Peter C. Newman’s latest book When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada was supposed to be the book that chronicled Michael Ignatieff’s rise to political power in Canada. Plucked from the wilderness – question mark – of Harvard in Boston, Mass., Ignatieff was brought north of the border by the men who fancied themselves Canada’s next kingmakers, including Ian Davey, the son of a true Liberal kingmaker in the legendary Keith Davey.
Davey, the “patron saint” of the modern Liberal Party as Newman writes it, transformed the Grits as the national campaign director of the Liberal Party for Pearson, Trudeau, and Turner, supplying the “enthusiasm that kept the political machine alive” throughout much of the 1960s, 70s, and 1980s.
Periodically, the Liberals were in need of a shaking up, but nothing to the extent which we witness today. In the 1960s, Davey provided such a boost, taking the groundbreaking policies of Medicare and the national pension plan and making them palatable to all Canadians. And in the early 21st Century, Davey’s son Ian was “willing to give imposing a new Liberal agenda a shot,” despite the fact that key players like the elder Davey are found few and far between.
Davey and his co-conspirators Dan Brock and Alfred Apps, imagined Ignatieff to be the next big thing in Liberal Canada, the kill shot that would stop Harper in his tracks, and just the big ticket candidate the party had lacked since Trudeau. Simultaneously, Ignatieff would be looked upon to reinvigorate the party faithful by reminding them how successful Canada’s Natural Governing Party had been in creating the very idea of modern Canada, let alone the unbelievably successful political framework begun by Laurier in the late 19th Century and kept strong for most of the 20th.
And it is worth repeating that the Liberals have found themselves in need of overhauls in the past. Canadians kick them out of power every so often (which always comes as a shock to the Liberals, Newman argues), allowing the Grits rare opportunities to wonder what had gone temporarily wrong, and how best to woo the nation back under the big tent. In happened in the late 1950’s when Saskatchewan populist John Diefenbaker defeated Louis St. Laurent; it happened briefly in 1979 when Joe Clark unseated Pierre Trudeau; and it happened again in 1984 when John Turner lost to Brian Mulroney.
We all know how the experiment with Michael Ignatieff ended in flames in the May election, so it needs no re-telling. Davey’s great gamble on the professorial Ignatieff failed spectacularly, and Newman’s book sets out to better understand why, and determine if the blame laid on Iggy’s shoulders was deserved or not.
But while the younger Davey was less successful than his father in changing the face of Liberal Canada in his support of Ignatieff in 2005, that is no indication that a radical shake up cannot happen again. Or that it doesn’t need to. Indeed, there has never been a time when the Liberals need a Keith Davey – and a fierce shaking – more.
When the Gods Changed contains a passage early on that could be never more applicable to the Grits than it is right now. And Bob Rae, who has voluntarily taken on the mantle of temporary-Keith Davey, would do well to follow what Newman describes as the Liberals previous path to resurgence, some of which, I should note, Rae has already begun to undertake:
The genius of Pearson was to reach out and recruit new talent to implement the innovative agenda [after the Liberals were routed by Diefenbaker in 1958], opening the party to fresh ideas and waves of outsiders. Davey set about rebuilding the rusty Liberal machine…cog by cog, he rebuilt the apparatus, instilling it with his own enthusiasm.
It is little wonder that Bob Rae was recently named Parliamentarian of the Year for undertaking the remarkably laborious – and possibly fruitless – task of righting the once mighty Liberal machine that Davey, fifty years previously, had tirelessly rebuilt.
But does Rae have the stamina and the wherewithal to take on such a monumental task? He has made inroads to rebuilding and re-branding the party with suggestions for new ways of electing candidates through the influence of outsiders and an influx of new talent. But as the interim leader, and not the actual leader who will take the party into the next election, Rae may not be in a good position to make long-reaching structural changes. Then again, the very fact that he will not lead the Liberals long-term gives him vital distance with which to think strategically about what ails the ailing party, and how best to set about reforming it.
Rae has a tremendous opportunity to make radical changes in order to shake the crippled party to life. He should have everything invested in examining, analyzing, and reforming the aspects of the party that brought the Liberals to their knees in May. Simply put, the old way of doing business is dead.
Things can always be worse, but for a party that decimated the Conservatives to two seats in 1993, it is a steep fall from the dizzying heights of majority government to rump party status in less than two decades. Gone are the days when the Liberals can assume than a vicious internal review of how they do business would be worse than anything Stephen Harper can dish out.
The time has come for ruthlessness.