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The lion still roars

Posted by padams under All, Political Strategy

Paul Adams

Paul Adams will be blogging the federal Liberal convention in Vancouver this week.

No Liberal leader since John Turner has been as interested in the mechanics of the Liberal Party as Michael Ignatieff. Both leaders were confronted with the challenge of rebuilding a badly beaten party, and followed predecessors who cared little and did less about invigorating the party.

As it happens, some of what Ignatieff is trying to do this weekend is undo, to a degree, the decentralized, highly federated structure Turner put in place. However appropriate to the 1980s, the strong provincial and territorial arms of the party have been chewing through the party’s precious resources, impeded the assembly of national lists of members and supporters, and complicated both fund-raising and the financial reporting required by law (all issues clearly, if gently, alluded to in the party’s recent report on the new 308 riding strategy).

Still, today when the media were invited in to listen to speeches from John Turner and Michael Ignatieff to the party’s Council of Presidents, it did not promise to be a scintillating event.

Turner, who turns 80 in a few weeks, does not look entirely well, and I, for one, expected anodyne remarks, followed by applause, and much the same from Ignatieff.

Instead, Turner apparently had been thinking about a few things, and decided to get them off his mind in a brief but pungent speech.

“This party has to be re-built again from the bottom up,” he began — an unremarkable enough sentiment, but then he got into specifics.

The leader shouldn’t go around appointing candidates, he said. The party-members in the riding should have the exclusive right to do that.

Now, remember that every leader since Turner has used the prerogative to appoint candidates, either to enlist “stars”, or, more recently, to increase representation by women.

That wasn’t all. Turner had a few things to say about why young people don’t get into politics these days, namely:

  • they don’t want to make the financial sacrifices
  • they are concerned (legitimately, he noted) about the effect on their families
  • the diminishing role of the MPS
  • and media intrusion into politicians’ lives.
(Not sure if he was thinking of the “bum-patting” for which he was excoriated in his own time as leader — which was rather more a case of an embarrassing personal habit indulged in more than once on the public stage, of all places.)
Michael Ignatieff’s response was elegant, but unyielding on at least one point.
“I will not agree with every single syllable that came out of his mouth,” he told the Liberal worthies. But Ignatieff allowed how Turner’s vision of rebuilding the party from the grassroots was also his.
Afterwords, in a scrum with the media, Ignatieff said at first that he would let us figure out what it was in Turner’s remarks he disagreed with; but then, apparently, he thought better of it.
He would not relinquish the right to appoint candidates, he said, but he did intend to use it sparingly.
Paul Adams, a former political correspondent for the CBC and Globe and Mail, is a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty and executive director of EKOS Research Associates. He is researching a book on the Liberal Party.