Liberals locked in the prison of Trudeauism

Élections 2006

With national unity such a huge stake in this election, one observation jumps out: the Liberal Party remains unequivocally caged in the prison of Trudeauism.
This ideological dogma, this inflexibility, is one of the factors explaining the recent polls showing Liberals losing support and Conservatives gaining.
Since this campaign began with Conservative leader Stephen Harper defending what he calls a more open federalism, Prime Minister Paul Martin has turned into a clone of Trudeau's most ardent disciple: Jean Chretien.
Echoing Chretien, Martin claims Harper's proposal to give Quebec a greater role in some international forums would weaken Canada. Like Chretien, Martin yanks out the separatist scarecrow to sell his party to voters in the rest of Canada.
Like Chretien, Martin presents any approach to federalism that wavers from Pierre Trudeau's centralist vision of Canada as a threat to the cohesion and survival of the country.
Like Chretien, Martin responds to another party leader who favours stronger rights for provinces by singing the old refrain about Liberals being the sole defenders of "Canadian values" and identity.
But the sad truth about Martin is that when it comes to national unity, the Liberal Party refuses to allow its leader, regardless of his true convictions, to stray from the prison walls on which the Trudeau dogma is written. Liberals are caged in it. Not even Martin can escape.
That prison shows the amazing staying power of Trudeauism in the Liberal Party. Martin, who supported the Meech Lake Accord and vowed to soften Chretien's hard-line vision, has been reduced to attacking Harper for doing exactly what he said he would do when he became prime minister in 2003.
This turn of events is pathetically ironic. In June 1990, Chretien defeated Martin in the leadership race by brandishing his rejection of Meech - which he shared with Trudeau - as an object of pride while he condemned Martin for his support of the accord.
This made Chretien more popular with Liberals from the ROC. It handed him the crown and left Martin with the image of a pro-Meech, flexible federalism kind of a guy who couldn't really "handle" Quebec, especially after the 1995 referendum.
Martin held to that image. He even used it to keep the Liberal family feud going long enough for the putsch that Martin took years to stage.
But when Chretien left, so did Martin's flexible federalism. He signed a few temporary agreements with provinces, but never did deliver any real decentralization.
This week, in an interview with Le Devoir, Martin solidly closed the door on any new "federative model." Liberals only need to talk about Canada more positively, he said, and all will be dandy. In the ROC, Martin also keeps challenging Harper on who's the more patriotic of the two.
Whether or not Martin was a sincere pro-Meech Liberal, chances are that he quickly understood he couldn't stray from the Trudeau approach - kept alive with passion by Chretien - without risking his own leadership.
This, in turn, left the field wide open for Harper to prepare a comprehensive platform that's much more provincialist than anything voters have seen from a federalist party since former prime minister Brian Mulroney left Ottawa. Even some soft nationalist voters and disgruntled Liberals in Quebec are taking notice.
Martin and Harper are bringing back the debate that divided federalists for decades: to decentralize or not to decentralize? At this game, Liberals remain stuck in a Trudeau time-warp where any other vision of federalism is seen as unCanadian.
Having chosen to keep the Trudeau dogma, regardless of their leader, Liberals have all but given up on Quebec as their key to 24 Sussex Dr. But Conservatives hope their provincialist platform will help them get that key and even perhaps one or two seats in Quebec.
If they do, Harper could find some welcoming arms here, with Premier Jean Charest and Mario Dumont first in line. Between this election and the next one, that support could multiply if Harper starts to right the fiscal imbalance.
Off the record, a Liberal insider confided that Liberals are toast in Quebec for at least another decade. That's why they keep the Trudeau vision alive to garner support in Ontario.
But if Harper wins this election, this would show that Trudeauism is not enough in the ROC anymore to keep Liberals in power.
Would that prompt Liberals to escape their Trudeau prison for good and opt for a more flexible brand of federalism?
Given that most of Martin's potential successors, including Michael Ignatieff and John Manley, are strong Trudeauites, the chances are that Liberals will remain stuck in that prison for a long, long time to come.

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