Like all political parties, the Liberal Party is a coalition of ideologues and opportunists: those who enter politics to get something done, and those who are in it for something to do. It has ever been thus.
What has changed is the correspondence between the two. In previous generations, the ideologues made use of the opportunists to achieve their ends. To do things like, say, medicare, you first had to get into government. If that meant consorting with rather less high-minded types – thugs, to be blunt, but thugs skilled at getting elected – so be it. For the ideologues, the ends justified the means.
Today the relationship is the reverse. The game is still about getting into power, and staying there, but now the opportunists have learned how to exploit the ideologues to their advantage. In today’s politics of irreducible personal identity and existential threats to humanity, the ferocious certainties of the ideologues are no longer an impediment to the more pragmatic ambitions of the opportunists, but a weapon, useful for intimidating their opponents and silencing criticism. For the opportunists, the means justify the means.
The naive view of events is that the famously unideological Liberal Party has been captured by hardened identity-politics warriors and environmental zealots. In fact, it is they who have been captured, drafted irrevocably into the political service of the leader.
They have proved especially invaluable to this leader. Had they, and he, not advertised their devotion to sexual and racial equality with such fervour, his own history of sexual and racial indiscretions might have surfaced earlier, and to more effect.
As it was he was able to skate through. Partly by adroit use of woke buzzwords (“men and women experience things differently,” as a defence to a charge of groping, is effectively “chicks be crazy” under a fresh coat of feminist subjectivism; “I was blinded by my privilege” doesn’t even begin to explain his peculiar penchant for dressing in blackface), and partly because, having so completely thrown in their lot with him, they have nowhere else to go.
How complete is the capture of the ideologues can be seen in the silence they have been forced to observe, through one episode after another in which it has been made excruciatingly clear that their loyalty was not reciprocated.
For example, it has been obvious for some time that the sexual misconduct scandal in the military is no longer about the military, but their enablers in the civilian power: the Minister of Defence, yes, but even more the Prime Minister’s Office, which sat on Justice Marie Deschamps’ report for more than five years and did nothing; which knew at least three years ago that there were complaints about the conduct of former chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance, and that these were sexual in nature, and did nothing; and which, having set up Harjit Sajjan to take the fall (though it was his office that informed them about Mr. Vance), cannot even be bothered to follow through on that.
Likewise, the conduct of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett – her gratuitous personal attack on the former minister of justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, for suggesting that an election, at the very moment when the country was reeling over the discoveries of hundreds of Indigenous children in unmarked graves near residential schools, might not be the best use of the Prime Minister’s time; her reported indifference to complaints from Indigenous employees of a “toxic” environment in her office – would probably have been enough under any previous government to have her sacked. But since the PMO was also aware of these, and did nothing, why would it start now? Moreover, if harassing Ms. Wilson-Raybould were a resigning offence, the Prime Minister would have had to step down long ago.
At some point I think the PMO concluded it was invincible. The Prime Minister could be caught taking free flights from the Aga Khan at a time when he was lobbying the government for funds; he could attend private party fundraisers with Chinese billionaires, even as China was emerging as a primary security threat; he could steer responsibility for a billion-dollar government program to the organization that paid money to his mother, his brother and his wife – and nothing would come of it. Not so long as his praetorian guard among the ideologues stood by him.
And yet the cost of their complicity has only compounded with the passage of time. It isn’t just the original impropriety, with regard to SNC-Lavalin, WE Charity, or the Vance allegations, from which they have been obliged to look away. It is the increasingly frantic efforts to prevent the PMO’s involvement in these from being unearthed: from the filibustering of committee hearings, to the gag orders forbidding witnesses from appearing before them (or even, in the SNC-Lavalin affair, from telling the RCMP what they know), to the extraordinary refusal, in the matter of the departure of two Chinese nationals from a top-security infectious disease laboratory, to surrender to Parliament the documents it had demanded, and the even more extraordinary step of suing the Speaker of the House to prevent him from asserting parliamentary privilege over the documents.
A prime minister can generally count on party solidarity to see him through all but the worst political storms. Usually this is a bargain rooted in crass self-interest: as the party’s standard-bearer at election time, and the dispenser of patronage, the prime minister’s fortunes are very much intertwined with those of his supporters. In this case, however, I think the pact is sealed in shame. It is too humiliating for the ideologues to admit to themselves what he has become, for to do so would be to admit what they have become.
Once, they may have imagined he was one of them. At the least, they may have imagined he would be useful to them. It is just too much for them to acknowledge that it is they who have been useful to him.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.