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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Liberal problems run deeper than who will be the next leader Add to ...

Was it just eight years ago, in 2004, that Liberal prime minister Paul Martin seemed poised to win 200 seats? Another Liberal extended reign, one that began with prime minister Jean Chrétien's 1993 victory, beckoned under his rival and successor.

Today, the Liberal question is not victory, but survival – a survival made more questionable now that interim leader Bob Rae has decided he does not want the job permanently.

Mr. Rae would have been, by far, his party's most effective leader.

Sure, he had a rough time as premier of Ontario, and certainly the Conservative attack machine would have hounded him with those memories.

But most Canadians do not live in Ontario, and even those who do would have retained only the fuzziest of memories of those tumultuous years two decades ago.

Mr. Rae was the most experienced, talented and verbally gifted of the entire Liberal field of potential candidates. And now he is going, once the party chooses among a very thin field of possible contenders.

There is, in the aftermath of Mr. Rae's decision, much buzz about Justin Trudeau. Buzz, however, obscures some stubborn facts.

That Mr. Trudeau has a famous name, is handsome and bilingual, and has worked hard to secure his constituency are all assets in his favour. He has also answered many constituencies' calls for a speaker, which will be remembered where he went.

But, please, Mr. Trudeau is inexperienced, associated with no policy ideas and an unproven debater. Were his name Smith or Pelletier, very few Liberals would have heard of him.

The more profound question, however, is not about the potential candidates about whom we shall all hear much in due course, but about the party. Canada is now a more ideological place than when the putative Martin dynasty collapsed.

Certainly the Harper Conservatives are far more ideological than the Progressive Conservatives whom they supplanted. In the face of this ideology, buttressed by an unshakeable, motivated and often angry core of about a third of the electorate, many of those who do not share, indeed fear, this ideology have shifted to the New Democrats as a sturdier vehicle with which to confront the Conservative bulldozer.

The Liberals were a protean party in a largely middle-class country, devoid of ideological moorings, capable of shifting according to events and circumstances, a party of internal compromise, the sturdiest bridge for many decades between French- and English-speaking communities and renowned for immigrant absorption into the party and Canada and a broad internationalist agenda in foreign policy.

From Wilfrid Laurier to Mr. Martin, the Liberals were anchored in Quebec. Now, they are a scattered remnant throughout the province, moribund in many regions, scarcely alive in others, vital in only a few. Since the demise of the Meech Lake accord, the largest number of francophone Quebeckers have withdrawn from governing Canada and preferred to be in opposition, first with the Bloc Québécois, now with the NDP. As they withdrew from governing Canada, by definition, they withdrew from the Liberals who were, after all, once the natural governing party of the country.

We live at a time of growing economic inequalities, which separate classes and groups. We live at a time of growing regional disparities, as Alberta and Saskatchewan leave the rest of the country behind. We live at a time of widespread economic uncertainty, with high debt levels, stagnant per capita incomes for the middle class, the fear of unemployment and no shelter from international economic storms.

To these anxieties the Conservatives offer their alternatives; to these divisions and inequalities, they largely turn their backs. In reply, more and more Canadians are turning to the NDP with its alternatives, which at least have the virtue of being known: more state activity paid for by higher corporate taxes, the foil for the Conservatives who prefer a smaller state and lower taxes.

The battle lines, ideologically and regionally, are drawn, and the Liberals are a bit on both sides of the line and definitely off to the side of the real action. It will take sharper analyses of the forces at work in the country and the world, and compelling ideas that flow from those analyses, to make the Liberals relevant.

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