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The Liberals defeated themselves

Thursday, February 2, 2006

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The Liberals are searching for scapegoats for their historic defeat in last week’s federal election (historic in that it represented their second lowest share of the popular vote since 1867), but they seem to be looking everywhere but where they should be looking – at each other or, better yet, in a mirror.

Sure, Paul Martin and “the Board” (the group of advisors that has lurked in the shadows around Martin since his first run for leader) have made noises to the effect that they “take full responsibility” for the result, but taking full responsibility usually involves more than saying that you’re doing so. As
Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells notes in his blog, their statements about responsibility ring hollow because they are hollow:

“One of the hallmarks of accepting "complete responsibility" is a willingness to admit that you, yourself, committed specific errors…. [They don’t do that] because, you see, none of this is the Martin crew's actual fault. Sure, they accept complete responsibility in perfect formation. Battalions of them accepting complete responsibility. Enough responsibility to choke a horse. Completely. But
there was nothing wrong with the actual plan. Napping for a month; having no policy; making up an imaginary Conservative leader to run against, because the real Conservative leader wasn't weird or stupid enough; announcing to the world that Jack Layton was holding a bag full of Liberal votes, then having no response except whining when Layton pulled the bag away from them — all that was OK. They would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for the pesky kids in the other parties, the nation's police force, the press gallery, the electorate, and on and on and on. They accept complete responsibility, but you know, it's actually our fault.”

Wells was an early Martin skeptic (because he says, he wanted to “beat the rush”). [Incidentally, it’s well worth picking up a copy of the paper edition of this week’s Maclean’s (and I honestly can’t remember the last time that I said that) to read Wells’ epic article on the election campaign.] But, the Liberal collapse indicated that others finally figured out that there was a vast gap between Martin’s grandiose rhetoric and the reality of a Martin government.

Fundamentally, it’s very very important for Martin’s people – and Liberals in general – to make it their number one priority (ahead of all of their other number one priorities) to do some real self-evaluation. They’ve already appointed former Trudeau aide Tom Axworthy to lead a process, but I seriously doubt that they intend to do anything more than blame voters for not being smart enough to fall for the same old Liberal line again.

Oh, and they’ll blame the NDP, of course. Not that this particular strategy was any great mystery, but Axworthy already confirmed the party’s intention to do just that last week in an appearance on Politics with Don Newman. If only the NDP hadn’t pulled the plug on the Martin minority government, we wouldn’t have had this election and Stephen Harper wouldn’t have won. And, if they hadn’t insisted on being, you know, a separate political party, competing with the Liberals for votes, then the Liberals could continue to govern as if nothing was wrong.

So, is it all the NDP’s fault that Stephen Harper is about to be sworn in as Prime Minister? Not really. Yes, the NDP did vote at the end of November to bring down the government. They did so after keeping it alive six months before in a series of confidence votes. But, they voted with the government only because they were able to extract specific concessions from the Liberals. That meant that, instead
of giving a massive tax cut to corporations, the 2005 Federal Budget put new money into public transit, social housing, the environment and foreign aid. When the Liberals were on the ropes again, they offered precisely nothing in response to NDP demands for safeguards against health care privatization (something that the Liberals claimed to oppose in theory, but welcome in practice).

Contrary to what the Liberals appear to believe, the NDP does not exist to keep the Liberals in power. It exists to achieve progress in advancing progressive policies. To the extent it can do so by supporting a Liberal minority government, it makes sense for them to do so. There’s no reason why the NDP would want to keep the Liberals in power if the Liberals aren’t offering anything more than vague platitudes.

Moreover, the Liberals had already promised to call an election in March or April. Do they honestly think that they would have faired any better in a vote held a month-and-a-half later? I’d go so far as to say that they would have done even worse.

During the campaign, the most amusing headline that I read had to have been “Martin attacks Layton for not attacking Harper”. Of course, there were plenty of occasions on which the NDP did go after the Conservatives, but apparently those instances didn’t count because the party didn’t imply that Harper intended to impose martial law. What really bothered the Liberals was not how the NDP treated the Conservatives, but that Layton refused to let up on them. Sorry Liberals, there are no free passes in election campaigns. Maybe if you had realized that you might have run a better campaign.
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