Doug Rutherford

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A lost Liberal opportunity

January 2012
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The old adage states that, “Opportunity only comes a-knockin’ once.” This week represented an opportunity for the federal Liberal Party, one they shunned.

Lise St-Denis, the Member of Parliament for Saint-Maurice-Champlain, was elected for the first time in May as a member of the New Democratic Party. However, she crossed the floor this week to sit as a member of the Liberal Party. Her given reasons were that she more aligned with the Liberals’ social policies and job-creation policies, as well as rejecting the NDP policy on pulling Canada out of the NATO mission in Libya. However, she is also quoted by CBC as saying that she had been considering this since the election in May and that, “It’s been six months that I’ve been reflecting and discussing.”

Crossing party lines is always a point of contention, particularly when it happens a short period of time following an election. The argument is that the member is elected based on people knowing some idea of the policies that member will support come from the platform of the party banner under which they ran. Riding associations also reflect badly on the process since they contribute both money and volunteer effort to elect the member running for their party. Consider the case of David Emerson, who was elected as a Liberal in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections; however, was named a Conservative cabinet minister in a surprise move two weeks after the 2006 election. The Liberal riding association, arguing that he had been elected as a member of that party, requested that he repay the $97,000 that they had spent during the election campaign, a sum that Emerson never repaid.

St-Denis has also been brought to task by the NDP for her change in party affiliation. Guy Caron, Quebec NDP caucus member from Rimouski — Neigette —Témiscouata — Les Basques, has called for St-Denis to resign her seat and run as a Liberal in a by-election to determine whether or not her constituents support her decision. According to Caron, “Quebec voters rejected the Liberals and voted for the NDP.” St-Denis, when asked if the constituents voted for her or the NDP in particular, she responded with the somewhat tasteless comment that, “They voted for Jack Layton, but Jack Layton is dead.”

On to the concept of opportunity…  Ms. St-Denis’s joining the Liberal party was announced at a press conference, accompanied by Liberal Interim Leader, Bob Rae and Quebec caucus chair, Denis Coderre. Rae stated, “The rebuilding of the Liberal Party of Canada depends on people like Ms. St-Denis who have the courage of their convictions and who join our fight against a Conservative government rooted in rigid and dangerous ideology.” Coderre commented, “I have always admired people who make decisions based on their principles and convictions, and I can assure Lise, on behalf of my colleagues in our Quebec Caucus, that she will have all the support necessary to better serve the constituents of Saint-Maurice-Champlain.” In sum, the Liberal Party seems to think highly of both Ms. St-Denis and her decision to join the party.

As we remember, the Liberal Party was dealt a substantial blow in the May 2nd general election. While not the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives under Kim Campbell, it can be seen as being more than the electorate dealing them a slap on the knuckles. It has become obvious that the party needs serious rebuilding to get back into the game and many have proposed that, like the Progressive Conservatives, the party’s shelf life may not extend past the next federal election. To be blunt, no one will really know that until after the next election; however, it is certainly safe and sage to suggest that something different has to happen to ensure their survival. The party has to put forward some message that clearly states, “We’re new, we’re different, and we’re not like the other parties.”

Ms. St-Denis presented a chance for the party to do that. Publicly announcing her intent and rejecting it would have offered the Liberals a chance to say, “That’s old time politics and we don’t do that.” It could easily have offered the chance to start the rebranding of the party as something other than the “same old same old.” Rather, the leadership cheerfully accepted her into the fold… the fold of tired, old politics and a Liberal Party that much of the electorate sees as no longer relevant in the current political environment and rejected in the last election.

So, here’s a reminder for those delegates in the upcoming Liberal convention. Opportunity doesn’t knock often and you never really know if it will knock again…


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