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john ibbitson

By next summer, the Liberal Party could be out of power everywhere that matters in Canada. If so, Dalton McGuinty's shocking decision to step down as Ontario Premier may be seen by historians as the death knell for the Liberal brand.

Ontario Liberals face a confused and dispiriting leadership race and a minority legislature in which Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath are now likely to bring down the government sooner rather than later.

Jean Charest's Liberals were recently defeated in Quebec, leading to his resignation as leader. And polls suggest Christy Clark's Liberals face near-certain defeat in an election next May.

Only in Prince Edward Island, where Robert Ghiz is securely ensconced for three more years, is a Liberal government not facing an election and probable defeat. And the plain truth is, in a province with only 0.4 per cent of the national population, that doesn't count for much.

If there is a nadir for the Liberal Party's fortunes, surely this must be it.

The reason for Liberal defeats matter as much as the defeats themselves. The remaining large Liberal governments were or are seen as aging, defensive and out of ideas.

In Quebec, the taint of corruption clings to the party. In Ontario, chronic deficits and failed energy policies have tarnished the brand. In B.C., an unpopular leader replaced an unpopular leader.

Nationally, a series of weak leaders coupled with unpopular policies – the Green Shift, the Family Pack – have reduced the party to third place in the House of Commons.

Everything that Liberals are supposed to stand for – competent yet compassionate government, sound management, reason-based policies and the like – have been discredited or eroded.

Although the provincial and federal parties are distinct from each other, sometimes even antagonistic toward each other, they share those common Liberal values.

In that vital sense, it is Liberal governments, not their various enemies of the right and left, who have undermined those values, who have contaminated their brand. The opposition didn't bring down the Liberals; they brought down themselves.

The question that remains is whether that brand will be rehabilitated, changed entirely or simply junked.

On this day, that question falls to Justin Trudeau to answer. Over this horrible year and a half for Liberals, this charismatic young candidate for federal leader has offered the only glimpse of redemption.

But it is only a glimpse: Never mind Mr. Trudeau's youth and lack of experience. The more important problem is that none of us knows what the Liberal brand means for him. His recent speeches and interviews offer reassuring platitudes that add up to, well, competent yet compassionate government, sound management, reason-based policies and the like.

Nowhere in this country outside Green Gables is this message selling. Conservatives promise sound management; the NDP promise competent yet compassionate government; neither is on the record actively opposing reason-based policy making.

Each now has staked its own claim to at least part of the centre in which Liberals were once entrenched, even as each also seeks to polarize the debate between left and right.

When there was a strong, broad and deep Liberal tradition to stand on, a leader could get away with bromides. But bromides won't cut it anywhere, any more. Not even in Ontario. Not after Monday night.

Everything can be hijacked by events. Over the next few months, Mr. Trudeau could put forward a plausible vision of the country. Other credible candidates may challenge him. Mr. McGuinty himself did not seem to rule that possibility out Monday night.

Neither Mr. Hudak nor Ms. Horwath is a natural leader-in-waiting. The Parti Quebecois in Quebec could be as badly tainted by corruption allegations as the Liberals. In B.C., there is always the power of prayer.

But in a country that seems to be dividing between those who want the government to run things on time, and those who want the government to save the world, Liberals appear to have nothing to say. No matter in what legislature they once said them.