With a dismal 26 per cent of the vote on election night, the Liberal Party has entered the post-Dion era. Regardless of when Stéphane Dion quits as leader and whether he leaves politics or stays on as an MP to play the good soldier, the question has already turned to what future holds for the Liberal Party.
This question is crucial for one important reason: The Liberal Party remains the only alternative to the Conservatives, both as a national party of governance and as a centrist force on the ideological front.
Stephen Harper knows it. So does his mentor Tom Flanagan. Last August, Flanagan outlined their common dream in the Globe and Mail. He wrote that even if Harper won only a strengthened minority this time - which he did - the Liberals "won't die, they'll just fade away." Flanagan has never been known to mince words.
He also predicted that another, unavoidable leadership race would leave the cash-strapped Liberals "financially crippled." This, in turn, would feed into Harper's long-term strategy "force the Liberals to exhaust their limited resources in repeated battles" in a way that would allow the Conservatives to replace them as Canada's natural governing party. A possibility. But you know what they say about the best laid plans.
For the Grits to escape this gloom-and-doom scenario, they can't afford repeating their profoundly dysfunctional pattern of the last decade in which the Chrétien-Martin feud ended up dragging their party down along with them.
If the Liberals are to have any shot at rebuilding, unity will be a must, even if they have to take it intravenously. For starters, what Dion will say and do when he leaves will set the tone. Given his legendary loyalty to his party, unity will be his keyword.
Still, with a leadership race looming, unity could be the last thing on the minds of contenders. Especially with Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff - a miniature reproduction of the Martin-Chrétien civil war. But the up side is that Rae and Iggy won't be alone. The list of contenders should be long enough and include enough high-profile candidates to draw some attention away from these two.
Before that, Grits will have to grin and bear Martin's soon-to-be-published Chrétien-bashing memoirs. Perfect timing and a perfect recipe for more disunity. I guess the Parti Québécois isn't alone in suffering from the whining of their so-called beaux-pères. But if nothing focuses the mind like being hanged in the morning, Martin should use his book tour as a chance to call for Liberals to band together rather than lashing out at his predecessor. As for Chrétien, after leaving his party wounded by the sponsorship scandal and impoverished by the new party-financing rules he imposed before he quit, keeping silent would be the least he could do.
Most of all, even with a new leader set to go into the next election, the Liberals must reconquer the centre of the ideological spectrum with a new platform. During this campaign, I wrote in VOIR that it was mind-boggling to see how Dion gave up on the Grits' traditional centrist branding and let Harper claim falsely that the Tories were now the more pragmatic, mainstream option.
It's essential for the Grits to reconquer the centre because this is precisely where the great majority of Canadians are. Take this election as living proof. With a low voter turn out of 59.1 per cent and the Tories getting 37 per cent support, this means that only 21 to 22 per cent of registered voters actually voted Conservative. In the coming years, this would leave quite a playing field for the Liberals - if they manage to get their act together.
Another must for the Grits is an even taller order: a more open policy toward Quebec nationalism. If the next leader doesn't develop that - which would at least exclude Justin Trudeau and notorious Meech Lake Accord opponent Frank McKenna - Liberals better get used to their opposition seats.
They might be sitting in them for a long time.
Liberals must reclaim the centre
Dion allowed the Conservatives to occupy the middle ground where all the votes are