Liberals Seduce Voters

THERE'S A DURABLE joke in Canadian politics about how LIBERALS are defined by their strong convictions - and if you don't happen to share them, they've got others. The polite word for that is adaptability.

Liberals Seduce Voters

THERE'S A DURABLE joke in Canadian politics about how LIBERALS are defined by their strong convictions - and if you don't happen to share them, they've got others. The polite word for that is adaptability. Conservatives tend to use other terms, starting with unprincipled, followed by reptilian analogies, and ending with angry spluttering noises. Beneath a Tory's denunciations, though, there's unmistakable professional admiration. Those Grits sure know what it takes to win.

Yet the exact ingredients in that winning formula remain something of a mystery. Stephen Clarkson, a University of Toronto politics professor and co-author, with Christina McCall, of an award-winning two-volume biography of Pierre Trudeau, sets out to show what's in the mix in his new book, The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics. Clarkson dissects the nine most recent federal campaigns - six of which the Liberals won - and pokes through them for clues about how today's version of the party stacks up against its storied predecessors.

Seen Clarkson's way, Paul MARTIN's recent sabre-rattling on softwood looks less like the tactic of a moment, and more a classic Liberal bid to strike a chord with voters who like a touch of anti-Americanism with their Canadian nationalism. Policies being crafted with a likely spring 2006 election in mind - from a plan to try to attract 100,000 more immigrants per year, to a new education thrust - look like the latest variations in the long line of left-Liberal platforms.

The old maxim that the party runs from the left and governs from the right is at the core of Clarkson's argument. Less familiar is his contention that Canadians are not really being duped by the Liberal bait and switch routine - they're playing along with it. Clarkson argues that voters willingly suspend disbelief, electing a party they know, deep down, won't behave in power quite as it vowed to on the hustings. "When a political party promises a modified welfare state but actually delivers a neo-conservative set of policies, the most obvious observation to make is that it deceived the public," he writes of the Liberals under Jean CHRÉTIEN and Martin. "A more nuanced explanation would include the public in this hypothesis, making the voters willing accomplices in their self-deception."

Just what is it about the Liberal package that many Canadians are so eager to swallow? Above all, a social message that makes them feel good about their country. Clarkson positions Martin's spring 2004 campaign squarely in this tradition. He may have once looked like a pro-business finance minister, and then, soon after deposing Chrétien, like a pro-Washington Prime Minister. But all that changed when he called his first election. "No sooner was the writ issued," Clarkson writes, "than Paul Martin shifted to the nationalist left." He set the tone with a Day 2 commitment to save public health care by shortening wait times. That message gained traction later, when Alberta's Ralph Klein said he would unveil health reforms after the federal vote, which Liberals spun as evidence of a hidden agenda on health care by the federal Tories.

Clarkson seems dumbfounded that voters hungry to hear a social-Liberal campaign pitch will settle for a business-Liberal government. Liberal strategists simply say that Canadians want both. "The centre has shifted a tad to the right on economic matters. It's now an article of faith that we not go back into deficit, that inflation remain low," says Steven MacKinnon, the party's national director. But at the same time, he adds, "Canadians' values have hardened around maintaining our health care system, the environment, investment in quality of life." From that dual view of voters, sketching the next platform isn't hard: a heartwarming social package, perhaps built around education and daycare, set against a business-friendly economic backdrop, likely blending motherhood fiscal probity and Pacific Rim trade promotion.

A more volatile compound in the Liberal chemistry set is its position on U.S. relations. Here again, Clarkson indicts voters for half-knowingly gobbling up Liberal half-truths. He points to Martin's shift on U.S. national missile defence. After looking like he was leaning strongly toward participation, Martin pulled back under pressure from within his party - but not before he had agreed to Washington's proposal to reform NORAD, allowing the shared Canada-U.S. defence command to run the program to shoot down rogue missiles. "We pat ourselves on the back and say we're not taking part in it, but in fact we are," Clarkson says. "I think we're complicit in the Liberal party's hypocrisy."

If Clarkson is right that Canadians favour an almost contradictory combination of acquiescence and independence when it comes to the U.S., then Martin's recent hints that he might use oil exports as a weapon to get Washington to accept NAFTA rulings on softwood appear politically savvy. Curtailing energy exports, as most Canadians surely realize, would be a highly unlikely hardball tactic. But talking that way appeals to nationalist instincts.

If Liberals can count on voters to accept some dubious positions, Clarkson suggests the media often helps soften up the public. He credits - or accuses - journalists in the remarkable 11th-hour rebound of Martin's unsteady 2004 campaign. The Liberal bid to portray Harper's Conservatives as dangerous extremists only started to work, he argues, after the press bought into it. "Since the Liberals' fear campaign had not initially triumphed," he writes, "it appeared that the media's autonomous role in constructing the election as a decision about extreme social conservatism ultimately delivered the Liberal minority."

The view that a compliant media is part of the Liberal success formula is shared by many Conservatives and New Democrats. Not surprisingly, Martin strategists don't see it Clarkson's way. They attribute their turnaround in the campaign largely to hard-hitting advertising, such as their TV ad aimed at Ontario voters that linked Harper to negative images of Brian Mulroney and former premier Mike Harris. Rather than absorbing any lesson about the value of sympathetic media, Martin's team gained faith in how precision-timed attack ads can sway voters.

The fact that Ontario mattered so overwhelmingly last time out points to a current Liberal weakness. Clarkson traces the party's dominance back to Wilfrid LAURIER's 1896 election victory, which established a nationwide Liberal coalition that accommodated French and English. And in the nine elections that he studies closely - with the exception of the two Mulroney won - Liberals usually boasted the broadest nationwide reach and the best balance between Quebec and English Canadian support. No so much now, though. The sponsorship scandal severely weakened them in Quebec, leaving Ontario as virtually the sole source of their power. So Liberals are desperately looking for ways to expand their base, starting with a B.C.-wooing push for more Chinese trade and investment.

Blend social and business themes, play off the Americans, strive to be pan-Canadian - Liberals turn to these elements again and again. But another constant must be most galling to their opponents: their mastery of using power to stay in power. The governing party's ability to make appointments, dispense patronage, and recruit talent looms large in Clarkson's book - and in Martin's recent record. He recruited Frank McKenna as a high-profile ambassador to the U.S., hooked Belinda Stronach with the bait of cabinet clout, and snagged Michaëlle Jean, whose appointment as Governor General restored fading Liberal hopes in key Montreal-area ridings with big ethnic votes.

More than any new policy, these shrewd appointments show the Big Red Machine is still capable of firing on all cylinders. The sponsorship scandal may have rocked the Liberals, but they are recovering in familiar ways. "Time would appear to be on their side," Clarkson says, "rather than on that of their opponents." Harper can only hope he's wrong - or try to force a snap election in the fall, before the Liberals have much longer to remember who they are.

Maclean's October 24, 2005