1972 election. There are no white knights. Only work and discipline will earn you back government.

3. Make a decision to unite. This is harder than it sounds. The Liberals are a large brokerage party, and that means a lot of the factions don't agree on much. There are also a lot of hatchets to bury. It will take years to dig that many holes.

4. Make an honest inventory. The Liberals are nearly bankrupt and have few quick prospects for cash infusion beyond painstaking membership expansion. The caucus is reduced to an unrepresentative rump of Atlantic Canadian and Toronto MPs. The average age for Liberal MPs is over 60. There is no coherent policy agenda. The Conservatives, NDP and Bloc are consciously attempting to destroy the party. It is too Ottawa-bound, out of touch with the middle-class, Quebec and small town Canada. On the positive side, the Conservatives remain unable to break through in urban Canada, there is a recession underway, the Liberal brand retains value, and the front bench is extremely talented.

5. Admit you made mistakes. This doesn't mean walking around bemoaning the National Energy Program. It means each Liberal admitting their own role in recent election losses and internal disunity, rather than pointing the finger at the next guy. There is more than enough blame to go around. Make sure you take your share.

6. Give up your shortcomings. Liberals hold onto Shibboleths almost as badly as the NDP. There are factions in the party that would go to the grave fighting distinct society because Trudeau gave the Maison du Egg Roll speech. There are similar emotional positions on immigration, deficit fighting and a host of issues. These need to be examined rationally for their place in the 21st century, rather than clung to like a life preserver in a storm.

7. Humbly begin to remake the party. If there is going to be a Liberal government in the next decade, it will be because those who care now are working now. Work doesn't mean sitting around "strategizing." It means running for office, fundraising, signing up new members, costing policy ideas, phoning long lists and knocking on doors.

8. Figure out where the party needs to grow. With the lopsidedness of the Liberal caucus, it is critical that the party look to its future and not it's present. Too many questions about fishery policy or the Toronto Transit Commission and the Liberals will be a regional rump like Reform or the Bloc. Determine key areas for growth: southwestern Ontario, GTA shadows, Montreal suburbs, Vancouver suburbs, Northern Ontario, Winnipeg. Focus on these areas and what unites them.

9. Focus policy and tour ruthlessly on growth. In Question Period and press releases, Liberals have a habit of playing the Ottawa game: jumping on the media story of the day, looking for scandal to bring the government down, ignoring the Canada outside the Queensway. Instead, policy and issues in the House should be set by the Liberal growth strategy. Focus only on those items that will produce more seats in the next election. A great example is Gerard Kennedy's work on infrastructure fairness.

10. Constantly focus on correcting problems. This won't be easy. There will be bad days, bad polls and bad by-election losses. But public criticism isn't helping. Instead, focus on correcting problems internally, staying united and staying positive.

11. Reconnect with the middle-class. The road back to government is through the living rooms of people making $35,000 a year. Most Liberal MPs and senior party managers don't spend a lot of time in those circles. They should.

12. Never stop uniting and ensure new Liberals focus on uniting. When members are thought of as nothing more than potential leadership convention delegates, internal disunity becomes the norm. It is imperative that the future Liberal Party channels young and new Liberals into positive challenges that help them and the party: by-elections, election training, fundraising and outreach. And those members and MPs who cannot be team players should be increasingly disciplined or even removed.

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