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Brooke Jeffrey in 2005 (The Globe and Mail)
Brooke Jeffrey in 2005 (The Globe and Mail)

Review: Non-fiction

Liberal Party animals Add to ...

In the last 26 years, the Liberals have only been in power for 12. They used to run the country two-thirds of the time. Now it's less than half. They've lost their way and there appears to be little likelihood that they will get it back in the near future.

In Divided Loyalties, Brooke Jeffrey, a political science professor and a former director of research for the Liberals, examines the decline, beginning with John Turner's stewardship and moving through to the leadership of Stéphane Dion.

Among the many reasons for the party's woes, two get top billing in Divided Loyalties. One is the Meech Lake Accord, the other leadership infighting.

Troubles were initiated by the party's disastrous 1984 election campaign, which reduced it to 40 seats. On its own, this was enough to sow divisions in a party that had been reasonably effective in maintaining a unified front, certainly by comparison with the Progressive Conservatives. But, as Jeffrey contends, it was Brian Mulroney's Meech Lake accord that made it so difficult to repair the breach. Setting himself against the Trudeau wing of the party, Turner came out essentially in support of the accord. Paul Martin was on board as well, and thus the division extended into the years when Jean Chrétien led the party. Meech Lake also led to the creation of the Bloc Québécois. That party's success meant the Liberals no longer could count on Quebec as one of its major feeding grounds.

The inner-party tensions on the unity front eased with Jean Chrétien's Clarity legislation, but by this time Paul Martin's forces were undermining any chance of peace the party may have had with what this book describes as a hostile takeover bid. With the help of the divided opposition, Chrétien was racking up majority governments and maintaining a huge lead over his rivals. But it wasn't enough for the Martin rebels. Not only were they determined to drive out one of the most electorally successful Liberals ever, but they were vindictive in doing it. Unlike other victors in leadership battles, Martin did not reach out to opponents by offering them senior cabinet posts. As Jeffrey contends, it was more like a purge, and it was terribly costly to the party, the remarkable irony being that just as the Grits were profiting from the split on the conservative side, they entered into a major split of their own.

The author describes the overweening arrogance of many in the unelected group that surrounded Martin, aides like communications director Scott Reid who, she says, alienated many in the party and beyond. One of the group, not as abrasive as some, was Dennis Dawson. Looking back, he tells Jeffrey. "There were advantages to being a small group. But one of the disadvantages is that we did become arrogant. And that made us not nice to caucus members, not nice to a bunch of people. And we paid for it in 2004, we paid for it in 2006 and God knows, we're still paying for it today."

The unelected clique ran the Martin government and, as is evident by the results, many of its members didn't know what they were doing. Martin, Jeffrey writes, lacked the political instincts of Jean Chrétien. Ever loyal to his men, he excessively depended on their judgments. It became most costly in the handling of the sponsorship scandal. The Martinites played it up instead of down, and they got steamrollered by it. As the author of this book points out, citing the small Quebec players and the small amounts of money involved in the scandal, the sponsorship controversy was not what it was made out to be.

In reading this book, it is interesting to note the win-loss record of Turner and Martin, who were allied, and compare it to Trudeau and Chrétien, who were also allied. Turner tried to run against the Trudeau legacy. Martin tried to run against the Chrétien party. They each paid the price. Turner wanted to open the party to the West and, in supporting Meech Lake, to Quebec nationalists. Paul Martin had identical ambitions. It didn't work for either.

Given her insider status in the party it is disappointing that Jeffrey didn't get interviews with any of the former prime ministers so that they could answer some pertinent questions. That said, Divided Loyalties does an effective job of putting a quarter-century of Liberal history into a coherent whole, while adding some illuminating detail along the way.

Globe columnist Lawrence Martin is the author of two volumes on Jean Chrétien, and the recently released Harperland: The Politics of Control.

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