“I think the Liberal leadership is worth everything that it has always been worth…With few exceptions, Liberal leaders become prime ministers.”
“It’s the prospect of success that influenced me…You’ve got to be able to stay there through a leadership convention and one, maybe two elections. You have to make a commitment to do this over 10 years.”
Almost uniformly benign commentary has greeted the succession of high-profile expected candidates refusing to seek the federal Liberal leadership. It appears that all of them reduced the matter to a simple cost-benefit analysis – weighing the financial loss in leaving plum post-political jobs or appointments and the personal or family-related sacrifices against the advantages of political power and public service.
Note the almost unspeakable arrogance implicit in both quotations above. Each man simply assumed that seeking the Liberal leadership should be one and the same as becoming prime minister.
What remains unspoken is that your typical “high profile” Liberal has a very high expectation of sliding into the Prime Ministership and a very low tolerance for the political wilderness. Imagine having to bankroll and fight a leadership race and one, maybe two elections before reaching your ultimate goal. Having to rebuild your party. Having to develop a platform. Having to bridge the factional divides. Having to justify yourself and your party for who you are, rather than merely having power be its own justification. Who the heck would do that? Certainly no present-day Canadian Liberal, it seems.
Next to John Diefenbaker, Stephen Harper might have spent more time in the political wilderness than anyone in living memory. He’s a veritable Daniel Boone of the political boondocks.
Harper has been criticized, notably in a recent, recycled CBC TV bio about turning on the old Tories and quitting Reform. What is conveniently forgotten is that, in both instances, particularly the former, he was leaving for no cabinet post or sinecure, but rather for almost certain political oblivion. He was taking a step out and down rather than up. Hardly your typical brand of opportunism, even if portrayed as such.
Harper’s later success was helped partly by the reluctance of other ostensibly star candidates to accept the risks inherent in seeking the leadership of the Canadian Alliance or fledgling Conservative Party (Mike Harris, to name one).
In the end, Harper funded and fought two leadership races and two elections before winning a federal election. He has been a political activist for about 23 years, almost 20 of which were spent in opposition or exile. He is a bright individual who would certainly have succeeded in other fields. Many of his contemporaries are senior professionals or executives. He didn’t have to work as an underpaid opposition staffer, didn’t have to opt out of his MP’s pension in the 1990’s. Clearly, he believed these sacrifices were worth taking.
What the Liberal predicament underscores is that the Liberal Party is an entity of, by and for power. It has no other animating purpose. If you were looking for the quickest route to power, whether an ex-PC or provincial NDP minister, or a pro-lifer trying to “influence” from within government, you joined the Liberals. But no more. No more certain path to power there. That is another irony of the Harper victory. It marks a win for political principle over ambition and opportunism.