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A man walks past Michael Ignatieff signs at the Liberal Party's election-night rally in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
A man walks past Michael Ignatieff signs at the Liberal Party's election-night rally in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Robert Silver

The Liberal Party: What went wrong and where to next? Add to ...

The second low point of the election for me was during the English debate when Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton were debating reasonable accommodation, multiculturalism and immigration. Duceppe started highlighting a very Quebec-centric position on the issues in the one-on-one segment, Layton played along. Stephen Harper jumped in and gave a fairly impassioned defence of multiculturalism - of diversity as our strength. Michael Ignatieff did not.

To understand how our politics have changed in the last decade stop and let those two low points sink in. The Conservative Party of Canada now, at least in this campaign, owns national unity as an issue - we had nothing to say about it. The Conservative Party of Canada now owns multiculturalism and immigration as an issue - we had nothing to say about it either.

I could keep going on the shortcomings of the 2011 campaign - the ads, the polling, our seeming obsession with our party's history that only makes us look like we're stuck in the past. I could keep going and literally write a 50-page memo outlining everything we need to get better at but it's time to look to the future.

The challenging road ahead

Yes, I believe that the Liberal Party of Canada can and will have a bright future if we make some tough but necessary choices. In fact, this could be an extremely exciting time and opportunity for the Liberal Party. How does this play out? Time will tell, of course. I see our party breaking into roughly four camps in the days and weeks to come:

1. The NDP merger/cooperation/coalition group. I have made my views on this option pretty clear in the past. Nothing in this campaign has changed those views - in fact, quite the opposite. The Liberal Party of Canada is not a "left-wing party". Not when we are at our best. The Liberals and NDP have radically different cultures and visions for the country - at least they should have different visions. Unlike the PCs and Alliance/Reform, we were never one party that had a divorce. But the party may decide to pursue this option. That's the party's right, of course. I won't be a part of the new, merged party but it's a democracy and is certainly a legitimate option.

2. Reform everything about the Liberal Party. Top-to-bottom. New blood, new voting coalition - there's not much that stays the same in this new Liberal Party. This is obviously my preferred option and I will discuss it in more detail in the days and weeks to come.

3. Put a fresh coat of paint on the party. Nobody will say they are in this camp but I will have no doubt that there will be some Liberals who think we just need to "run a better campaign" or "get a better leader" and everything turns around. You will know people in this camp if they start speeches by talking about our glorious history, refer to the Liberal Party as a "family" rather than a political party and claim that "Canada needs the Liberal Party." I would put it at more than 50 per cent that this group wins the day, which really worries me because this option dooms the party to more of the same in terms of results.

4. The fourth group will be Liberals who reject the NDP merger talk, think the radical reforms in option No. 2 are impossible to achieve based on the "old guard" (for lack of a better term) who still control most of the current party and have no interest in remaining in the same old, same old Liberal Party. These people will seriously consider starting a new party or just stop being a part of partisan politics for a while. Hopefully this group remains (as it is today) miniscule because if it grows, it is very bad news for the future of the Liberal Party.

The future of the Liberal Party could be exceedingly exciting but not if we enter into the next election looking the same and reflecting the past instead of the future. I will try to give my opinions on what that future should look like in the days and weeks to come.

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