The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Leadership Blues

by Anna McDougall

Unlike the 2003 contest, when Martin trounced Copps with 93.8% of the vote, the Liberal leadership campaign this year is a real race with ten brave contenders, exceeding even the number of candidates during the momentous 1968 convention.

Emails are coming in everyday now: Become a delegate for Stephane Dion, Speak with Hedy Fry about your ideas, Join with Scott to help build a better Canada, Gerard needs your participation. For those not being bombarded with new support pleas every day, they can access websites for each candidate. The whole process is laid out on the party’s site for any visitor’s scrutiny. The internet has changed campaigning. Back in 1990, my friends and I didn’t even know what John Nunziata or Tom Wappel looked like until they came to town, unless we spotted them on the news during the brief air time allotted to fringe candidates. It’s easier than ever before to learn about the platforms, to find the bios, to make a difference.

In spite of all this access, I can’t get excited about selecting a new leader. Is it possible that it was more interesting when the process was more difficult to understand? When information on the candidates was harder to find? Was my passion wrapped up in the mystery of it all?

In 1990, there were so many political issues stirring the passions of political types like myself. GST legislation was being prepared by Mulroney’s gang as the Meech Lake Accord withered and the Oka crisis burgeoned. The national debt was at an all time high. Hell, Bob Rae was NDP that year. And just as I was getting my September university classes organized, Iraq invaded Kuwait. I cried and cheered and argued my heart out that year.

I wanted desperately to attend the June leadership convention – to make a difference, to exercise my right to choose the next Liberal Prime Minister, but I had to figure out how to go about it. The difficulty was in knowing whom to trust for unbiased answers and advice since members used every conversation to garner votes for their candidate, typically Martin, Copps, or Chrétien.

I declared myself undecided right into the final week before the convention although the Chrétien organizers must have known I was a lock, otherwise there would have been more free beer. Determined to thoroughly research each of the candidates as well as I could, I attended a small delegate meeting with Paul Martin. Without the confidence to ask any questions of my own, I listened carefully to his responses and watched the way he moved his eyes, his hands, the papers in front on him on the boardroom table. The gathering was scheduled very early the morning news broke that Chrétien’s adopted son had been charged with a sexual assault related offense. One of the delegates at the table mentioned it and we realized that this was the first Martin had heard of it. At that moment, I sympathized with both men. I wondered what must be going through Martin’s mind. Did he feel pity for his opponent? Was he worried about what this could mean in terms of press for the leadership convention? Was this an opportunity for him to seize? He paused for a moment, obviously in shock, listened to the details, eyed his aid and said nothing. I admired his prudence in that moment. It was one of those times a politician had no choices. There was nothing he could say or do that would be right.

During the convention itself, the party was buzzing. Even in Calgary (a rather strange place for 4500 liberals to gather) normally apolitical people were getting caught up in the excitement. I slipped out of the Saddledome right before the ballot counts were announced and passed my pal’s photo id to his twin brother waiting in the parking lot. He knew history was being made and also wanted to bear witness.

When Martin was led in by a small group of smartly dressed horn musicians, it was over for me. While his style was tempting and his campaign polished, a handful of people had orchestrated the campaign and they had affected only a segment of the party; it was evident he would never be able to move millions. Chrétien was larger than life, willing and able to sell the whole country his vision with the hallmark “We can be different and equal at the same time!”

The difference between a government led by Martin and one led by Chrétien was clear, and hindsight tells us we were right. Chrétien’s win and Martin’s subsequent support of Chrétien’s leadership changed politics for the fifteen years that followed. There existed considerable national issues at the time and with the Liberals poised to win the next election, the leadership choice became crucial.

Maybe that’s the reason for my disinterest this time around. This year we’re not electing a powerhouse to lead us to victory after sustaining a decade of Tory majority. The new liberal leader, whether it’s Ignatief or Rae will only be the point man for Harper-sparring in the house, killing time until the public is at once tired of the Conservatives and ready to trust our party again.

I nearly nodded off watching Rae’s promo video on the party site and learned little more from the Ignatief video. The latter was mostly music and applause but I did catch his bold “out of the cab and into the lab” remark intended to promote his support for new immigrants seeking professional work. But even this concept is not fresh as a variation on it is included in the platforms of many other candidates.

Accusations that Ignatieff is an opportunist, simply looking for a cool new C.V. bullet could actually work out for the Liberals. No one could be more effective in making Harper appear parochial and ill-informed. He may be just what we need for the interim, until it’s time to begin planning the next great leadership race.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Hey, there's a genuine political activist among us. Good for you, Anna. A friend left for the NDP convention today. Can't wait to hear the stories. How did you gain entry to the Liberal convention you wrote about.

Thu Sep 07, 03:09:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Anna, I read your article and it occured to me that in the age of the internet nothing is special. Everything takes a split second to access. Google takes you anywhere. Effort's ability to sweeten the results of any search is discarded. You feel the same way about politics as I feel about movies. I'm shocked at how unexcited I am lately. The mystery is gone. I feel this way about politics too, but I'm not shocked at myself for that. That one feels deserved and a long time coming. I don't like to be cynical though, so I'm hoping something will shake me up.

Thu Sep 07, 10:22:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Yes, Andrew the pleasure is in the effort at times. Thanks for commenting you two. This is a passionate subject for me, a borderline addition when I allow it to overtake me. I gained access as a voting delegate by running for election at school. Each riding association (and post secondary institute) may elect a predetermined number of delegates to repressent them at the convention. This time all members may vote directly as well. Tricia, I hope you are able to share some NDP anecdotes here also.

Thu Sep 07, 11:46:00 am GMT-4  

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