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Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade waves as she enters with her elected caucus to be sworn in during a ceremony at the legislature in Quebec City on Oct. 18, 2022.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Two decades ago, after losing his first election as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Jean Charest asked Claude Ryan to articulate the party’s raison d’être. The former Le Devoir editor and ex-QLP leader, who headed the “No” side during the 1980 referendum, produced a 90-page document on “Liberal values” that is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the identity crisis now facing Quebec’s oldest, and nominally most federalist, political party.

“Since the end of the 19th century, two main currents have dominated Quebec political life: the ‘red’ current, represented by the Liberal Party, and the ‘blue’ current, first represented by the Conservative Party, then the Union Nationale and Parti Québécois,” Mr. Ryan wrote then.

“Supporters of the blue current mostly insisted on the need to defend and reinforce Quebec’s identity within Quebec and to promote Quebec’s freedom to manoeuvre, sometimes by seeking more autonomy within the Canadian federation, sometimes through political separation,” he explained. “Supporters of the red current emphasized individual rights and freedoms, the necessity of a strategy of openness toward and participation in the Canadian federation, and the confident acceptance of growing diversity within Quebec itself.”

One of the main takeaways from Mr. Ryan’s essay seemed to be that, while blue parties came and went, the Quebec Liberal Party alone had withstood the test of time. As long as it held true to its foundational values, it would continue to thrive, notwithstanding cyclical bumps in the road.

After its worst result ever in last month’s provincial election, the Quebec Liberal Party is not only not thriving, but it has descended into the kind of petty warfare that it once considered below its higher calling as the province’s main champion of the federalist cause. Current and former caucus members have stooped to airing their party’s dirty laundry in public, in what one ex-Liberal member of the National Assembly forlornly likened to an episode of Occupation Double, a Quebec reality show in which participants engage in hook-ups and back-stabbing in plain view.

Under rookie leader Dominique Anglade, the Liberals won their lowest-ever proportion of the popular vote in the Oct. 3 election. At 14.4 per cent, the party’s share of the vote plummeted by more than 10 percentage points from the 2018 election and by 26 points from 2014. The Liberals still won more seats – 21 in all – than any other party except for the Coalition Avenir Québec, the current leader of the blues. But that was only because most non-francophones continued to vote Liberal by default. In dozens of francophone ridings, Liberal support failed to crack the 10-per-cent threshold.

Alas, the Liberal caucus has already shrunk to 20 members, after Ms. Anglade last week expelled an experienced MNA who had refused her offer to become the party’s transportation critic. The MNA, Marie-Claude Nichols, had sought to become deputy speaker. Former Liberal MNAs, including two who had declined to run in the recent election after clashing with Ms. Anglade, publicly criticized her heavy-handedness. One even accused her of “digging her own grave.”

By Monday, Ms. Anglade was in full damage-control mode, conceding she had gone too far and insisting the “door was open” for Ms. Nichols to rejoin the Liberal caucus. Ms. Nichols not only spurned the overture from Ms. Anglade, but she also openly called for her head.

The media countdown is now on to see how long Ms. Anglade can hang on. She faces an automatic leadership review next year; speculation is rife that she will be forced out before then if she does not step down on her own.

But dissident Liberals are kidding themselves if they think ousting her can fix what has gone fundamentally wrong within their party.

Ms. Anglade, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is an articulate and energetic leader who had the misfortune of inheriting the QLP crown by acclamation in 2020. She did not create the ideas vacuum that has plagued the party since its 2018 defeat, if not before then. And the pandemic left her with few opportunities to introduce herself to most Quebeckers before the campaign began.

By then, it was probably already too late to make much of a difference. A series of organizational snafus made a bad situation worse. And it was not until the second (and final) televised debate, in which she stood up in defence of longstanding Liberal values, that she even began to clearly differentiate her party from its blue rivals.

Some Liberals dream of a saviour emerging in the form of a high-profile former cabinet minister or celebrity. But to survive, the QLP needs to demonstrate the courage of its convictions, if it still has any. That was Mr. Ryan’s overriding message two decades ago. It remains true today.

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