Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Time for Liberals to Forget Jean Chrétien

In an interesting, although not unproblematic commentary, former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff lays out a rudimentary vision of a reinvigorated party. The key to success is to reach out to younger generations of Canadians in ways it and the other major parties haven't. This, of course, represents a daunting challenge in an age where young people are often disengaged with party and electoral politics, favouring instead participation in broader social movements if indeed they choose to participate at all. It's an idea with potential, but remains far from fleshed out.

Ignatieff's piece can also be read is a subtle broadside against the entrenched party establishment, both within the Parliamentary and pure party wings of the Liberals. Of course, it doesn't name names or directly call out individuals within that leadership. It should.

Before clearing the dregs in the backrooms, Liberals should begin by silencing their sole surviving political superstar: Jean Chrétien. This may seem antithetical to a party struggle for relevance and visibility. Chrétien is a known quantity, a household name (still) to most Canadians. He is admired for his style and, most of all, his ability to win. That is, of course, part of the problem. The confluence of circumstances that propelled Chrétien's Liberals party to power are no longer available. 

Victory in 1993 was achieved through a combination of luck and happenstance, coming at the beginning of a realignment in the party system which fractured and almost decimated the political right. On the left fringe, the NDP was in decline, its surge following the collapse of the Liberals themselves in 1984 having all but receded. The alliance between the Western Canada and Quebec, carefully brokered by Brian Mulroney, gave way under its own weight. New parties - Reform in the west, the Bloc in Quebec - challenge the dominance of an almost settle three-party system, further splintering the electorate and exasperating regional cleavages. Chrétien again benefited from the schism on the right, winning handily again in 1997 and then, in 2000, taking advantage of a recently installed and inept leader of the renewed Reform party, the Canadian Alliance. This advantage ended in 2003, with the foundation of a united right - following the Alliance's swallowing whole of the rump Progressive Conservatives. 

The kind of scenario which led Chrétien to triumph with three consecutive majority governments has been permanently foreclosed. Liberals would be wise to wake to this fact and realize that, in hindsight, Chrétien's leadership was important, but heavily mediated by other factors. Their focus, more often than not, is on Chrétien's winning ways, but devoid of context. They laud him for his victories, yet ignore the environmental factors which enabled them

Beyond this, however, Chrétien's legacy is (sadly) largely tarnished outside Liberal circles, yet the insular nature of the party often ignores this. For many Canadians, the former Prime Minister's name is synonymous with graft, mismanagement and, above all, the Sponsorship Scandal. This is easily leveraged by any political opponent that wishes to remind voters of the arrogance and entitlement of that period.

On a practical, purely Parliamentary level, Chrétien's leadership style is something that should be avoided, particularly as Liberals decry the heavy-handed tactics of the Conservative government. The image of the 'Friendly Dictator' is not what a reinvigorated party - a party with a strong grass roots and empowered membership - should look to. Moreover, it blunts criticism of the current regime to elevate a pattern of leadership associated with the marginalization of MPs, the misuse of omnibus bills and the curtailing of debate.

There is much in the Chrétien legacy - both is long career as a cabinet minister and as Prime Minister - to celebrate. As a minister of justice he was instrumental in negotiations which led to constitutional patriation. As  Prime Minister he helped steer the country through a divisive sovereignty referendum and gave Canadians the Clarity Act. Yet political success in the present - or future - cannot be based on the glories or legacy of the past. At some point Liberals much break free and forge ahead, noting past accomplishments without dwelling on them. When digging up the past - even for a positive legacy - one tends to get dirty.

Part of the problem is a conflation of past accomplishments with a position of leadership, that simply by virtue of being an 'elder statesman' that one's opinion should be given and, more importantly, heeded. Liberals should leave the hero worship to the New Democrats, a party so fixated on its mythic past - and fictitious accomplishments - that it hires actors to play its departed leaders for its own amusement. It was the party's sole existing elder statesman, Ed Broadbent, who threatened to sow dissension in the ranks during the leadership debate.

Liberals require a clean slate, especially as they prepare to select a new leader. Chrétien's pontifications are unhelpful in this respect. His interventions on Justin Trudeau merely feed a media machine content on turning its own rampant speculations into news. His overtures to the NDP concerning a merger - or, in reality, a hostile takeover and liquidation of the Grits - send altogether the wrong signal to Canadians. Liberals should be selling the party on its own merits - once, of course, they figure out what those merits actually are - not seeking an alliance for short-term political gain, especially if it means extinction. Moving forward Liberals should be thankful for the past service of all their leaders, from Turner to Ignatieff, but be wise enough to keep separate the old guard's opinions from official party policy. The party cannot be turned over to its members - and thus be a healthy democracy - with the past bearing down, sending the wrongs signals and sowing confusion. In no uncertain terms the party should acknowledge his his service but treat him no differently than any other rank and file party member. Should he - or the entrenched backroom - continue to speak on behalf of the party (and whether he claims to or not, the media reports it as if he does) the party should thank Chrétien, but firmly tell him "NON, Merci!"

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