Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Internal Factors in the Decline of the Popularity of the Liberal Party of Canada

The dramatic decline in popular support of the Liberal Party of Canada in the recent election was not anticipated by most observers.  But in the end only 18.9% of voters supported the Liberals.  Taking into account that some of those 18.9% voted to support an incumbent that had served them well in the past, it seems likely that the core support for the Liberals may have dropped as low as 15% on May 2.  

I am not convinced by the explanations that I have been reading in the commentary sections of the popular press that attribute the reduction of the Liberal Party to just 34 seats in the House of Commons to external factors.  These include: First of all, the effectiveness of the Conservative Party attack ads against Michael Ignatieff which questioned Ignatieff's commitment to Canada.  Secondly the "unexpected" rise of support for the NDP attributed to the collapse of the Bloc Quebecois that reduced numbers for the Liberals.  And finally, the painstaking work of Jason Kenney in gaining Conservative support by "the ethnic vote" which tipped the balance away from the Liberals in ridings in the Greater Toronto Area.   

The other explanation, mostly coming from embittered Liberals, has been to blame the ineffectiveness of the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff.  But the assertion in an Op-Ed in the Toronto Star published May 5 that the "Liberal defeat had one cause: Michael Ignatieff" suggesting that things would have gone much better had Bob Rae been in charge does not convince me either.  Many claim that did not listen to the advice of seasoned Liberal insiders on political strategy before and during the election.  While this accusation may be well-based, I don’t find this an adequate explanation.

In my line of work as a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Brock University, I watch a lot of CPAC including broadcasts of Question Period in the House of Commmons.  So I put in a lot of hours observing Michael Ignatieff's public statements in Parliament and at other events more of less daily since he became Leader of the Official Opposition in December 2008 ‘til he resigned earlier this month.  On the face of it, Ignatieff was the kind of leader that I should have regarded as ideally suited to the position.  He is very well-connected in London and Washington, a professor human rights at Harvard and author of a series of well-regarded books many on international affairs.  One would have expected that he would have been a charismatic, articulate and insightful person of substance.   But I agree with the characterization of Ignatieff by Tim Armstrong in that Op-Ed in the Toronto Star published May 5 that "his constant stridency in question period (when he was there) and in parliamentary debates was ineffective. On his bus forays across the country, he came across as professorial, condescending and insincere in asserting that he welcomed the opportunity to listen to — as opposed to lecture — Canadians."   I took exception to his approach to his mode of responding to hostile questions from the press in the course of the election campaign.  The image on the TV was of Ignatieff flanked by an assortment of Liberal candidates.  At any challenging question he would smirk and produce an insincere tittering laugh chorused by the assembled entourage.  It suggested am arrogant pettiness that rubbed me and I imagine other voters very wrong.

In general the Liberals didn't take being Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition seriously.  They offered little in the way of innovative political alternatives.  One felt that the Party leadership regarded program details as unimportant.  That could be sorted out later.  Main thing was that Canada should be governed by the Liberal Party elite.  Government was their entitlement.

The decline of the Liberal Party of Canada does seem to follow the same sort of pattern that led to the decline of other once-great and solid Canadian institutions.  For example only a few years ago Canada was the country of Eaton's, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada "Red Tories," and Bell Canada.  These were all supremely confident organizations with a strong sense of their own traditions and history, blithely unaware that they were becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of changing modern conditions.  

When it finallly became apparent that they were heading into difficulty they were too arrogantly set in their ways to effectively respond and up to the end were in denial that their institution once so vibrant "modern" and at the forefront of national life was about to crash, never to rise again.

The same process appears to be being repeated by the once dominant Liberal Party of Canada.

Anyway all things in life have a beginning, a middle and an end.  It is time for Canadian politics to look forward, not back.


Callum said...

Am I to infer from this post that you are of the belief that the Liberal Party of Canada, having crashed, will never rise again?

Charles Burton said...

Yes. I will be surprised if there is another Liberal Government in my life time.

Callum said...

Did you think the same thought about the Conservatives (even though they were the Progressive Conservatives and not the Reform Party) after Kim Campbell?

Charles Burton said...

Yes. I knew it was over for that "Red Tory" PC Party too. Joe Clark, Flora MacDonald et al have no party affiliation now. Hugh Segal is also more or less a political exile now although he does sit in the Senate as a "Conservative."