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Liberal post-mortem begins in wake of record defeat

"The challenge for the Liberal Party is to rebuild its core group of activists, the kinds of people who toil in obscurity in un-glamorous roles but who are the backbone of every political party," says Akaash Maharaj.


Kathleen Harris
03 May 2011


OTTAWA - The once-mighty Liberal Party has been reduced to a rump.

A dismal electoral showing — bleeding to the left and the right to finish with a record-low number of seats — left many long-time supporters soul-searching and some openly weeping. Leader Michael Ignatieff accepted “historic responsibility for historic defeat” and instructed the party to look in the mirror to determine what went wrong and how to move forward.

“There was a longing for change, a yearning for change. We can be proud of the role we played in triggering that longing and desire for change, unfortunately we could not be the beneficiaries of that longing for change,” he said during a concession speech in Toronto.

Making the already devastating blow worse, Ignatieff lost his own seat in Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

Liberals across the country have already begun a post-mortem on what went wrong – and when. Akaash Maharaj, a senior resident at the University of Toronto’s Massey College and past Liberal national policy chair, said it’s tough to pinpoint the problems. With Canadians despairing over a “crisis” in democratic institutions, the party should have been fighting an easy target.

“Why, at a time when Canadians feel there is such a serious problem in the political system, have Canadians not entrusted the Liberal party to be the solution?” he asked. “The Liberal Party will be engaged in a great deal of soul-searching for the next few months, asking the question, if the Liberal Party can not defeat a Conservative government that in the minds of Canadians has crippled democracy and mismanaged public finances, I think it’s reasonable to ask itself, in its current form, who could it defeat?”

The Liberal Party brand took a beating with the sponsorship scandal. But Maharaj believes the party has also lost touch with its grassroots by adopting a presidential-style, leader-centric approach that fails to engage masses of liberal Canadians. For too long, members have been living under an “illusion” that a messiah will arrive to lead the party out of the wilderness.

“I think the greater issue is that the party has been allowed, under a succession of leaders, to atrophy as a national political movement and increasingly become a campaigning vehicle for the leader of the day. And that is not a sustainable model,” he said. “I think Liberals have to confront the fact that the leader has not been the problem, nor is he the solution. It requires a wholesale rejuvenation of the Liberal Party as a national institution.”.

Maharaj said Ignatieff was damaged early and badly by Conservative attack ads that cast him as a “visiting professor.” The Liberals didn’t fight back fast enough.

“In politics, as in life, you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” he said. “No political leader wants to find himself in a position where he is being defined by his enemies instead of himself.”

The Conservatives managed to take what should have been a great strength – an internationally respected intellectual – and turned it into a slur. In the end, the Liberal campaign compounded its mistake by responding late to the criticisms by repackaging Ignatieff.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Jim Peterson said while there will be varying opinions on what could have been done differently, there is general agreement that Ignatieff delivered a strong performance and solid platform. Some of the party’s problems that must be addressed are more systemic, such as building strong fundraising and riding association networks.

“I don’t think we need radical reform. I don’t think we need bloodletting,” he said.

One veteran Liberal said insiders began to get nervous after the debates, when NDP Leader Jack Layton scored powerful punches. After a strong start to the campaign, it was becoming clear Ignatieff was not connecting outside core supporters.

“That basically solidified in people’s minds that the Liberals were over-confident, cocky, feeling they had some sort of right to govern,” he said. “It worked. People already had this view created by the Conservatives of the Liberals being elitist, and Layton was able, with his lines, to define that in people’s minds.”

The unexpected rise of the NDP presented a strategic conundrum, as the Liberal game plan has been to win over NDP support to stop the Conservatives.

“When the NDP gets so strong that they are tied or ahead of you, that strategy begins to backfire on you,” he said.

Post-election analysis will no doubt point to other problems– including the party’s failure to resonate outside big cities. Yet despite the defeat, Liberals do not appear to be in a rush to embrace a “unite-the-left” movement – an endeavor some believe would risk disenfranchising even further those in the centre-right of the party.

Maharaj said considering that kind of “seismic shift” in Canadian politics due to one election result would be a “gross over-reaction.” Instead, the Liberals must work to rebuild and strengthen their support – and learn from strategic mistakes.

“I suspect the NDP has fared well in this campaign because with the Conservatives and the Liberals attacking one another, the NDP has been able to come up the middle. By the time those two parties trained their guns on the NDP, the campaign was virtually over.

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