Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Newman vs. Duffy, and a room full of zombies, on the Liberal Party of Canada

Last weekend I watched season 14 of South Park, and in a run of super hero episodes they introduced a character called Captain Hindsight. Basically, he flies in at a time of crisis and tells them what they should have done to avoid it, once it’s already obvious. For some inexplicable reason this character came to mind as I listen to Peter C. Newman speak last night.
Newman’s latest tome, which you may have seen some media coverage of, posits the death of the Liberal Party of Canada after Newman shadowed former leader Michael Ignatieff for much of his tenure. Newman took part in a discussion Tuesday evening at the Toronto Reference Library, with TVO’s Steve Paikin moderating and Liberal strategist/author John Duffy providing a Liberal counterpoint to Newman’s pronouncement of death.
Newman’s thesis actually benefits greatly from hindsight, as he began this book-writing exercise believing Ignatieff was coming home to Canada on the wings of angels and would be welcomed with open arms by grateful Canadians, a triumphant road to Sussex drive he would chronicle in his latest book. When reality turned out somewhat different, he reversed his thesis and pronounced the party’s rot deep and lengthy and obvious and its future undoubtedly dead. He apparently does nothing half-way, this guy.
If I had asked a question last night, it would have been why were you so wrong with your initial thesis, and if you got that so wrong, what makes you think you’re right now? But while the truth likely lays somewhere between those two extremes, moderate positions don’t sell books.
Iggy-bash 2011
Anyway, the discussion began focused on Ignatieff and I thought it was a rather unfair and unfortunate gang-up, with even people in the crowd snickering as both Newman and Duffy took shots at the former leader. Was Igg’s elitist Harvard out of the country background simply unrecoverable for political Igg, Newman was asked? No doubt, he replied. Of course, the fact Peter thought the exact opposite going into the project is left unsaid.
I found Newman’s rant against intellectuals and the establishment refreshing, as no one represents the anti-intellectual, anti-establishment Canadian better than Peter C. Newman. Amusing that as he ranted against current Liberal elites he expressed longing for the Liberal elites of the 60s, but of course they weren’t elitists but good guys all. Maybe his issue shouldn’t be with elitists, but with incompetent elitists.
Newman says he has “discovered” the Liberal Party actually had tons of money ($23 million, to be precise) that it could have used to fight the Ignatieff-defining attack ads. Maybe it’s stashed behind the drywalls at Metcalfe, but I’m confused. Given that the time frame he referenced is “when the election started” maybe he’s confusing some fictional slush fund with the money saved to, you know, run the election campaign. Anyway, he also wants to get rid of the LPC’s provincial and territorial associations and has no time for the commissions either, seeing them all as money drains and power fiefdoms.
Other Igg observations from Newman: all of his leadership he only talked to Liberals (if only all those people were Liberals, Peter), he never caught on to the dark side of politics (like giving Peter access to write a book?) and he absolves Ian Davey for Ignatieff’s downfall and blames Peter Donolo. I have no desire to wade into such inside baseball mud-slinging, so I’ll just say there’s blame for everyone and leave it at that.
Before we move away from Ignatieff, let me just say I found the snark and derision around the analysis of his tenure at this event, and not just from Newman, to be unfair and inaccurate. I was never a true-believer myself, not like I was with Stephane Dion who I supported in 2005. I supported Michael in 2008 because he was the best candidate on offer. But whatever his decisions and despite how it turned out, he was a good and honest man who came into politics with the best of intentions. One incident is illustrative for me. During his tenure he was being pressured by party strategists to flip-flop and stand in opposition to the Afghanistan mission, because they had polling that showed such a reversal would poll well with key segments of Canadians. He refused; he genuinely believed staying in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people may not be popular or politically expedient, but it was the morally correct thing to do. And while these strategists would later savage him for it, whether or not I agree with his decision I find it hard to faulta leader for putting conviction ahead of opportunism.
The Liberal decline and fall
Moving past Ignatieff’s tenure to the longer Liberal decline, I found Newman’s analysis interesting since he apparently didn’t see a decline until a few months ago. In fact, many of his comments and observations led me to place even less confidence in his thesis.
For example, he pined for the Liberal“glory days” of the 1960s and seemed to view the decline as a more recent phenomenon, perhaps to 2000 or so. If you look only superficially at election results, sure. But the previous results were masked by any number of factors, such as a divided-right. Duffy was right in saying a more accurate analysis would trace back to those glory days Newman fondly remembers, when Trudeau lost the West and power became more and more centralized with group of smartie-pants elitists (the ones Peter likes), allowing a deep rot to set in.
As another example, Newman also declared Liberal infighting began with Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. I think I literally laughed out loud at that one. Has he never heard of John Turner, who Chretien battled with mightily, setting the stage for the next generation as the former Turnerites became Martinites bent on revenge? I think you can actually trace it all back to Wilfrid Laurier not tipping 15 per cent at a tavern in 1888. A newish phenomenon it’s not.
I started agreeing with Duffy now more than I did during the Ignatieff analysis (when he pointed-out several times he sat that period out and was a Rae man in 2005). He said Liberals have lost touch with their core constituency by constantly swerving for flavour of the month policy and not standing for anything consistently. The LPC, said Duffy, became to be seen not as a movement but as a vehicle for electing people that you could slap any coat of paint on you wanted.
I wholeheartedly agree. People can tell when you’re faking it and don’t really have any core beliefs, and sincerity is hard to fake. The first part of our rebuilding must be figuring out who we are, what we believe in and what we want to do. Until we do that, all the fancy primaries in the world aren't going to interest Canadians.
Paikin piped-in with a quote from Trudeau-era elite Ray Hard (who was apparently in the crowd) blaming all Liberal woes on the “Earnscliffe boys” (aka Paul Martin supporters). I think this quote was demonstrative in a way that Paikin, and certainly not Heard, may not have intended. Such infighting and finger-pointing, Ray, is the real problem.
But back to baffling arguments from Newman, he told us the reason Liberals can’t raise any money is because people expect pork like ambassadorships for their donation and LPC has none to dispense anymore. Apparently no one told Peter that corporate donations were banned years ago, personal donations capped at just over $1000, and most Conservative donations are around $20. Are all those $20 donors expecting Senate appointments, Peter?
Paikin asked the room if Dalton McGuinty, the most electorally successful Liberal in the country at the moment (and a compelling counter-point to the zombie party hypothesis) could save the federal party as leader. The room was un-enthused. This shouldn’t be taken as a lack of love for Dalton. I think he’d do a great job, and while there’s no earthly reason why he’s want to run but if he did, I may well support him, the fact is no leader is going to save the Liberal Party. The LPC will be saved by its members, or it won’t be. It’s that simple. No messiahs.
The future
Newman has to sell books, but while he had some prescient observations I found his thesis to have more holes than Swiss cheese and his analysis superficial and often farcically wrong. Are the Liberals a dead party walking? Maybe. But we’re not dead yet, and any obituaries are rather premature. The next chapter won’t be written by Newman, but by the party itself, based on the decisions we as members and supporters make in these next few years. Only time will tell.

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Jae/Jennie said...

I'm a New Democrat, and I completely agree with you that this was just not a good book, for a lot of the same reasons you're mentioning. There's something beyond arrogant about getting a book contract based on the premise that Ignatieff is destined to become prime minister and turn everything around and when it doesn't turn out the way you were expecting, to instead write a book about how the Liberals had engineered their own demise by just, well...generally sucking.

One aspect that undermined the book that I think you're missing in this post, though, is the way it completely ignores the two parties that have been gaining ground on the Liberals for years and years and years. Sure, if you imagine the Tories and the NDP as mere extras in a narrative that paints the Liberals as the sole agents of absolutely everything in Canadian politics, even their own defeat, you're necessarily going to reach the conclusion that the Liberals must just completely suck, but that's a ridiculous premise to start from. It's the Outremont won by Liberals' phantom opponent phenomenon, writ large, and that's not just eyeroll-provoking to a Liberal, it's eyeroll-provoking to a New Democrat, too.

This was my first Newman book, but I certainly won't be going out of my way to read another.

Ray Blessin said...

Michael Ignatieff reduced Canadian politics to a smoldering ruin! And if Bob Rae and Tom Mulcair don't form a coalition or a merger, then this Country is well and truely fucked.

Ray Blessin

Vancouverois said...

At the risk of being pedantic - I am distressed to see you using "it's" as a possessive. :-(

The LPC will be saved by its members, or it won't be.