The Liberals: the strange death of the political centre.

Author:Whitaker, Reg

With time, the federal election of 2011 may be seen as a crucial realignment election, like 1935 or 1993. In realignment elections, the party system undergoes a fundamental structural change. In 1935, two new parties appeared, the social democratic predecessor of the NDP and a right-wing Alberta-based populist predecessor of the Reform Party that in 1993 wrecked and then eventually swallowed the old Progressive Conservatives. 1993 also saw the rise of the Bloc Quebecois as a sovereigntist presence in the federal Parliament.

2011 saw the destruction of the BQ by an NDP tsunami in Quebec. That, combined with the collapse of the Liberal Party across Canada, gave the NDP Official Opposition status and the Harper Conservatives their longed-for majority. The Liberal collapse sent a shock wave through the Canadian political system. With deep roots going back to pre-Confederation Canada, the Liberals are the centrist brokerage party that dominated the country from the 1890s through the 1990s and have marked every aspect of Canadian life, from the economy to the constitution to the cultural symbols of the nation. They are the party of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, icons of Canadian statesmanship.

George Dangerfield, author of The Strange Death of Liberal England, detailed the collapse of British Liberalism on the eve of the First World War. A century later, it is time to analyze the "strange death of Liberal Canada." To understand this "strange death," it is best to focus not on the fate of a political party, but on the deeper meaning of the party's passage from domination to collapse. Parties are important not in themselves, but for what their success, and failure, can tell us about the politics of the country. Something very important has happened to our politics: the disintegration of the political centre. One need not have any loyalty or emotional attachment to the Liberal Party to conclude that this is not necessarily good news.

We might start with the dimensions of the Liberal collapse. Between 1896 and 2004, there were 30 federal general elections: the Liberals won 21, the Conservatives nine. During these years Liberal governments were in office 72 per cent of the time, the Tories only 28 per cent. This was the long Liberal century. The Liberals were the "Government Party," the most successful political party in the Western world throughout the 20th century.

That was then. After Jean Chretien's third straight majority in 2000, the Liberals under Paul Martin limped to a minority in 2004 while polling 269,811 fewer votes--a loss of 5.1 per cent of their 2000 support. In 2006, Martin's party lost government, and polled 502,805 fewer votes--a loss of 10.1 per cent. In 2008, under Stephane Dion, the Liberal losses accelerated: 846,230 fewer Liberal votes than two years earlier, a loss of 18.9 per cent. And finally, in 2011 under Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals fell to third place, in the process polling 850,010 fewer votes, a loss of 23.4 per cent. In four elections in 11 years, the Liberals have lost a staggering total of 2,468,856 votes, close to half those who voted Liberal in 2000. And of these losses, 1,696,240 were recorded in the last two elections, in 2008 and 2011.

This is a profile of a party that is heading downhill, and picking up speed as it goes. It is perhaps conceivable that the Liberals will bounce back to edge ahead of the NDP as official, if distant, opposition to the Conservatives. More likely, they have now become a marginal third party that will linger as a shrunken shadow of its former glory. Perhaps we are actually witnessing the death throes of Canadian Liberalism, just as we witnessed the death throes of the old Progressive Conservative Party from 1993 to 2003. Whatever happens, the Liberals will never again be the Government Party of old. It is not their vertiginous loss of popularity that has led to the demise of the Government Party model, but rather the demise of the model itself that has led to the copious Liberal bleeding.

The first pillar: Quebec

Looking back over the years of Liberal domination, three pillars of a successful Government Party stand out. The first and most obvious is Liberal domination of Quebec, which dates back to the late 19th century and Canada's first national unity crisis, the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885 by Sir John A. Macdonald. Formerly dominant in Quebec, the Bleus never really recovered. Wilfrid Laurier, the first French Canadian leader of a national party, brought the Liberals to power in 1896 on a Quebec wave.

Laurier finally lost his grip on national office in 1911, when a combination of anti-free trade Tories under Sir Robert Borden and breakaway Quebec nationalists under Henri Bourassa fatally undercut his support. But the Conservatives proved incapable of reabsorbing Quebec into their fold. In the conscription crisis of 1917, a Union government of Conservatives and pro-conscription English Canadian Liberals succeeded in forcing conscription down unwilling Quebec throats - and also succeeded in crushing Tory electoral chances in Quebec for the next 40 years.


Liberal hegemony in Quebec formed the institutional embodiment of the elite accommodation mechanism that glued the binational state together. The Liberals capitalized on the incapacity of their Conservative opponents to sustain a Quebec base. Twice in the 20th century, the Conservatives made major breakthroughs into the francophone Quebec electorate, thereby yielding national majorities. Twice they fumbled their opportunities. In 1958 John Diefenbaker won 50 of 75 Quebec seats. Four years later, in the face of Tory incomprehension of the emerging Quiet Revolution, the foothold was lost. In 1984, under Quebecer Brian Mulroney, the PCs swept Quebec, a feat repeated in 1988. Yet by 1993, the party's Quebec wing was virtually destroyed by massive defections to the new BQ led by Mulroney's former Quebec lieutenant, Lucien Bouchard.

In contrast, the Liberals from Laurier to Trudeau more or less competently managed the delicate negotiation of elite accommodation between English Canada and Quebec. Laurier effectively finessed the contentious Manitoba schools question that threatened English-French relations in the 1890s. During the Second World War, Mackenzie King's studied ambiguity ("Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription") manoeuvred Canada past the jagged reefs of intercommunity crisis that had shipwrecked Borden in the previous war. Pierre Trudeau faced down the challenge of Quebec secession in the 1980 sovereignty-association referendum with an ambiguous promise of "renewed federalism"; 15 years later, Jean Chretien faced down a more acute challenge in the second referendum, and left office in 2003 with the sovereigntist threat considerably diminished.

The positive Liberal record on the national unity file in part may represent simply good luck and good timing, but sustained success over the decades cannot be entirely attributed to chance. Facing the one challenge that has always held the potential to tear apart our federalist state, the Liberals knew how to manage Quebec nationalism. This was a particular Liberal skill in governance.

To understand the Liberal knack for managing an always restive Quebec, one must understand what Liberals meant by "national unity." To the indignation of Quebec nationalists and sovereigntists, and to the bafflement and frustration of critics in English Canada on both right and left, the Liberal sense of national unity deliberately lacked content. It contained no vision of the Good, of the ideal Canada to be counterposed to the vision of a sovereign Quebec. Normally, it meant "more of the same" or, at most, a rejigging here and there of existing arrangements with the end goal of preserving the system intact. But this was the point: any attempt to articulate a "Canadian" countervision would open up a hornet's nest of competing and sometimes mutually exclusive notions of what kind of Canada and Quebec was desirable. Thus the fiascos of Meech Lake and Charlottetown, when Mulroney unwisely "rolled the dice." His Liberal successor Chretien stoutly resisted any so-called "Plan C" for English Canada in the wake of the 1995 near-miss referendum, and he was prudent to do so.

The closest any Liberal government came to erecting a countervision to Quebec sovereignty was Trudeau's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, his "people's package" in the patriation debate. But even though the Charter raised controversies over the relative place of First Nations, women, gays and lesbians, etc., in the end...

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