Whatever it takes to win
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 30 April 2005)

Stephen Harper has been accused of pushing with unseemly haste toward a quick election, though perhaps the most recent polling will dampen his enthusiasm. In any case, we can understand why he's talked so much about striking now rather than waiting for next winter. He knows federal Liberals are dangerous opponents, especially when they look like underdogs.

History suggests that the miracle Paul Martin is praying for may well come to pass and the Liberals, if they get a few months to regroup, will once more present themselves as the party that must run Canada.

There are reasons, after all, why they have governed for 56 of the last 70 years. Liberals tend to be exceptionally shrewd. They attract regiments of careerists who make the party their financial as well as their political home -- lobbyists, senators, advertising people, would-be judges, lawyers dependent on government assignments, and other apparatchiks. They are committed to the party because it's their way of life.

Having for so long savoured the joys of governing, they will not cheerfully relinquish them. Well-placed Liberals know what it is to phone some pathetic hack and tell him that he has become a senator and therefore will never know want again, no matter what -- an act of patronage unique in the democratic world. The Liberals understand what it means to deliver jobs to old friends, become heroes by bringing government subsidies to their home towns, get their pictures in the local paper when generously giving away the public's money.

And all the while they have developed abundant self-righteousness. They believe they are the only people who can hold the country together and govern efficiently, a permanent self-assessment that no Liberal mistakes or scandals can ever budge. They have also demonstrated, frequently, that they can persuade many voters to agree with them.

Often, Tory leaders who oppose them have little public appeal. That's not just Liberal luck. The Liberals have won so many elections that fighting them has become less than alluring. Hardly anyone wants a career on the Opposition benches.

The Liberals move left when it's necessary, then shift right when it's expedient. As the occasion demands, they are the party of Bay Street or the party of the workers. They are free traders who can turn viciously against free trade if it becomes Tory policy. Last week's deal with the NDP followed the script written by Pierre Trudeau in 1972 when he persuaded David Lewis's NDP to prop him up. (Layton may want to recall that Lewis also won concessions from the Liberals but two years later lost even his own seat -- to a Liberal, of course.)

Liberals do these things with the utmost sincerity. By now Martin has probably persuaded himself that the Layton budget was the one he always intended to enact. A clever Liberal leader can turn on a dime, as Trudeau did in 1974 when he ridiculed the Tory wage-and-price-controls plan, then adopted it soon after he was re-elected.

To stay in government, Liberals will attempt the most outrageous stunts. That admirable journalist Christina McCall, whose death this week saddened her many admirers across the country, wrote in her book Grits: An Intimate Portrait of the Liberal Party (1982), that Trudeau held power by doing things that to many people "seemed basely cynical."

In 1977 he recruited Jack Horner, a right-wing Tory MP. Horner was the most ferocious critic of the Official Languages Act, the core of Trudeau's federalism. Yet the Liberals were so desperate for Alberta MPs that they stole Horner from the Tories with the promise of a Cabinet job. When they acquired him, it occurred to me that a government capable of that would do anything. Crime, in this case, did not pay, however. The deal didn't help Trudeau and harmed Horner. As a Liberal he lost the 1979 election and his place in the House.

Most of this month's polls have documented the Liberals' unpopularity. Their leader has humiliated himself by begging for patience from the voters. It seems likely that many party members now believe they chose the wrong man to lead them. But they can find some comfort in their record. They have been in serious trouble before and have found the way out. At this moment scores of them are trying to imagine just how it will be accomplished this time. An early election may well anger the voters, but it may be even more dangerous to give the Liberals another nine or 10 months of scheming time.

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