Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.
Michael Ignatieff’s decision to get out of Dodge is completely understandable on a personal level. Although he is by no means solely responsible for the devastating defeat, he made a significant contribution to it — just as Kim Campbell did with the Progressive Conservatives almost two decades ago.
As opposition leader, Ignatieff chose not to develop a clear program for the party on the economy, on social programs or on the environment. He preferred to wait for distaste of the Harper government to build, expecting that he would automatically be the beneficiary. This spring, he forced an election without having conveyed to Canadians any clear purpose to it other than re-electing the Liberal party, just as he had done with similarly unfortunate effect in the late summer of 2009.
While many people have correctly commented in recent days that no one anticipated the scale of the Liberal defeat, or the wave of support to the New Democratic Party, that is not the whole story. Many people did wonder in March why on earth the Liberals would force an election that they were extremely unlikely to win. It almost seemed as if Michael Ignatieff and many others in the party just wanted to get on with it — so he could have his crack at an election, and that in all likelihood, he and the party would then be released to move on.
That he redeemed himself in the campaign to a degree, with a personable, energetic and committed performance, allows him to move on with a certain amount of dignity. The scale of the defeat, meanwhile, and his failure to win his own seat, precludes him from leading the process of re-examination the party must inevitably now engage.
However, his decision to resign the leadership formally right away, now plunges the party along a six month path to choose a new leader under the rules of the Liberal party constitution (see p. 40).
Ever since Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal party has had something of a messiah complex. At each available opportunity, it seeks out a leader who will reverse the accumulated problems of the immediate past. Turner was the non-Trudeau. Chrétien was the non-Turner. Martin was the non-Chrétien. Dion was a squeaky-clean, policy-driven leader after the patronage scandal and the fuzziness of Paul Martin. Ignatieff was the articulate outsider, untouched by the party’s recent woes.
But the the truth is that in that list of leaders, only Trudeau and Chrétien proved to be unqualified successes. The Liberal party does not have the wonderful record it seems to think it does at picking winners.
Moreover, the problems facing the party are much deeper than leadership. The Liberal party no longer represents any recognizable constituency or any clear ideological or policy option, except perhaps on the issues of federalism and national unity. It has the infrastructure of a national party, but its already wobbly financial state will now be devastated by the end of public financing, the reduction of parliamentary resources reflecting its smaller caucus, and its reducing fundraising capacity as a party now far from potential power.
The one unalloyed positive for the Liberals in the election result, from a narrowly institutional perspective, is that the Conservatives won a majority. This should allow the party the time to reflect on the big issues of whether to merge with the NDP, and if not, on what basis to go forward. It could permit the party to adjust its infrastructure and ambitions to its resources and potential. It would allow a big think about what the party stands for and whom it purports to represent.
A leadership contest this year will subordinate all these questions to the narrow question of who will lead. It will mean that both policy and the future structure of the party will be debated in the hothouse of a leadership campaign. Discouraged, broke, and depleted, the party will find it difficult to attract serious candidates for the leadership.
Ignatieff said today that he opposes a new relationship with the NDP, unlike his erstwhile colleague Bob Rae seemingly. It may be that he hopes to pitch his party into a leadership contest precisely to reduce the time and space within which to test such a possibility.
But for all the reasons described above, the Liberal party should consider ways to get around the timeline to a leadership convention laid down in its constitution, as indeed it has sometimes contrived to do in the past. At the very least, progressive Canadians who have supported the party have a right to see an open airing of the merger issue, and if the Liberal party decides to fight on, to see a deep discussion of what it wants to be.
Paul Adams is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton. He is a former Parliament Hill reporter and worked in the polling industry. You can follow him on Twitter @padams29