Liberal leaderships then and now

April 17th, 2013
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Eighty percent is a big number. There are no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes a “coronation”, but 80% has got to be pretty close. I speak of course about the level of endorsement received by Justin Trudeau in this week’s leadership vote.

The big number is something that can’t be denied, that can’t be taken away from Mr. Trudeau. The result causes one to reflect again on the race and why the fine group of people running against him could only muster 20% of the vote.

It wasn’t always so. It’s been noted that the Dauphin won the leadership almost exactly 45 years after his father became Liberal leader. The 1968 leadership is actually very instructive.

Far from being a “coronation”, Pierre Trudeau was hard-pressed to win that vote. He won by 249 votes (50.9%) over Robert Winters, partly because John Turner (yes, THAT John Turner) refused to drop off the last ballot. Turner garnered 195 votes in the final count.

Many aspects of the 1968 convention affected the Liberal Party, and Canada for decades. The election of Trudeau shifted the party well to the left. Imagine, runner-up Winters favoured the privatization of Crown corporations! Kind of reminds you why some people were Liberals back in the day.

Paul Martin Sr.’s poor showing lit the fires of ambition in his son, which did not extinguish until 2004. Turner became the “leader-in-waiting” for almost a decade, his manoeuvring against Trudeau presaging the Chretien-Martin feud of later years. Chretien himself became a Trudeau loyalist at the convention after his mentor, Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp, supported Trudeau.

Of Trudeau’s seven main opponents, all were federal or provincial cabinet ministers. What a contrast to 2013. Where were the heavyweights this time? Where was John Manley, Frank McKenna, Scott Brison, Hedy Fry? As I’ve suggested in these pages before, how could one expect any such candidates to emerge? As a party that exists only for power, when there is little guarantee of easy power and position, there isn’t much of a drawing card. Remember poor, bitter Ken Dryden, ranting from the opposition benches? Opposition wasn’t what he signed up for!

What a sharp contrast, also, with the current government. While Trudeux’s commitment to the Liberal brand should be acknowledged, it is arguably not as admirable as when, for example, Peter MacKay fought for the leadership of the 5th-place PCs in 2003; or even when the Prime Minister ran for the leadership of the fractured Canadian Alliance in 2002.

It is reasonable to predict one thing. Should Mr. Trudeau appear to be reversing Liberal fortunes, the power-seeking “names” will return.

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By John Weissenberger