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Liberals Ignoring Their Grassroots

By Archives October 28, 2008

More than three months before the election, the Liberal party of Canada announced to great fanfare the advent of their new fund-raising mechanism, the Victory Fund. Victory Fund supporters, Liberals were told, would be invited to participate in 120 hours a year of “live online dialogue with senior members of the Liberal caucus” and other party officials. With such an innovative and long overdue reform as this, it seemed for a moment the Liberals had finally gotten it.
Not for long. In letter after letter to members, plea piled upon plea for Canadians to reach ever deeper into their pockets and support “their” Liberal party, with barely a word uttered of any “online dialogue” or reciprocal outreach of any sort.
Such is the state of the Liberal party at the beginning of the 21st century. Though it was Jean Chrétien’s government that ushered in election financing laws, which limit corporate donations, it is the Liberal party itself that has been least able to adapt to the new grassroots initiatives demanded by the reform, lagging far behind the Conservatives and even the New Democrats in raising funds.
Nor is this merely an issue of money, but one of democracy at its most salient. In the past, the Liberals had little need for grassroots support, having relied on corporate donations to fund their campaigns. Consequently, the party’s pro-business policies and top-down mentalities aptly reflected this. For a party to survive in the post-corporate financing era, however, they must open up the policy conversation and engage all Canadians from the ground up. In the upcoming race for the party’s leadership, all candidates would be wise to focus first and foremost on such desperately needed reform, and to not be deluded into presuming a change at the top will magically draw Canadians back into the Liberals’ paternal embrace.
What is at stake is not merely the party’s ability to defeat the Conservatives in the next election, but rather the very survival of the Liberal party as a major force in Canadian politics. As Liberal insider Andrew Steele rightly remarked in the Globe and Mail recently, “history is littered with the corpses of successful political parties,” not the least of which are Britain’s Liberals, replaced in the 20th century by Labour on the centre-left.
In short, if Canada’s Liberals continue to believe themselves immune to the forces of history, they may in the end find themselves confined to its dustbins. For now, the Liberal brand remains resilient in the minds of most Canadians, synonymous with some of this country’s proudest achievements – from health care to the flag to multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But even a “natural governing party” cannot coast forever on the successes of the past. They must reconnect with the grassroots in all regions of the country to find a renewed purpose for the 21st century.
Stéphane Dion tried to find such a purpose with his championing of sustainable development. While his defeat might signal the tragic swan song for such bold initiatives, history may also show that his key contribution as leader was perhaps to wed the concept of environmental stewardship to the traditional Liberal doctrines of economic development and social justice. While only the future will tell whether Dion’s contribution proves lasting, the present has already deemed it insufficient. The reason is clear: the Liberal party’s ills run far deeper than one or two key platform planks, and even deeper than the whole issue of vision. They relate in fact to the closed structure and culture of the party in an age of ever greater democratic demands and ever growing cynicism.
In his resignation speech as Liberal party leader, Dion stated that those who attribute the party’s woes to mere leadership are fooling themselves. He is right. A look at the frontrunners in the race to replace him reveals not a single one, for all their promise, who comes without significant baggage: Ignatieff is still perceived as an elitist, more attached to America than to his home and native land; Bob Rae’s turbulent economic record as premier of Ontario may irreparably harm his chances in the heartland of Canada; and so on. Regardless of who wins, we can be certain the Conservatives will not be timid in seeking to define their opponent, replicating the offensive used to such devastating effect against Dion. Liberals will need to combat such a campaign, and for this they will need money and grassroots support.
So long as influence and policy in the Liberal party continue to flow downwards however, with little space for citizen engagement, the funds will never flow upwards, and the party will remain moribund in huge swaths of the country where it is no longer competitive today.