The Liberals Land on Their Feet

By Harold Jansen on Dec 11, 2008

I haven't had a lot of time to blog lately. It's grading time at university which leaves little time for other things. However, I'm procrastinating right now, so it's time to write something.

The big news is obviously that Michael Ignatieff has become leader of the Liberal Party, right now on an interim basis, but almost certainly on a permanent basis, however the extra-parliamentary party decides to ratify his appointment. With an election in the new year a distinct possibility, the Liberals couldn't stay with Stephane Dion. If there was any doubt of that, Dion's poor performance on the taped response to Harper's television response sealed the deal. But what could have been a lengthy and messy battle over who should be the interim leader and the process by which that leader and the permanent leader was chosen turned into a coronation when Bob Rae stepped out. Rae deserves two cheers for his move (to steal a good line from Peter Russell), because it allowed the party to move forward with their permanent leader more quickly. Rae doesn't get the third cheer, because it was pretty clear Ignatieff was going to win anyway. Still, it was a classy move that could allow the Liberals to unify and be more focused.

The cost to this, of course, is that a leadership race can lead to renewed interest in the party, an increase in membership, and the ability to build up a database of potential supporters -- both voters and financial supporters. As Tom Flanagan has argued, it was the two leadership races that Harper ran that was the start of the Conservatives' sophisticated grassroots funding machinery. These are all things that the Liberals badly need, and should be Ignatieff's first priority as leader.

There's been a lot of discussion about whether Ignatieff's ascension to the leadership means the end of the coalition. It's tougher to see this going ahead and much tougher to see it lasting under Ignatieff than under Dion or Rae. However, Ignatieff is keeping the coalition idea alive. He needs to do that to keep Harper diminished. It opens the opportunity for an alternative government.

What's key, though, is that there is an optimism among the Liberals that hasn't been there since the sponsorship scandal rocked the party. Ignatieff doesn't have any ties to that era, so he's able to move the party forward. The Liberals see better days ahead are now positioned to deal with some of the serious problems in their party. But this means that the Liberals are poised to challenge for government sooner than it looked a few months ago. This, rather than the coalition, may be what ultimately comes out of Harper's economic update of two weeks ago.

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