Jonathan Malloy is the Bell chair in Canadian parliamentary democracy at Carleton University.
With the resignation of Bill Morneau, the Liberal Party of Canada has added another name to its historical finance-minister hit list. Mr. Morneau joins Walter Gordon in 1965, John Turner in 1975 and Paul Martin in 2002 as victims of insurrection and counterinsurgency in a party at the centre of Canada’s political landscape. And it’s so often the same story: death by internal sniping and anonymous leaks, fueled by clashing egos and differing visions for the country.
The Liberal Party is certainly not the only Canadian home for intraparty squabbles. George Perlin’s 1980 book The Tory Syndrome reflects the disparate camps that long jockeyed within the Progressive Conservatives; the warring tribalism that produced splinters in the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance was eventually quelled by the reconstituted Conservative Party. But these new Tories have been generally united, or at the very least, have tended to keep the infighting to when they’re not in power. Meanwhile, the New Democrats have a strict culture of closed ranks, and typically hang their dirty laundry in private.
Even Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary, has noted the Liberals’ seemingly unique Machiavellian instincts. “Liberals are more lethal to Liberals than are any competing partisans. Canadians have little patience for this stuff in the best of times, and these are not those,” he said on Twitter this week. “Friendly advice to former colleagues: knock it off, unless you miss losing.”
Why does the Liberal Party seem to have its worst fights when it’s on top? Much of it has to do with the confidence that comes with winning so often that the Liberals have become seen by some as Canada’s “natural governing party.” That makes the party’s leadership a particularly powerful prize, especially because, between 1887 and 2006, no permanent Liberal leader had failed to eventually become Prime Minister.
The party’s internal arguments in recent decades have as often been about electoral strategy and policy direction as about brokering the spoils of inevitable-seeming victory. It is a party where powerful men (and it is always men) constantly fight to be the alpha – harnessing different ideological strains within the large, creaking machine to undermine each other.
In the mid-20th century, Liberal leaders Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson were remarkably effective at keeping together two of the party’s most vital camps – wealthy “business Liberals” from Corporate Canada, and those who espoused “welfare liberalism.” But when the rise of Quebec separatism and other national unity tensions were added to the mix, Pierre Trudeau – who was somewhat indifferent to the business/welfare distinction, but had exceptionally firm views on the constitution and Quebec’s place in the federation – took advantage of these increasingly complex fault lines. Business and welfare Liberals could band together in Mr. Trudeau’s unyielding centralist and centrist vision.
At around the same time, the party’s leadership races were becoming more fractured and bitter. From 1919 to 1968, these races had largely been simple acts of succession, where heirs apparent cruised to mostly inevitable victories before reigning at their relative pleasure. But the 1968 leadership race was wide open, becoming a clash of titans from Mr. Pearson’s well-stocked cabinet.
Mr. Trudeau eventually beat out Robert Winters, who summarily re-retired from politics, but loyalists of third-place finisher Mr. Turner – the “195 Club,” referring to the number of votes he won – became determined to make sure their man was the next leader. And for the next 40 years or so, the fortunes of the Liberal Party revolved around many of the dynamics sparked in that 1968 race, in which runners-up challenged leaders, even if the leaders were still in office.
Mr. Turner stuck it out in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet for seven years before departing in 1975, allegedly over policy disagreements but with an obvious impatience that his political career had flatlined under an entrenched leader. Mr. Turner, anchored in the “business Liberal” side of the party, then led a less-than-subtle campaign to be his successor.
Mr. Turner did wind up winning the leadership in 1984, but only by stepping on the ambitions of popular Trudeau-era cabinet minister Jean Chrétien. Mr. Chrétien soon undertook his own political exile and an even less subtle and sometimes vicious campaign to take down Mr. Turner, who led the Liberals to a disastrous showing against Brian Mulroney, before losing another election and eventually his job in 1988. Like Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Chrétien was able to slip into business and welfare liberalism depending on the context, but also espoused strong views on federalism, so he was able to link his personal ambitions to larger policy issues in the party.
When Mr. Turner finally resigned, Mr. Chrétien won the top job over Paul Martin, the star-candidate son of a long-time Liberal cabinet minister who was himself edged out of his own leadership dreams. The rivalry between Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin, who was seen as an ideological successor to Mr. Turner, defined the party for over a decade until Mr. Martin finally prevailed in 2003. But his prize was a bitterly split party.
Vestiges of these duelling camps lingered after Mr. Martin resigned in 2006, through Stéphane Dion, a Chrétien protegé who was eventually undercut by supporters of Michael Ignatieff, who was more associated with Martinites (though these lines blurred over time).
Exhausted by 40 years of infighting, the Liberal Party went to hell and back in the 2000s, culminating in its humiliating third-place finish in the 2011 election amid questions whether it could even survive. This meltdown reset the party, mostly clearing the deck of old rivalries. The 2013 leadership race appeared to be a return to old patterns, with heir apparent Justin Trudeau, but there was no major runner-up to serve in the traditional role of sore loser. Mr. Trudeau’s miraculous majority in the 2015 election further cemented his pre-eminence. The Liberals seemed to have finally shed their decades-old bad habits.
But Mr. Trudeau is beginning to show that old Liberal tendency to drive out those who oppose his will, first with Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, and now with Bill Morneau. None were direct rivals to Mr. Trudeau’s leadership, but they challenged him on policy decisions and directions. That growing imperialism in the face of principled colleagues only anticipates further defenestrations. And the history of the party suggests that, sooner or later, someone will begin an insurrection campaign, even if the Liberals are still in power.
That’s what makes Mr. Butts’s warning somewhat ironic; there is an implication that Liberals should be lining up to unite behind, not fight, his friend and current leader, for the good of government. Still, he’s right: The greatest threat to the Liberal Party might just be members of the Liberal Party.
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