Monday, October 05, 2009

The Achilles Heel of the Liberal Paty?

Jean Chretien's backroom leadership games hobbling party

Followers of Canadian politics as seasoned as Charles Lynch and Allan Fotheringham have long offered an interesting thesis explaining the tenure of the Liberal party as "Canada's natural governing party".

This thesis basically holds that longstanding tensions over the leadership of the Conservative party cost the party its key organizational impetus, allowing a united Liberal party to fill the void.

The machinations of Dalton Camp against John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney against Joe Clark, and practically everyone in the party against Richard Bennet is thus argued to continually undermine the party on a national basis -- and especially in terms of its organizational capabilities in Quebec.

This disunity resulted in decades-long periods in opposition for the party, with the Liberal party alternating between majority and minority governments.

Canadian history has now dawned on a new century, and the tables have essentially turned.

Writing in the Toronto Star, Angelo Persichilli suggests that the recent leadership woes of Michael Ignatieff -- particularly having to soothe bruised egos over the Martin Cauchon/Denis Coderre affair -- is actually the work of Jean Chretien, who is perpetually flexing his muscles behind the scenes.

Persichilli draws attention to what is actually a rather important fact: whatever unity the Liberal party has ever enjoyed has been a fragile one. Historically, there have been countless tensions at work within the party: young Liberals pitted against old Liberals and left-wing Liberals pitted against right-wing Liberals.

Over time, these competing dynamics settled into two camps that have quietly been at war within the party.

Persichilli's column suggests that the Liberal party hasn't been fully united since the 1980s when John Turner defeated Chretien for the Liberal leadership. The conflicts that have emerged since -- Chretien vs Martin, Dion vs Ignatieff, Ignatieff vs Rae -- have been reflections of the Turner vs Chretien divide.

This particular divide can actually be found to have deep roots in the Mitchell Sharp vs Walter Gordon rivalry of the 1960s and 70s.

Chretien's success in the 1990s may have led Liberals into the kind of false sense of security that kind precipitate this kind of inernecine tensions. After all, 11 years of uninterrupted majority government can be an extremely heady experience.

Perhaps they believe they've been in a strong enough position that they can afford to infight over leadership.

But Chretien also enjoyed the luxury of facing off against right-of-centre opposition that was divided and left-of-centre opposition that was vulnerable. The Liberal party no longer enjoys this position of comparative strength. The Conservative party is very much a united force (despite what those who choose to pimp reported tensions between Murloney and Stephen Harper would desire) and the NDP enjoys greater confidence and self-assurance than it has since Tommy Douglas retired.

It's in the face of these political conditions that the Liberal party needs to put its leadership question to bed for good.

But therein lies the problem. Michael Ignatieff came to the party leadership not as the result of a genuinely competitive leadership contest, but rather after his principal opponents, Dominic LeBlanc and Bob Rae, were pressured to jump behind Ignatieff.

It should be no great surprise that some Liberals may be covertly organizing their next leadership campaign.

That Jean Chretien would quietly work to undermine the party leadership, however, is and should be viewed as entirely inexcusable.


  1. I suspect JC has given Bob Rae his support already. MI was Paul Martin's recruit and JC does not forgive being pushed out.

  2. Chretien is hardly a hard-line left-winger. One has to remember that Chretien sided with Mitchell Sharp, the neo-liberal over Walter Gordon, the economic nationalist.

    In fact, Chretien is a pragmatist. If he's actually throwing overt or covert support behind a leadership candidate, it will most likely be a Quebecker, and most likely be someone with few ideological quandries.


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