Liberals to Perform Emergency Surgery?

I have argued that the best thing that can happen to the Liberals, right now, is for them to go down to defeat. What’s killing this party isn’t the Gomery commission — that’s just a symptom — it’s time.

Canadians need only look at the Liberal performance during its last two years to see that the Liberals are getting tired. The gun registry has been allowed to overrun by two billion. Liberal commitments to the New Deal on Cities has been weak, at best, and they have shown a disturbing tendency to say that they are going to spend lots and lots of money — five years down the road when possibly people will have forgotten the promise. Check out the Liberal “commitments” to national defence spending and funding for the TTC if you don’t believe me.

Paul Martin’s government echoes that of John Turner in 1984 and of Robert Bourassa in 1976. The Liberals have been too long in power. Worse still, they’ve spent too long facing an opposition that couldn’t get its act together. If they win the next election, it won’t be on their own merits, it will be because the voters thought the alternatives were worse. They’ve become lazy and arrogant, and Canadians just don’t deserve that bad a government.

So, it’s time: the Liberals need to be sent to the opposition benches for their own sake as much as for Canada’s. They need to be taught humility. They need to dump Paul Martin. They need to sort out their internal differences and elect a charismatic and savvy new leader in a cathartic leadership convention echoing the one they had in 1968 (when Trudeau became Prime Minister). They need to soap out the stain of corruption and reassess their policies. In short, they need to get hungry again.

I don’t think this is likely to happen while the Liberals are on minority-government life support, but there may well be Liberals out there who understand the need for significant change, but who want to look at ways of performing that change without relinquishing the government side of the house. How can they do that?

Parliament recesses for the summer months at the end of June. If an election isn’t forced by then, the Liberals will have a summer in which to dump Martin, organize a leadership convention and bring in somebody new — possibly somebody from outside the fold in order to avoid any taint from AdScam.

Such a switch, from Mike Harcourt to Glen Clark, saved the BC NDP government for another term.

Hearing David Kilgour give his reasons for quitting the party — citing less his opposition to the same-sex marriage bill and citing more Paul Martin’s leadership — I wonder if there is a movement afoot in the back rooms to bring in Michael Ignatieff. David Kilgour referred to him specifically as a choice he’d be willing to unite behind. My own predicted front-runner for the Liberal leadership would be Stephane Dion, but that’s only after a Liberal defeat and at least two years on the opposition benches. Dion doesn’t appear to be connected with AdScam, but it’s likely Paul Martin wasn’t either, but he, like the rest of his cabinet, is still tainted by its stench. Dion sits on that cabinet.

Ignatieff would have no such taint. With no connection to the Chretien and Martin governments, he’d be a blast of fresh air. Would that be enough to overcome the fact that he has no political experience whatsoever, and only a small public profile among Canadians? Only time would tell. He seems capable enough to take the publicity his run would give him and communicate effectively with Canadians. It would be interesting to watch.

But Martin isn’t facing a leadership review. The only way he can be outsted from the Prime Minister’s Office is if he accepts the inevitable — that the Liberals are never going to win a majority under his watch — and resigns, taking the responsibility for AdScam on his shoulders. If such a plan exists to try and save the party this way, he’d have to be in on it.

And then there is the small matter that this parliament might not make it to the summer recess. There are any number of votes which could collapse this government, and there are plenty of opportunities for the opposition parties to put forward motions of non-confidence. It would be suicide to hold a leadership convention at the same time as an election campaign (ask former Manitoba premier Howard Pawley), and a recess is not much more of a guarantee of stability, either.

Paul Martin could prorogue parliament until September, which would fend off non-confidence motions until then, but that would be a serious mistake. It would hand the opposition the sense that this government was desperately clinging to power.

So, assuming that the government can survive the next eight weeks, I’ll be paying attention to the moves in the Prime Minister’s Office, to see if our summer gets a lot more interesting…

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