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Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaks to the 1978 Liberal convention. (The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaks to the 1978 Liberal convention. (The Globe and Mail)

Trudeau-era hubris beaten out of them, Liberals at last look ready to rebuild Add to ...

In 1978, at the suggestion of my older brother Rick (this will amuse those who know Rick) I went to my very first political convention. It was a Liberal Party of Canada convention in Ottawa, and roughly 3,500 people showed up for a cold weekend in February.

The Liberals back then were the masters of the political universe, the most formidable political machine in the country. They were led by the enigmatic Pierre Trudeau, and leading figures like Allan MacEachen, Marc Lalonde, Keith Davey and Jim Coutts were like rock stars in the world of Canada’s national affairs.

For me, that weekend was fascinating enough to cement a life-long interest in Canadian politics. As I recall the Liberal Party I met that weekend I remember thinking that the conventioneers had a profound pride. And maybe just a bit too much fascination with themselves and satisfaction with their accomplishments. Even so, it was a club lots of people wanted to join. It had the scent and the swagger of a winner.

Success on the scale the Liberal Party enjoyed back then always looks attractive, from a distance. And of course it is better than failure. But it doesn’t build muscle, it adds fat. It doesn’t sharpen skills, it dulls instincts. If hunger motivates, the Liberals during that period were overfed, and lazy. And it caught up to them. About a year later, voters elected Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives and turfed the Liberals.

Since that time, if Liberals are honest with themselves, they would acknowledge their victories have been a bit asterisked. Some might argue that a win is a win is a win, but in truth they are not all equal. The last Trudeau win in 1980 was fluky: The party was out of gas, but scraped together a win on the back of the Clark-Crosbie proposal to hike the price of gas.

The Chrétien wins owed a great deal to the arrival of the Reform and Bloc Québécois parties. Paul Martin won a minority, hobbled by the sponsorship scandal, and struggling with a party that once again was inward looking to a fault, had not done the hard work to modernize its membership or fundraising apparatus, and was weak on the ground.

Some Liberals are tempted to ascribe the near total collapse of their party under Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff to unscrupulous bare-knuckle politics of their Conservative opponents. Whatever the merits of that point, it won’t change anything for them.

If Liberals are going to come back, they must first accept that they might not.

So what kind of attitude imbues these convention halls? And how does it compare to the hubris I remember more than 30 years ago? (Ouch, that line startled me.) Cockiness is down, talk of readiness is up. Accepting the need for hard work isn’t the same as actually doing the work, but it’s a necessary precondition.

I’ve yet to run into any Liberal here this weekend who thinks their party is one lucky bounce away from a big win. On the contrary, pretty much everyone I’ve talked with is chatting about opening up the membership rolls, letting more people in, opening up their policy process on the Internet, and so on.

It’s snowy, slushy, Ottawa in January, and there are more than 3,000 people here again. They are serious but upbeat. They don’t seem much inclined to talk about what was, and are much more passionate about what’s next. To my eyes, they’re a party that may be down but should hardly be counted out.

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