The late philosopher Richard Rorty argued that national pride is as necessary to countries as self-esteem is to individuals, and political parties seem to think they need huge dollops of it, too. At any rate, the Liberal Party convention that ended Saturday was one big collective self-esteem seminar.
The partisan delegates didn’t just want to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau smack down Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre – they craved it. A young Liberal said, straight-faced, that his party was too defensive and didn’t do enough partisan slanging. A veteran said he wanted Mr. Trudeau to look in the camera and call Mr. Poilievre a clown. The Prime Minister came pretty close in his Thursday night speech.
On Friday, Jean Chrétien, who was prime minister when some of those young Liberals were toddlers, acted as a walking, talking, slightly apocryphal Liberal history book, running over a list of the party’s accomplishments – medicare, Canada Pension Plan, Charter of Rights, same-sex marriage and so on. The message through and through was that the Liberal Party built this country – that it’s not broken, despite what Mr. Poilievre says, but rather, the “envy of the world.”
There was more in this vein, or variations of it.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to the Ottawa convention centre to validate Liberal policies, notably $10-a-day daycare, but also to warn that the rollback of abortion rights and rise of populism south of the border could happen here.
“There are forces in your own country that are trying to figure out whether they can tinker with the clock and maybe turn it back a little,” she said. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, her on-stage host, nodded vigorously and implored Liberals to heed the warning.
All of it was effectively an exercise in Liberals asserting their self-worth. Pride, tradition, accomplishment and the assertion that another party – Mr. Poilievre’s Conservatives – would represent the decline of Canadian civilization. The Liberals were telling themselves they are still the “natural governing party.”
That’s what political parties do at conventions, but at this juncture, it’s worth noting the mood.
The Liberals trail in the polls now pretty consistently. They won 32.6 per cent of the vote in the last election. Mr. Trudeau has been in power for seven-and-a-half years, and at that stage, a prime minister’s popularity doesn’t usually rise. Many of the convention-goers could see there are forces stacking up against them.
But there was no sense of distress. Delegates seemed generally in a good mood. The political trouble Mr. Trudeau’s government is coping with nearly every day filters through to party members differently. No one expressed a sense of crisis about the litany of headlines about Chinese-government interference in Canada’s domestic politics. Liberals were more worried that their gun-control bill has been a political debacle.
There was no tension. Mr. Chretien’s Liberal history lesson could have recounted that eight years into his premiership, every party confab was a scene of aggressive leadership campaigning by those who wanted his job. But there’s no sense at this convention that the rank-and-file are looking past Mr. Trudeau, and the aspirants were just making themselves seen.
Former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney was milling around; Innovation Minister François Philippe Champagne ran around shaking people’s hands nearly off; Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was repeatedly surrounded by small groups of picture takers. But the real leadership politicking was being done by candidates for the Ontario provincial Liberals.
There was a tiny mini-ripple from the debate over a Quebec policy resolution calling for the government to set out a detailed path to balanced budgets, but it was defeated as an irksome proposal to do something the Liberals don’t want to do. The debates over policy resolutions were sparsely attended. For any political doubts about re-election there seemed to be, for many Liberals, the comforting belief that Mr. Poilievre is too negative and too extreme for Canadian voters.
This was about waving the Liberal banner. That’s what conventions are supposed to do, of course: buck up the collective self-esteem, especially at a time when the prognosis is cloudy.
But the Liberal Party isn’t known for its lack of self-confidence. Gerald Butts, Mr. Trudeau’s former principal secretary, has said arrogance is the Liberal kryptonite. At this juncture, the Liberals could probably benefit from spending time looking at their weaknesses. But no one can doubt that what they really wanted was a shot of self-esteem.