April 19, 2013

Bringing Liberal civil war to an end

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — Abraham Lincoln he is not. And he did not exactly say “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

However, when Justin Trudeau assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada on Sunday, he vowed to put an end to the civil warfare that has divided the once almighty party for nearly 30 years — since his father, Pierre, left the job.

The 41-year-old Trudeau won the post with a whopping 80 percent of the more than 100,000 party supporters who voted online. This marks the largest vote ever to elect a political leader in Canada.

Trudeau inherits a party that little resembles the one his dad won back in 1968, when he was 49. (For the record, Pierre Trudeau won the Liberal crown with only 51 percent of the vote). When the elder Trudeau took power, the Liberals had ruled Canada since 1896, with a few interruptions.

When Pierre retired in 1984, the seeds were sown for what would turn out to be decades of party feuding and in-fighting. This has led to the party’s descent into what is now the lowest point ever, with a mere 34 seats in the House of Commons and relegated to third-party status behind the leftist New Democratic Party and the ruling Conservatives of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

With Trudeau gone, the party split into two camps, with one backing the one-time heir apparent of the Liberals, John Turner, and the other Jean Chretien, Trudeau’s loyal go-to minister, once described as looking like the guy who drove the getaway car.

Turner beat Chretien and went on to serve briefly as prime minister before the Liberals were turfed from office.

Nine years later, Chretien, having beaten star recruit Paul Martin for the leadership, brought the Liberals back to power and won three consecutive majority governments. All the while, supporters of Martin, mostly Turner backers, were impatient for Chretien to relinquish the party leadership.

In what amounted to an internecine putsch, the Martin forces essentially hounded Chretien out of the leadership. Martin easily won the race to replace Chretien in 2003 and the next year called an election, winning a minority government.

Martin lost power two years later to Stephen Harper, who had managed to unite the right-wing factions of the country and make big in-roads into Quebec. When Martin resigned, what followed was what might be called the Liberal slide toward the cliff.

In 2006, the party chose a compromise leader in Stephane Dion, who squeezed between candidates backed by the Chretien and Martin camps.

Dion’s one shot at leading the party in an election resulted in a serious loss of seats; his replacement, Michael Ignatieff, fared even worse in 2011, allowing Harper to win a majority government. Both Dion and Ignatieff were hampered in no small measure by the Conservatives’ skill at character ads that ridiculed the Liberal leaders.

Which leads us to the heir apparent to the Liberal legacy established under Pierre Trudeau during his 16 years at the helm.

As Trudeau the younger put it in his victory speech: “I don’t care if you thought my father was great or arrogant. It doesn’t matter to me if you were a Chretien-Liberal, a Turner-Liberal, a Martin-Liberal or any other kind of Liberal. The era of hyphenated Liberals ends right here, tonight.”

For a party that once took it for granted it would rule Canada indefinitely, with brief interregnums of Conservative rule, the arrival of Trudeau may mark a watershed moment.

Trudeau’s task is to neutralize the newfound power of the New Democratic Party and its new power base in Quebec.

He must also fend off the all-out assault of the Conservatives, who have already rolled out attack ads portraying the new leader as an unprepared dilettante.

The next election is two years away, giving the new kid a chance to prove he’s either a flash in the pan or a chip off the old man’s block as a political winner.

Either way, the Liberal house now seems less divided against itself.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at