Liberals face tough task rebuilding in Quebec

Course à la chefferie du PLC

Even if health concerns had not prompted John Godfrey's withdrawal from the Liberal leadership campaign this week, his main claim to fame in the unity debate would have made him a hard sell in Quebec.

In the aftermath of the 1995 referendum, Godfrey had his 15 minutes of fame when he commissioned [psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff to do an in absentia assessment of then-premier Lucien Bouchard's personality->322].

The dubious thesis that the workings of Bouchard's mind had more to do with the referendum result than the workings of the federation did little to endear Godfrey to Quebecers back then. With the benefit of hindsight, there was also little in the initiative to commend his judgment to Liberal delegates today.

That particular debate is moot, as Godfrey is now out of the race. But the logic that led one of its own to seek a psychiatrist rather than a constitutionalist to understand the forces at play in the Quebec-Canada debate is still alive and well within the Liberal party.

Even as they pay lip service to the necessity of improving Liberal prospects in Quebec, the current declared and undeclared aspirants to the leadership singularly miss the point that there is precious little common ground left for them to rebuild their party on in the province.

Instead, they tend to take comfort in the rationale that their predicament is a circumstantial one, brought about by the one-time combination of the sponsorship scandal and the apparent magnetic personality of Stephen Harper!
The stark reality of course is that francophone Quebec is now Liberal territory as barren as Alberta.

That did not happen overnight, nor did it take place, for the most part, under the leadership of Paul Martin.

It has been more than two decades since prominent francophone candidates ran for the federal Liberals in Quebec.

They did not do so for Jean Chrétien, who had to appoint recruits to cabinet and to safe ridings to get some on board, nor for Martin - even in 2004 when he was still riding modestly high in Quebec. It was the Liberals' very absence from francophone Quebec that led Chrétien to set the sponsorship fiasco in motion.
When francophone Quebecers look back on the past 25 Liberal years, most of them see a party that failed their constitutional aspirations at the time of patriation, blocked them at the time of Meech and then tried to brainwash them with their own money after the last referendum.

That picture suggests that the Liberals will find little or no salvation in Quebec in the repositioning along the left-right ideological axis that is consuming some of their candidates these days.

Harper won 10 Quebec seats in the last election precisely because the vectors of federal politics in the province do not run along that axis.
Given a choice between a so-called progressive federal government that
intervenes in the social policies of the provinces and one that is more conservative and does not, francophone Quebecers, to this day, will pick the latter.

Harper's breakthrough was also the product of a reconciliation between the Reform faction of the Conservative party and francophone Quebec, a process that involved recognizing the Quebec difference but also promising to respect the autonomy afforded the province by the Constitution.

The evidence suggests the Liberal party is unlikely to come back in Quebec until it has undertaken its version of a reconciliation with francophone Quebecers.

That will involve more than finding a leader as comfortable in French as Harper is or gathering in Montreal to select Martin's successor.

There was a time when the future of Canada might have hinged on the success of the Liberal enterprise.

That is no longer necessarily the case.

Quebec may be essential to the future of the Liberal party as a national institution. But the reverse proposal that the Liberal party is essential to the future of Canada has become more hollow with every passing election since 1980.

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