Mistakes of the Past (and Present)

By Max Fawcett | March 31, 2004

History seems to have a way of repeating itself. It is full of examples in which those who do not learn from the past, or even from their past, suffer as a result. The most compelling one is that of one of the 20th century’s most famous, and reviled, leaders. Adolf Hitler always had a keen interest in Napoleon. Some say he modeled his plans for the German conquest of Europe on Napoleon’s exploits 150 years earlier. Ironically, Hitler repeated Napoleon’s greatest mistake of all, invading Russia in June of 1941 and expecting the4 campaign to be over before winter. Equipped with few supplies and the foolish assumption that Moscow would be captured before Christmas, Germany’s soldiers froze to death by the thousands just as Napoleon’s army did. A more contemporary example is of President George W. Bush and his father, President George H. W. Bush. While the outcome of the 2004 Presidential election is still uncertain, Bush the younger faces a stiff challenge from John Kerry and the Democrats. In both cases, a foreign policy focused on Iraq – and a thinly veiled desire to acquire control of the region’s oil resources – have angered the American public. Bush the Elder’s focus on Iraq instead of the deteriorating economy at home cost him the 1992 election, and Bush the younger may suffer the same fate.

I don’t raise this historical example because I think Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin resembles Hitler or Napoleon or the Bush pere et fils. Far from it, in fact. Paul Martin is a man who has devoted most of his adult life to serving the public, and he has done a commendable job during his 16 years as an elected official. Instead, I raise those other examples because many of Martin’s staunchest allies and supporters also supported John Turner twenty years earlier.

They experienced the mistakes made by Turner first-hand and saw the devastating results at the polls. That they are making the same mistakes that were made twenty years ago speaks to the fact that, in some cases in politics, personal rivalries are more important than power. There are always innocent victims affected by wars – “collateral damage” is the contemporary euphemism for this. In the case of the Liberal Party, the party itself may turn out yet again to be the unintended casualty of a heated battle between two of its leaders.

When Prime Minister Paul Martin officially became the leader of the Liberal Party in November of 2003, things were looking up. Few could have predicted how far he would fall in the ensuing four months. Now, he and his government sits on the cusp of a federal election with a minority government looking like the best-case scenario. In November this was unimaginable. Martin was the new, overwhelmingly popular leader of a political party that was high in the polls and facing a divided and ineffective opposition. Another mandate seemed certain – witness Globe and Mail columnist and author Martin Lawrence’s prediction that Martin would win in excess of 200 seats. So how exactly did the Liberal Party arrive at a position where it faces the very real prospect of losing an election, a place it hasn’t been since 1988. Or, perhaps more interestingly, why is this happening again?

There are some parallels between John Turner and Paul Martin. Like Martin, Turner was the overwhelming favourite of the Liberal Party to succeed a sitting Liberal Prime Minister. Like Martin, Turner had carried on a subterranean war against the sitting Prime Minister, a war whose battles were played out at riding associations and Liberal clubs across the country. Like Martin, Turner was wildly popular with the general public before he became the leader of the party. Like Martin, Turner became significantly less popular after he took control. And , like Martin, Turner was at first seen by most party insiders as a man who would lead the Liberal Party to continued, and perhaps even greater electoral success. Today’s Liberal Party is hoping that these similarities do not extend to the outcome of Martin’s first election as leader.

Prime Minister Martin has made mistakes since taking over. That’s natural for a new leader and I don’t think that Canadians are particularly upset at him and the Liberal Party for this reason. Leaders make mistakes, particularly during a transitional period. Perhaps the most notable mistake has been his mismanagement of the Federal Sponsorship Program crisis. The $100 million that was mismanaged amounts to a rounding error in the federal budget, and the mismanagement took place amid a program with the best of intentions and some respectable outcomes. To react with the outrage that Martin did only fuelled the unhappiness that many Canadians had about the Liberal Party’s management of the public purse. He did it, I suspect, to accentuate the differences between himself and his predecessor, a point to which I will return shortly.

Still, policy or public-relations missteps can’t account for the over 10% drop in support that the Liberal Party has seen in recent polls. Political parties are organic entities, with a natural life-cycle of growth, life, decline, and death. In the past, parties that have been able to bridge between two leaders and maintain power have been careful to ensure a smooth transition. The Conservative Party in Alberta and Ontario, the Social Credit Party in BC, or the Liberal Party in New Brunswick offer lessons in how to transition between leaders while maintaining public support and ensuring electoral success in the future. The message they conveyed went something like this: the last few years have been good, and the next few will be even better. They did not try to manufacture a clean break from the past but instead built upon its foundations.

On the other hand, parties that have failed to successfully manage the transition between two leaders share a similar pattern. With Kim Campbell and the Progressive Conservatives in the early 1990s, Rita Johnston and the Socreds in BC in the early 1990s, and particularly John Turner and the Liberals in the early 1980s, the transition between the old leader and the new was preceded by a tumultuous, often openly hostile war between supporters of the old regime and those of the new. When the new leader took over, instead of healing the wounds of the past the party focused on settling old scores and purging the party of those who weren’t perceived to be loyal to the new leader. In this instance, the message went something like this: I was a part of the old regime but I didn’t really like the direction it took. I won’t make the same mistakes – I’m different, and I’ll do things differently.

Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, this is precisely the course that Prime Minister Martin and his advisors have charted. Chretien loyalists have been booted out of cabinet, out of caucus, and even out of the party. They have been demoted, fired, or diminished and in turn replaced by those loyal to Martin. The spectacular battle between Sheila Copps (Chretien) and Tony Valeri (Martin) in Hamilton was the most visible example of a war that continues to be fought across Canada. there have been others – Stephen Hogue, Prime Minister Chretien’s former press aide, was not allowed to run for the Liberal nomination in his home riding.

While the PMO cited its desire to increase the representation of women in the House of Commons as the reason why Hogue’s nomination application was denied, its refusal to protect Copps indicates that the party is less concerned with including female voices than it claims to be. The party has also professed an interest in electing more visible minority candidates, but yet again its actions tell a different story. In BC, Party President and staunch Martin loyalist Bill Cunningham was recently appointed as the candidate in Burnaby-Douglas, perhaps because he was facing a particularly stiff challenge from local businessman Tony Kuo, a visible minority candidate.

These kinds of decisions and the battles they have led to have essentially poured concrete into the divisions within the Liberal Party that are the result of the Chretien-Martin war. Once it sets, there will be no turning back. Continuing to repeat John Turner’s mistakes will result in achieving his electoral results. That would be a shame, given the alternatives.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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